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Boston, the Manchester Ship Canal, and Droitwich 2011

Part 1a - The Witham Navigable Drains

Five feet and six inches (1.676 metres), that was our target. We wanted the roof of our boat to be as low as possible above the waterline because we were about to spend a weekend on the Witham Navigable Drains (WNDs) where there are several low bridges that limit just how far you can go when you are exploring. In particular we hoped to travel along the Sandy Bank Drain, which is hardly ever used because half way along it there is a bridge that the map (recently prepared by the local branch of the IWA) shows as being just 5’6” above the water.

For those who do not know them, the WNDs are a network of little-used canals near to Boston in Lincolnshire. For the most part they lie below sea level, and their main purpose is to drain water from the low-lying fields in that area. It is best to forget the name “Drain” which sounds rather uninviting for these attractive waterways, and to concentrate instead on the word “Navigable” for navigation is positively encouraged because it helps to slow down the growth of weeds which could block the channels. Indeed, the weed usually does block the channels from midsummer onwards so it is best to explore the WNDs in late spring (once the water level has been restored to its navigable summer levels) or early summer.

Our preparations for the weekend were almost complete. Six of us, and four dogs, were going on two boats so that one boat could tow the other backwards if necessary. We had already practised this manoeuvre on our way to the excellent South Kyme festival two weeks earlier, by travelling up the River Kyme with the two boats breasted up but facing in opposite directions so that we did not to be able to wind in order to return. We had also removed all unnecessary items from our roofs – plant pots, chimneys, radio and TV aerials, etc – but still we were well above our 5’6” target height. Filling the water tank and moving all the heavy items to the front of the boat had brought us both down to 5’8” and it was clear that our friends’ boat could not be made any lower, but we could gain those extra two inches if we removed the bracket which held the TV aerial. The bolts had rusted solid after 20 years in place, but after a few minutes with a hacksaw the bracket was clear and we were down to our target of 5’6”.

But would that really be low enough? How accurate was the map, for example? We decided to drive out to Sandy Bank Drain to measure the bridge for ourselves, and after an hour of searching we found the track which led down to it. We got the farmer’s permission to walk over his land and were soon standing on the bridge lowering an extending rule down towards the water. At first it looked as though there would be plenty of room under the bridge, but then we spotted the two steel support beams beneath the decking and to our dismay they were less than 5’4” above the water!

How could this be? The answer was simple: the water level was about 2” above its nominal level. Unlike a canal or river where the level will usually go down to its normal level if you wait for a while as the water runs away over the weirs, the water in the WNDs cannot run away because it is below sea level so we knew that we would have to abandon our plan to travel under the aptly named “No Man’s Friend” bridge. That evening we all sat around the map to plan a new route; we didn’t want to take the direct route into Boston, interesting though it is, because we had travelled that way before and our friends were due to travel there a fortnight later. If you haven’t been on the WNDs before, however, I can recommend it as being the most interesting way to enter Boston, with good moorings near the Maud Foster windmill which is itself well worth visiting, and there are no low bridges on that route.

We decided to travel up the Medlam Drain to New Bolingbroke on the Saturday instead. This village used to be an important destination for boats serving its (now closed) iron foundry, but it is hardly ever visited by boats now because it is rather remote. Its other attraction for us was that it has one of the very few pubs that is convenient for the WNDs, serving excellent food and drink. Then the next day we would be able to travel along the West Fen Drain to Bunkers Hill, which has the distinction of being on the road from Boston to New York (and has a signpost to prove it!). We would then be able to turn round at the entrance to the Sandy Bank Drain, instead of navigating along it, before returning to Anton’s Gowt Lock and rejoining the River Witham.

Saturday dawned fine and sunny, and the 6th member of our party arrived early, along with her dog, after an early start and a long drive. After checking that we had plentiful supplies of food and beer on board, in case we were to get stuck somewhere remote, we set off together for the high-speed run from Chapel Hill down to the lock at Anton’s Gowt. With its high top gates and side walls, designed to keep the winter floodwaters of the Witham from engulfing the low-lying fenland countryside, the lock is a forbidding sight and you have to keep reminding yourself that you are locking down rather than upwards. In every other way it is no different from most other locks, although you do need to ensure that one of your crew is good at climbing because a ladder in the lower lock wall is the only way to get back to the boat after closing the gates behind you.


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Anton's Gowt lock. Note that it is FULL in this picture
Anton's Gowt lock. Note that it is FULL in this picture
Just below Anton's Gowt, heading east on Frith Bank Drain
Medlam Drain is very wide here

Our trip to New Bolingbroke that day was wonderful. The Drains were deep, wide, and weed-free as they made their way through the very pretty (albeit rather flat) countryside. Almost imperceptibly the Drain got narrower until it was only about 20ft wide, and I was grateful that I was using my GPS receiver to monitor our progress on my laptop (with the free “Navvygator” software from Water Explorer) for it would have been easy to miss the entrance to the New Bolingbroke Drain by dismissing it as merely a small field drain. To do so would have been a real problem, as there is nowhere else to turn in the Medlam Drain after that.


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A typical bridge over Medlam Drain
'Fairies Wear Boots' follow us on Medlam Drain
Medlam Drain becomes narrower ...
... and narrower

As the New Bolingbroke Drain was rather too narrow for breasting up, we decided to reverse both boats up it, on the basis that it should be easier to drive out forwards if we got stuck. There were a couple of shallow points and we had to visit the weed-hatch a few times but we soon made it almost to the end, where we moored side by side. Several villagers came out to welcome us, and we were made to feel even more welcome in the village pub before we retired exhausted for an early night.


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We have reached New Bolingbroke Drain
Reversing into New Bolingbroke Drain
It's too narrow to breast in opposite directions
Room to moor breasted at New Bolingbroke

We were surprised to see a number of animal shapes in the grounds of the old foundry. I later found out that one of the workers had made a merry-go-round horse in his spare time, followed by another and another until had made a full set of “gallopers”. These were so admired that eventually the foundry’s main business had been the casting of model animals for fairground rides.


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Another handful of weed comes off the propeller
So we put two crew members ashore to bow-haul us through the weed
Our human horses make good time, towing us along the Drain
A tightish squeeze at Frithville

The next morning our friends set off along the Drain first, only to stop after a couple of lengths and spend several minutes flinging great handfuls of weed up from the weed-hatch. A few lengths later the process was repeated, and then again, so we decided instead to jump ashore with the ropes and bow-haul the boat for the first few hundred yards. Encouraged in our efforts by the dogs who found it all highly amusing, we soon reached clearer water and caught up with our friends without having to make a single visit to the weed-hatch. By now we were all in high spirits, and working really well as a team, so we were all ready for our assault on Bunkers Hill. Turning right into the West Fen Drain we suddenly realised that the water levels must be now further above normal as we passed under a nominally 6ft bridge with only about 3” to spare. Looking round, we watched in trepidation as our friends approached the bridge unaware of how low it was, but thankfully they cleared it by at least an inch!


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A typical Fenland scene - in Medlam Drain
Looking into entrance of the 20-foor Drain (we didn't go there)
A rather weedy stretch of West Fen Drain near Bunkers Hill
Returning triumphantly after turning at Sandy Bank Drain

Soon we came to a watery cross-roads. To our right was a small culvert which we knew would only be navigable if the water level was at its “normal” level, and to our left was the route back to Anton’s Gowt which was now giving us some concern in case our friends’ boat might not fit under the last of the bridges, but first the way straight ahead beckoned us forwards. The Drain was deep and wide, with only a few weedy stretches, so we made good progress to Bunkers Hill where the bridge under the road is rather “interesting”. It is simply a large concrete drain-pipe, making a complete circle that is just big enough for a boat if the water level is right; too low a level could cause the bottom corners of the hull to ground; too high a level could cause the top corners of the roof to get stuck.


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Bunkers Hill culvert looks rather small as we approach it
Our crew cries out "We can't be going through there, you're mad"
Even motorists stopped to tell us it was impossible
To everybody's surprise we fitted through the culvert with inches to spare

As we approached the culvert, one of my crew suddenly jumped up from the front cockpit where she had been sitting, and screamed “We can’t possibly be going through that. You’re crazy!” Certainly it looked like a very small hole to get through, and the locals must have agreed because several of them, and a couple of cars, stopped to watch the fun; one of the car drivers even ran down to tell me that a boat couldn’t fit through there, but by that time the front half of the boat was already inside it. With a couple of inches to spare we passed through the hundred-foot long tunnel and stopped to see if our friends would manage to follow us; with whoops of joy and absolutely no spare room at all they suddenly emerged into the sunlight behind us, and we all did a dance for joy on the decks before we carried on our journey.


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We emerge from the culvert at Bunkers Hill
With even less clearance, 'Fairies Wear Boots' follows us through the culvert
The iconic signpost at Bunkers Hill, between Boston and New York
Boots and Molly are totally unimpressed by all the excitement
'Fairies Wear Boots' struggle to turn in the entrance of Sandy Bank Drain

Triumphantly we continued as far as the Sandy Bank Drain and, with some difficulty because of our 67’ length, managed to turn round and head back to Bunkers Hill where we passed through the culvert rather more confidently this time. Approaching the cross-roads again we saw that rarest of sights on the Drains, the stern of another boat disappearing into the distance. So we weren’t the only boats on the Drains that weekend after all.

We were still worried that our friends’ boat might not pass under the horizontal pipe that crosses under the arch of the last bridge, for we remembered that as being very low, but in practice it was nowhere near as low as we remembered it, and it was with great relief that we passed underneath it with several inches to spare. Soon members of our crew were climbing the ladder to open the gates of Anton’s Gowt, and with a large audience of Sunday afternoon walkers we locked back up into the river Witham for our return to Chapel Hill.


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Our weekend had been a fabulous success. If you fancy a really peaceful trip along some very pretty waterways – but with a smidgeon of adventure for good measure – why not try them for yourself?


 Return to the main trip --- in Boston


Note: I originally wrote this article for the October 2011 issue of Canal Boat magazine. Additional photos have now been included here.

Some photos are © Mort Bones.


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