Mooring customer Chris Howes has shared his knowledge of the local waterways to assist our holiday makers, mooring customers and those navigators attending the St Neots Festival of water. Chris is Chairman of the Inland Waterways Association Eastern Region and last year won the A P Herbert cup for the greatest distance travelled to the IWA festival of water 2017.
Becket’s Park is named after Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury notoriously murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Henry II had summoned Becket to appear before a great council at Northampton Castle in October 1164, to answer allegations of contempt. Becket drank from a well on the edge of the park. Convicted on the charges, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the Continent. In 1170 Becket returned to England, and further upset the King causing him to speak the words “will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest”, which resulted in Becket’s murder on 29 December 1170. These days there are water points available and drinking unprocessed water is not recommended !
Fotheringhay – worth a visit
This was the site of Fortheringhay Castle which has been very significant in English History. Richard III was born there in 1452 Mary, Queen of Scots, was tried and beheaded in 1587. The castle was razed in 1627, and there is nothing left other than the motte on which it was built which is worth climbing for the excellent views of the river Nene.
Views of the village are dominated by a particularly fine Perpendicular style church, dating in parts to the 15th Century. At the time of writing, the Church is unfortunately masked by scaffolding.
A local farmer charges for mooring.
As you pass through Lilford Lock and under the picturesque bridge you are entering Lilford Estate which is crowned by a Grade I listed, 15th Century, stately home. Although not open to the Public, the views through the trees of the grand house remind one of days long gone ! Remember to ‘doff your cap’ or ‘tug your forelock’ if you pass anyone on the bank who might possibly be aristocracy !
Wansford in England
Wansford is beautiful village largely built of mellow Northamptonshire Stone. The old bridge which carried the Great North road (a.k.a. the A1) past the Haycock Inn dates from 1600 and is a scheduled ancient monument.
The Haycock Inn is named from the story of an unfortunate traveller who, wary of sleeping in any Inn because of plague, spent the night in a hayrick. The river rose in the night and the traveller woke to find himself floating down the Nene. He asked a traveller on the riverbank where he was, and upon hearing the reply “Wansford”, asked, “Wansford in England?”. The name stuck, though the local Inns are now, we hope, plague free !
The next bridge carrying the rerouted A1 was constructed in 1929. For those of us who appreciate such odd things as cast concrete, its structure is particularly fine, including the words cast into it “County of Soke of Peterborough”.
The final bridge, which accommodated a second carriage way for the A1 was built in 1975. There has been a river crossing in Wansford since Saxon times, and the three bridges neatly summarise a large part of the history of bridge building.
Wansford Station – worth a visit
The river meanders round a great bend after Wansford, before you come to floating moorings from which you can access Wansford Station (actually in Sibson). This is the headquarters of the Nene Valley Railway. An absolute must to visit ! The home of Thomas the Tank Engine and a host of historic steam engines, you can ride to Peterborough enjoying a line that has, over the years, been used for filming, amongst many others, Secret Army, a Queen rock video, Middlemarch, Goldeneye, and Murder on the Orient Express.
Peterborough – Flag Fen worth a visit
Flag fen is one of the most important surviving Bronze Age sites in England, and possibly in all Europe ! It is home to a unique ancient wooden monument, a kilometre long wooden causeway and platform, perfectly preserved in the wetland. This was built and used by the Prehistoric fen people 3,500 years ago as a place of worship and ritual. 60,000 upright timbers and 250,000 horizontal planks are buried under the ground along with many swords and personal items given as offerings to the watery fen. These are on display in a visitor centre and give an unique insight into Bronze Age life.
It is a short walk North of the river Nene from the spectacular new Shanks Millenium Foot Bridge East of Peterborough. There are no dedicated moorings but ‘improvised’ mooring shouldn’t be difficult.
Ramsey Rural Museum – worth a visit
This quintessentially English, independent museum, contains an eclectic mix of articles from bygone ages. It evokes glorious memories of a past of village fetes and strawberries and cream.
Open from April through to October, all day on Thursdays, and in the afternoon on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. Nearest moorings are either on the 40ft navigation near The George P.H. at Ramsey Forty Foot (2 miles away, but down a country road without a footpath) or on Ramsey High Lode, (1.4 miles away, past a 15th century Gothic gatehouse to a former Abbey)
Holme post – point of interest
Holme Post stands on the lowest land point in Great Britain at 9 ft below mean sea level. In 1851 it was decided to drain Whittlesey Mere (a boggy lake), and a 12ft cast iron post was driven vertically into the peat until the top of it was buried with its top level with the ground. The post was probably a reject casting originally intended for the Great Exhibition. As the peat dried the ground shrank and the post gradually emerged. Today all 12ft of the post is exposed, and a six foot extension has been added to the bottom of it.
Fen folk say that a drained mere will sink the height of a man, during the life of a man. Judging from the evidence of the now exposed post, the ground has sunk 18ft in 166 years, which rather confirms this old rule of thumb.
Holme Fen is quite a walk from the nearest navigable watercourse, which itself is quite remote from the main link route, which is why we’ve only included it as a ‘point of interest’, but if, like me, you are an anorak for the quirky and unusual historic artifact, then it’s a ‘must’.
Prickwillow Engine museum – well worth a visit
Formerly known as the Prickwillow Drainage Engine Museum, this is 2 miles up the river Lark from the river Great Ouse, and there are hard moorings close by. Drainage and the reclamation of land from the sea is key to the history of the fens. The museum contains a major collection of large diesel pumping engines, all of which have been restored to working order. The museum is generally open Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays & Tuesdays, in the afternoon, from Easter until the end of September, but it is advised to check their website before planning a visit.
The mystery smell – point of interest
During the high summer of 2017 many people reported a strong smell of cannabis, over a wide area between Denver Sluice and Ely. Eventually it was revealed that there is a legal cannabis farm (for medical use) at a ‘secret location’ that was probably responsible for the odour. If the lower part of the River Great Ouse appears to contain an unusually ‘high’ number of hippy boaters, it is not that the live aboard population of Cambridge has suddenly relocated, but the search for the fabled ‘Mary Jane’ cannabis farm.
Queen Adelaide – point of interest
The first Oxford v Cambridge boat race took place in 1829 at Henley. The next race was held in 1836 on the Thames in London. The tradition has continued ever since, but only once has the race moved from London.
In 1944 London was judged too dangerous because of the V1 flying bombs and the race was held on the Queen Adelaide Straight near Ely.
Cambridge University have recently built a new boat house North East of Ely and you may well come across them practicing on the waters between Ely and Littleport. Although traditionally known as the ‘light blues’ their oars are now more green, allegedly caused by a past university boatman, who suffering from colour blindness, mixed increasing amounts of green into the paint for the oars over the years.
As always, care should be taken to minimise wash when passing rowing boats, but as an ‘Oxford rowing man’ I do condone the odd “boo” if you pass a Cambridge boat !
Ely Cathedral – well worth a visit
The Cathderal is known as the ‘ship of the Fens’ because of its dominant position in the landscape, visible from miles away. Its origins date back to 672 and the present building was started in 1083. It is an outstanding building, both for its size and detail. The entrance, lady chapel and choir have been described as “exuberant Decorated Gothic” and its most notable feature is the central octagonal tower, with lantern above. If you only visit one cathedral a year, this is the one to visit !
Ely has good moorings, and overstaying boats are regularly moved on, so you have a good chance of finding a mooring in this vey city.
Streatham Old Engine – worth a visit
Stretham Old Engine is a steam-powered engine on the Old West River, about 6 miles up river from Ely. There are decent moorings. The engine was used to pump water from flood-affected areas of The Fens back into the river Great Ouse. It will be open to the public on 18 afternoons in 2018, so it is advisable to check their website for opening dates.
Huntingdon – Hinchingbrooke House – worth a visit
Is an historic house built around an 11th-century Benedictine nunnery. After the Reformation it was owned by Oliver Cromwell, and later the Earls of Sandwich. The house is part of a school, and is also a wedding and conference venue, but is open for tours on Sunday afternoons and some bank holidays.
Huntingdon has limited moorings.
St Ives worth a visit
The bridge in St Ives, and the chapel on the bridge, have about as varied history as any bridge possibly could ! The bridge is generally Gothic with pointed arches, other than two mismatched rounded arches. Oliver Cromwell ordered the demolition of part of the bridge and the installation of a draw bridge, to hold back Charles 1st’s troops. When they were later rebuilt, they didn’t match. The building on the bridge was a chapel up until the dissolution of the monasteries, and since then has been a private house, a doctors surgery and a pub, called Little Hell.
There are three different sets of good moorings in St Ives.
You may be interested in our blog post Old River Port St Ives
Health Warning – Huntingdon & St Neots
Huntingdon’s most famous son, Oliver Cromwell, was in part responsible for the death of the only English King to be executed, Charles I. St Neots’ most infamous son, John Bellingham, shot the only English Prime Minister to be murdered in Office, Spencer Percival. The two towns are less than 10 miles apart and it is said that although their residents are generally hard to upset, but if you do, the results can be severe ! I should know, because, dear reader, I married one !
St Neots –
St Neots originally comprised two settlements Eaton Socon and Eynesbury with a Priory between them. The name changed to St Neots when locals raided St Neot on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall in 980 and relieved them of their relics of the Saint and brought his bones back, as a ‘tourist attraction’. There is a mosaic set in the Market Square with a depiction of the world famous Alfred Jewel, made in honour of St Neot for King Alfred, and kept at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Many places have ‘tall stories’ to tell, but St Neots has the genuine case of the James Toller, “The Eynesbury Giant”. Born in 1798, this unfortunate young man was 5ft 5in tall at the age of 10 and by the time of his death, aged 21, he stood over 8 feet tall. He is commemorated by a plaque in the town and his story is told in the St Neots Museum.
In 1935 St Neots hit the front page of every news paper, with the birth of the Town’s own ‘fab four’ Ann, Ernest, Paul and Michael Miles, the first surviving quads, ever. They instantly became famous world wide and for years were adopted by Cow & Gate to advertise their products.