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Boston, the Manchester Ship Canal, and Droitwich 2011

Part 1b - Boston and the Black Sluice

After our successful exploration of the Witham Navigable Drains, we were now ready to join a campaign cruise on to the recently opened Black Sluice Navigation, which is the first phase of the proposed Cathedrals Link which will ultimately connect Boston to Peterborough, Ely and Cambridge. Access to the Black Sluice is through a new lock about a mile seawards of the Boston Grand Sluice, down the Boston tideway (the 'Haven' as it is known locally). This introduces some complications because the Grand Sluice is not long enough to be used as a conventional lock by a narrow boat; instead it is necessary to wait until about two-thirds tide when for just 2 or 3 minutes the level of the water on each side of the sluice is the same, and they can open the gates at both ends of the sluice at the same time. After the 3 minutes the tide rises above the level of the river, and the gates absolutely have to be shut to prevent  the seawater from flowing back into the River Witham.


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The flotilla of Narrow boats approaches Boston
Waiting for the tide to make a level at Boston Grand Sluice
The flotilla makes its way through Boston ...
... passing the 'Boston Stump' as the Cathedral is known

We congregated before the Grand Sluice to wait for the tide. It wasn't going to be easy putting 8 narrowboats through during the 3 minute window - less the time taken to open and then close the gates - and we were all instructed to cast off and wait with our engines running until we got the green light. When the light came on it was like the start of a Grand Prix as 9 narrowboats shot through the Sluice as quickly as possible; the gates slammed shut just inches behind the last one and then the whole flotilla made its way past the Cathedral and through the centre of Boston.


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A few people stopped to watch as we pass under the main road bridge ...
... which is almost dry at low tide
Boston still has a small but active fishing fleet.
Redundant fishing boats  are sunk along the sides of the channel

The view of Boston from the river is wonderful, and we quickly identified the riverside garden of the pub where we had eaten lunch the day before. It would make a fabulous destination if it were non-tidal, and there are indeed plans to install a barrier downstream to achieve just that, but for now - as we had seen the day before - the Haven dries out almost completely at low tide - revealing the hulks of unwanted fishing boats which have been left to rot against the banks. Travelling between them gave the whole trip a surreal atmosphere, rather like a theme park ride. There were also many active fishing boats, whose skippers looked at us with some curiosity as we passed. They were not the only ones to be watching us: many people stopped on the bridges to cheer and wave at us.


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A disused railway swing bridge marks the approach to the Black Sluice moorings
We get the green light to proceed into Black Sluice lock ...
... we leave the pontoon to swing across the river ...
... and make a broad sweep round to the Black Sluice whose entry faces downstream

I had been slightly concerned that I might not spot the moorings for the Black Sluice lock but I need not have worried; as we passed a disused railway bridge the mooring pontoon was plainly visible ahead of us with several of the other narrowboats already moored to it. We had a long wait as the Black Sluice lock can just take 2 boats at a time, so we had to wait for the 4th locking. Eventually we got the green light, and we made the wide sweep across the tideway to complete the turn into the lock.

As the lock was emptied, I was worried about the cill because our stern was only about 2 feet from the gates, but in fact there is enough depth for a narrow boat to float over the cill when the lock is empty so we had no problems. Soon we were moored on the pontoon after the lock, where we could stop and return to buy our visitors licence from the lock-keeper. We would be returning here the following day for a celebration tea at the cafe which has been created in the old lock-keeper's cottage, but meanwhile we made an excursion to Hubbards Bridge for a few drinks with our new-found friends from the flotilla of narrow boats, followed by a superb meal. It transpired that the pub there was run by the same people who had previously managed the Crick Marina where we used to moor.

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The Black Sluice lock will take two full-length narrow boats
When emptied. the lock exits through a tight arch under the London Road
We tied up after the lock to purchase our short-term EA licence
The old lock gates have been sculpted by chainsaw and let into the opposite wall

The following morning we all returned to the Black Sluice. The occupants of the boat that was moored outside us were still in bed, but knowing that they were heading for the same destination we didn't bother to untie them; we just untied ourselves from the pontoon and, with the other boat still attached alongside, we winded round and set off for Boston. Our neighbours were somewhat surprised to emerge from their cabin and find that they  had already travelled for nearly a mile.


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Along the Black Sluice Navigation which is straight and wide
There is a tempting mooring outside Tesco's but it is all reserved for fishermen
Good moorings outside the pub at Hubbards Bridge
The land around here has an unfortunate tendency to subside

We spent the next night at Swineshead. It doesn't sound particularly inviting, but is actually well worth a visit. The mooring is excellent, and it doesn't matter that it is directly opposite the railway station because there are very very few trains. The pub there serves the best  fish imaginable; if it was any fresher it would still be fighting off the seagulls!

The other boats did not have time to stay any longer, but we had the time to spend the next day travelling on to the current limit of navigation at Donington Bridge. Eventually we'll be able to carry on past the bridge to Spalding and Peterborough, but for now it is not deep enough for anything more than a dinghy to proceed any further.


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Nearing Donington Bridge ...
... the current limit of navigation ...
.... where we can JUST turn around in the entrance to another drain
Finally we arrive back at Black Sluice lock

Arriving back at Boston, we waited on the pontoon before entering the lock. We were feeling slightly nervous about the run up the Haven to the Grand Sluice, having been warned that we would have only 11 minutes to complete the 1 mile 111 yard journey (all the 1's there!) if we were to reach the Sluice in time for the 3-minute window of passage. We were expecting a big rise in the lock, to match the fall that there had been on our incoming journeye, but in fact the outer gates were opened as soon as the incoming tide made a level. My goodness the tide was coming in at a rate! We were swept quickly around towards the centre of Boston, and then we rode the tide up through the Haven to arrive at the Grand Sluice several minutes early; indeed we had plenty of time for a chat with the lock-keeper before the level was right to let us back on to the river.


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The tide is still  low when the lock gates open for us
The pontoon where we moored before is still high and dry
The old fishing boats give the journey a surreal atmosphere
Boston Grand Sluice is open ready for us
We reach the sanctuary of the Grand Sluice

Our trip to the Black Sluice had been an unqualified success. We can't wait for the opportunity to see more of the Cathedrals Link, and we are hoping to join a campaign cruise across to the top of the Wash to Spalding in 2012 (update, the trip was cancelled in 2012 but we're still hopeful for another year).

We returned happily to Chapel Hill for a last night's celebration with our friends there, before it was time to head back towards the Midlands and the West ...

 Return to the main trip --- in Boston



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