Olive Emily and the Old Bedford River

Fox Narrowboats mooring customer and waterways campaigned John Revell shares his account of his recent campaign trips.

‘Olive Emily’ built by Fox Narrowboats and the Old Bedford River

In 2006 the Environment Agency (EA) piled the entrance to Welches Dam Lock near Chatteris. John Revell, owner of ‘Olive Emily, (built by Fox Narrowboats and moored at Foxes Marina) describes the latest campaigning cruise to draw attention to its continuous closure 11 years later and to reinstate a historic route to the Middle Level and beyond.

In November 2017 ‘Olive Emily’ managed to navigate the Old Bedford River from the tidal sluice at Salters Lode to the current head of navigation at Welches Dam lock. Although the Old Bedford is a statutory navigation first opened in 1637 it remains difficult to access and little used. The only way into the Old Bedford now is via a tricky tidal channel.

A successful trip along the Old Bedford took place in April involving 3 narrowboats, ‘Lily May’ (also built by Foxes and owned by Chris Howes), ‘Ever After’ (Jeff Walters) and myself in ‘Olive Emily’. EA advised us beforehand that it would have been better to make the trip in May.

A second successful trip was made in July by 2 boats (cruiser ‘Marie II’ and ‘Olive Emily’) but on this occasion  EA strongly advised us to either cancel it or postpone it for 4 months until the scheduled weed cut had taken place in October. Therefore I notified EA in October that I wished to navigate the Old Bedford during November. The dates of 13 and 14 November 2017 were confirmed and Chris Howes (‘Lily May’) and Jeff Walters (‘Ever After’) offered to join me in their boats.

On 13 November all three boats locked out of the Middle Level lock at Salters Lode into the tidal Great Ouse. I then attempted to enter the narrow tidal channel leading to the Old Bedford sluice. This looked hopeless because it had not been dredged and was badly silted up. To make matters worse, there was a sand bar right at the entrance with only 3″ of water covering it. Ducks might have been able to enter the Old Bedford ‘on the level’ but I couldn’t.

I therefore turned the boat round and started to dig a channel to the Old Bedford sluice using the propellor in reverse gear. This was repetitive and time consuming but worked and I was able to enter the non tidal river still in reverse just after the tide turned. Chris and Jeff were less fortunate and were unable to follow me which was very disappointing for all concerned including the many onlookers.

Amongst those watching was David Mercer from Project Hereward


We then set off for Welney and moored overnight outside the Lamb and Flag, a short distance from the single guillotine gate which had been raised by EA for this journey. The Lamb and Flag is a great pub with local Elgoods beer, excellent food, fine old photos, large stuffed fish in glass cases, accommodation if we had needed it and a real fire.

At 8 am the next morning we headed off for Welches Dam lock 6 miles away. This is an attractive location with a fine lock-side cottage close to the extensive RSPB Ouse Washes nature reserve. It looked particularly good in the autumn light and we received a warm welcome from one of the residents.

Welches Dam lock remained completely impassable as it has been since 2006 and once again I had no alternative but to turn round and head back via Welney (but missing out the pub this time) to the Old Bedford sluice at Salters Lode. Fortunately, leaving the Old Bedford proved far easier than entering, perhaps because I had already laboriously dug a channel on the way in.

Following discussions with the Middle Level Lock keeper and a member of EA’s Navigation team I reversed ‘Olive Emily’ a short distance into the tidal channel at low water. This enabled them to shut the tidal doors behind me and for ‘Olive Emily’ to rest on soft mud just outside the sluice. Soon after the boat lifted on the incoming tide and I then reversed into the main tidal river and then (in forwards) re-entered Salters Lode and the Middle Level.

I am pleased to have made 3 trips along the Old Bedford during 2017 and I look forward to the day when the ancient route connecting the rest of the waterways system via Welches Dam Lock (continuously closed by EA since 2006) and Horseway Channel (also EA managed and unnavigable) is fully restored. Re-opening this route would reinstate a cruising ring which includes some of the oldest waterways in the country.


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