Five Days in the Fens

By: Neil McEleney

‘Neil McEleney and his faithful hound Gypsy, explore the flat hidden waterways of East Anglia’s district’

Having previously survived a week on the Welsh canals, Neil McEleney undertook the more difficult challenge of navigating around The Fens Waterways.

Day 1:

I set out from the pub in Epsom two hours behind schedule – to those of you who read my last article, this will come as no surprise. Withy Gypsy on the back seat, I headed round the M25, up the A1 making up quite a lot of time as the roads were quiet due to the fact that it was a bank holiday – maybe I shouldn’t mention this but the time I made up was subsequently lost as I ‘chose’ to take the scenic route to March and Fox Marina where I arrived at 3pm. Just to clarify Gyspy is the dog – I am the publican! I caught up with Paula and her crew at Fox Boats marina, which by the way has a little shop where you can buy what ever you may have forgotten you needed on your way there. They introduced me to Fox Cub and we discussed a suitable route with handy lock keepers as I was travelling on my own. They gave me a brief tour of the boat before one of the crew saw me out of the marina onto the river and off I went on my merry way. I discovered much to my surprise that sailing a boat is much like riding a bicycle: once you have learnt it you never forget and after only five minutes it felt as if it was only yesterday that I had been cruising down the Welsh canals.

However, I was very much aware – to the extent of a few sleepless nights prior to the trip – the big difference between the Welsh canals and the rivers of the Fens – particularly when you cannot swim – and I was slightly unnerved by the fact that the boat came equipped with a red lifejacket. I thought about wearing it for about 10 seconds but decided that I would rather run the risk of drowning than be seen as a tomato coloured eedjit.

I hadn’t counted for the sun which had it’s own agenda. I headed up the river and found the boat easily managed the fast-running navigation so I started settling back and easing into the quiet atmosphere of going 2 miles an hour through a beautiful landscape. Having come through the lock very easily, (for those of you who haven’t tried it: You get off the narrow boat ring the doorbell and the lock keeper comes and does all the hard work for you), I arrived at Upwell where I moored next to an old church. Having worked hard and late all week I thought this place would guarantee a quiet night – how wrong can you be. I settled in with a couple of cold beers and made some dinner, watched some telly and headed to bed around 10pm for my early night. I fell asleep inside 10 minutes. Roughly 50 minutes later I was shaken awake by BONG BONG BONG BONG! You probably get the message: the bell in the church chimed every hour on the hour all night!

Day 2:

I got up quite early and took the dog out for a walk and after a light breakfast I set off cruising again. I was rather tired and did contemplate going back to bed but figured what was the point, that bloody bell was still chiming!

Anyway, the day ahead held the biggest challenge of my boating experience to date: The Salter’s Lock taking me on to the River Great Ouse. The River Great Ouse is tidal which means that the lock can only be accessed as specific times – which I would later discover can cause some problems! I cruised down the river towards the lock where I had a slot allocated for mid afternoon. To say that Salters Lock is challenging would be a u understatement. Thankfully the keeper was a hand guiding Fox Cub through without too many incidents – it was the other boat that hit the lock wall! I held back from the outset letting the other boat enter the lock first so all I had to do was follow them (apart from the wall part). The lock keeper stood on the bank and guided us through. Having come through the initial stretch I was thinking ‘Hey this is easy – hat’s all the fuss about?’ The suddenly the fast-flowing current caught the boat and nearly made me turn 90 degrees! I had to put the pedal to metal – for the want of a better expression – to get out of the situation.

Having survived Salter’s Lock and the shock of the news that my return through the lock would be 6.30 am Thursday morning (!), I headed down the river on the look-out for a good pub – any pub even so I could settle my nerves and get some dinner. I had decided not to do the on boat TV dinner thing but eat out every evening just to compare the quality of the food, service and atmosphere to what I provide in my own establishment.

I cruised along, very much enjoying the a typical English countryside, which on that precise day was at its peak. Fields as far as the eye can see, swans on the river, farmers tending their crops and the sweet aroma of flowers and plants changing every 10 yards – including (unfortunately) the odd whiff of the cattle grazing along the river. Whilst the sunshine was lovely, the temperature had soared to 27 degrees and I could feel myself slowly beginning to sizzle. I felt so much like a spit roast that I kept turning around to ensure an evenly crisp crackling – well you don’t expect to take tanning lotion to the Costa del Fens do you?

At about 6pm the sun had me semi-cremated and gasping for a drink so I was delighted to see the Black Horse on the bank of the river! Initially, I was not sure that mooring there would be a good idea as there was nobody else around but at that stage it took very little to sway me and I pulled in.

I went into the pub to check with the landlord that it would be OK for me to moor there as a sign said that mooring was for patrons only. I was assured that this was fine so I returned to the boat, took Gypsy for a quick walk and settled in the Black Horse’s beer garden – for the evening – a well deserved treat after the day I had had, even if I do say so myself!

I decided that on an evening this beautiful I would have a couple of pints of cider – if for no other reason than the fact that they did a great job of cooling down my now burning forehead.

As gypsy was also settled in nicely under the table I decided to stay there for dinner and ordered fish and chips. 15 minutes later the food arrived with a knife and fork and I asked the young lady if she would bring me some condiments – which she did: an empty saltshaker and a full vinegar bottle! She did however redeem herself when she asked me if Gypsy would like some water.

I thoroughly enjoyed my evening at the Black Horse. The food was good and it appeared to be a very well run establishment. I would defiantly recommend a visit.

Supported by the dog, I staggered back to the boat at closing time.

Day 3:

I woke up slowly with the consequences of the cider and the sun very obvious. I decided that a brisk morning walk would be just what the doctor ordered! I got up, got dressed and put on my watch to discover that the time was 12.10pm! Still the dog needed walking anyway so off I went. I got back 20 minutes later and headed towards Ely – the smallest city in England for those of you who are interested in trivia.

Another beautiful day although with still no suntan lotion and a headache from cider I was pleased to know that Ely was not too far away.

The fact that Ely has got to be one of the most beautiful paces I have ever seen also means that it is one of the most popular tourist spots, which, unfortunately, meant that I could not get moored. This really annoyed me, not so much because I missed an opportunity to see the architecturally interesting cathedral, but because I had been telling myself for the past two hours that there was sun lotion on the horizon! But no!

As I couldn’t get moored in Ely, I had to head up the river again as I had to be at Salter’s Lock for my early morning slot. I travelled as fast as Fox Cub would carry me back towards Salter’s Lock. I guess that is the main advantage to river over canal, that you can give it a bit of welly on a nice straight quiet stretch – I made the journey is a record breaking one and a half hours (Alright I haven’t checked the records but I felt really chuffed, ok).

Having moored for the night close to the lock I decided that I would go for the cure at the nearest pub I could find: The Jenyns Arms. Having walked the dog I tried the door of the pub, which, much to my surprise was locked at 6.30 in the evening. When I looked around I noticed that another three boats were also waiting for the pub to open at 7pm.

I finally entered the establishment at about 7.30 and at approximately 7.45 I had a cool pint of cider. I was very surprised at how busy the pub got so quickly and although the staff were great they just couldn’t cope. So I went out into the garden and waited for the rush to die down before I had a look at the menu.

Due to my ‘delicate state of health’ I really fancied a big juicy steak with all the trimmings, but when I saw the menu I quickly changed my mind. The steak was £17 – a crazy price, this is a pub remember – so I opted for the still over priced £8 chicken curry instead, which did the trick.

I decided to have any early night due to the very early start the next day – still no bloody after sun lotion!

Day 4:

Got up at 6am and took Gypsy for her morning walk. There was some activity around the lock so I returned to the boat, crossed the river, then moored preparing to follow the other boats through the lock.

What happened next still puzzles me. We watched as the first two boats went through and then gongoozled as a team of men for 45 minutes pulled a pontoon through the lock – manually. We waited. At the time we were not too concerned as we were merely waiting our turn – but it didn’t come. Once the pontoon was through we waited another 30 minutes and when still nothing happened a chap from another boat went and spoke to the lock keeper to find out what was going on. He came back and told us all that the keeper had said the water levels had changed and that no more boats would be going through for the rest of the day.

If I hadn’t already been bright red from sunburn I would now have been sanguine from blood pressure! I could not believe that they could leave 5 boats some of which had young children on board, sitting there in the middle of nowhere just like that all for the sake of a pontoon. It didn’t seem to bother them though.

Four of the boats waiting were from Fox’s Marina and they had to be returned by 9am the following day. We rang Fox and explained the situation. They said they would try and get us through that evening.

In the end I ended up mooring where I had been the night before and with the sun blazing down and still no bl***y suntan lotion I pulled the curtains apart, opened all of the doors and chilled with the dog for the rest of the day.

In the evening four chaps arrived from Fox’s Marina and the keeper allowed them to take the boats through for us. The upside of this saga was that at least I didn’t have to take the boat through again. I had gathered quite a lot of respect for the power of Salter’s Lock the first time round. It was about 7pm when we were through the lock but I decided to continue and make it half way back to Fox’s Marina so I wouldn’t have to rise too early in the morning – I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to return until 12 noon.

I stopped at a pub called The Crown for a few drinks on this the last night of my venture. It didn’t look much from the outside but you should never judge a book by its cover because I had a night there that I will remember fondly for a long time. The chemistry between the regulars and the staff was excellent – it was a good craic! If a channel 4 producer had the bottle to put a hidden camera in the Crown I’d watch it for 30 minutes every night – never mind the reality TV crap like Big Brother or the Osbourne family.

Day 5:

Got up still laughing from the night before, walked the dog, had breakfast and prepared for my final descent into March and Fox’s Marina – still no sun cream and starting to peel!

Fox Cub had served me well even during my few seconds of need in the Middle of Salter’s Lode Lock. Generally, the boat was comfortable although some of my customers were interested to note that I returned with a well toned right bicep – I’m not quite sure they were satisfied with my explanation about the pump action toilet mechanism onboard the Cub. They probably thought I was spending too much time on my own.

I arrived at Fox’s Marina 10 minutes ahead of schedule, and before I could get my bags off the boat there were four people cleaning it ready for take off at 12.15pm not dissimilar perhaps to Ryan Air’s routine.

© Neil McEleney 2004

This article first appeared in Canal & River boat magazine February 2004 and is reproduced here by permission of the Author.