Thursday, 15 December 2016

Of An Autumn Journey Part 2

Here's the second part of the story of my October adventure, that I've put off writing for a while.

The Saturday morning cruise along the Sixteen Foot was uneventful and peaceful save for the noise of the engine. Near Chatteris we turned right on to the Forty Foot Drain. The journey was a swanucopeia. There were so many swans I ended up slowing right down in order to avoid breaking up families. Swans have two approaches to narrowboats. Juveniles panic and flap on ahead of the boat. More mature birds turn through 180° and ease their way in the opposite direction until the boat has passed. With the juveniles flapping on ahead, eventually putting some miles between them and their parents, I wondered if and how the families ever find each other again. I have seen, back at my home mooring, singles, pairs or small groups of cygnets without the usual adult attendance. Maybe this has been their fate? Near Ramsey Forty Foot I saw something that didn't look right. Given the behaviour of most of the swans en route it looked like one was sitting in the reeds. It wasn't attempting to move. As I approached I thought it may have been dead, but then I saw its head move. As I passed I could see that one wing was splayed out rather abnormally. The bird was somehow stuck in that spot. There was nowhere that was easy to stop and moor up. Taking the boat up to the bird would not have been very sensible and the poor creature might have been badly frightened, so I hailed a nearby photographer and tried to explain the situation to him. He was able to investigate. I don't know the outcome. I suspected a fishing line may have been involved, but I shall never know.

 Just beyond Ramsey Forty Foot, the temperature gauge soared. I suspected a burst hose or a failed jubilee clip somewhere in the cooling system, so I pulled in and staked the boat to a remote bank. When the temperature cooled enough for me to check the fluid levels there seemed nothing much amiss, so I started the engine again and progressed gently along the cut. Perhaps it was just an airlock still in the system. The plan was to try and get into Ramsey before dusk. I really could have done without the overheating blip, although an overnight stay would not have been a huge problem. The only huge problem would have occurred had the engine not started again.

The light was beginning to fade as I passed Wells Bridge at the confluence with the Old Nene. Just beyond that, and off to the left, was the turn into Ramsey High Lode. I had not been along here before. I have met several people from Bill Fen Marina over the years and Timeless had received her coats of blue in the floating boatshed outside the marina. It was interesting to see what it actually looked like - rustic and homemade, as it happens. Nothing like the paint shed in the marina at March.

Passing the marina entrance I continued along Ramsey High Lode. What would have happened had I met another boat coming towards me I can only guess. The waterway, though navigable, is only wide enough for one boat for most of its length. One of us would have certainly needed to reverse. As we approached Ramsey the bank climbed up to the right and for quite a distance we passed underneath what I can only describe as a bus and truck graveyard. Truck-dwelling friends, I wonder if you know of this place. I am sure it must be spares nirvana. Finally, just as the light was fading altogether there was the winding hole, the public mooring and the end of navigation at the north end of the town. The waterway continues into a tunnel that passes underneath a new development of flats and disappears off to who knows where? Pubs, supermarkets and the town centre are but a short walk from the mooring. There is something to be said for exploring late in the season, because no one else was there, save some young anglers. It was very easy to moor up. P. and I decided to eat out again and we set off towards the town centre.

Approaching the mooring at Ramsey at dusk

We opted for The Bengal in the High Street and were treated to excellent service and a delicious meal. By the time we got back to the boat it was time to retire to bed. At least tonight we would not be trying to sleep against the sounds of goods trains rolling and clanking overhead. After a batch of  youthful stop-outs left the scene, it was indeed a very peaceful night.

Looking back the way we had come down Ramsey High Lode
Next morning we walked back towards the town to have a better look. I have driven through Ramsey many times, but have never had the time to pull over in the van and explore. It is a place to which I shall return. We didn't get to see the stained glass in the parish church, which was made by the The William Morris Company, nor explore the rural life museum, which also sounds interesting, but we did get to see in daylight, the buildings we passed the previous evening! Before setting off in the boat again there was something I had to do. The public mooring was looking very much the worse for neglect and there was a lot of litter. I cannot bear the idea of leaving the place looking as badly as I found it so I spent an hour filling rubbish bags. Why people have to shove their litter into the hearts of bushes is a complete mystery specially when, twenty yards away, there is a perfectly serviceable litter bin. Extracting bottles, cans, crisp packets and abandoned bait boxes from their prickly resting places made it more awkward to collect and, at the end I'm not sure it actually looked very much better. So much litter had ended up in the water and was stuck in far places I couldn't reach. Unfortunately I could still see it.

The bus and truck cemetery

Finally, around mid-day, we were ready to depart. Naturally, by this time the wind had edged up a few knots and was being funnelled down the Lode and on to the mooring. Where it had once been timber-clad the mooring was now more threatening with exposed steel bolts sticking out from the quayside by several inches. As I attempted to turn the boat I made an error of judgement that had my lovely new paintwork being dragged along two particularly vicious-looking bolts. I had visions of long score marks running much of the length of the boat. I leapt out of the boat to fend it off, but I was too late. It is a tribute to the quality of the work done during the summer's repaint that there are only two fairly minor chips in the paint and not the tram-lines I feared.

Back out of Ramsey, passing under the bus cemetery, past fire damaged warehouses, the floating boat shed and the entrance to Bill Fen Marina we turned back on to the Old Nene shortly to turn again to pass, this time, under Wells Bridge and on to one of my favourite stretches of Fenland waterway, the Old Nene towards Benwick. I guess what makes this stretch a more interesting journey is that, being a river and not a drain, dyke or lode, it meanders and it changes width. What made it slightly more stressful was that all the anglers in the east of England seemed to be lining one bank for miles in competition. Fortunately, by the time we arrived at the scene, participants were beginning to pack up, so there was not quite the gauntlet of rods and lines to run that there would have been an hour earlier. Fortunately, again, no one was moored at Benwick public mooring, so we pulled in very gently and easily and P. prepared a delicious meal onboard as we settled in for the night.

Moored up at Benwick

Looking back the way we'd come

I love mooring at Benwick. The public mooring is adjacent to the graveyard which surrounded St Mary's Church which itself was demolished in 1985. The church had been there for just a century, but the Fenland ground structure had worked its familiar magic and after a hundred years of use it had become unstable and unsafe. All that remains of the old church are a few of the stones marking an outline where the church used to be. This in itself is all fascinating stuff, but what I really like about Benwick is that, in this fairly remote place, there is a stream of dog walkers and locals passing to and fro. A jolly good mardle is always on the cards and the passing locals I have met are generally intrigued by the life of boat people and more than willing to talk about their own lives. It is really quite amazing the secrets that complete strangers will divulge if one stands still for long enough.

The dead centre of Benwick with the demolished church behind the trees on the right


  1. Indeed, a good mardle was had with a few dog walkers in Benwick. It's a rather charming place. But the corner shop ought to make sure their products are not out of shelf date.