First objective achieved – Cambridge reached


For the Cambridge leg of the trip Dugald takes up the thread.

Wendy’s last post provoked the response “tell him to slow down”. So I did and had a good snooze while she went off in pursuit of Konik ponies in Wicken Fen. We discovered that we are not patient enough to be good naturalists – we want results too quickly.


Back at the pub, the Five Miles from Anywhere, No Hurry Inn there was people watching to be done. A smart broadbeam boat disgorged a couple, she with unshocking pink hair, he with dreadlocks down to his knees. White, middle aged and inherently quite good looking, we wondered what his motive for this style was. Later in Cambridge a large guided party passed us – led by a walking guide who had been a Cambridge street cleaner for many years and was now a very knowledgeable presenter – a more encouraging picture.


Leaving the Great Ouse and joining the Cam, there was an immediate change to a warmer and more intimate atmosphere. The river seems to announce the magic of the city.


We arrived to take the only available visitor mooring in the centre of the city. Walking round that evening reminded me of what a glorious place it is – and how privileged I was to spend a happy three years there.


Wendy and I met in September 1970 and she visited me in Cambridge once – in November 1970. I fell out of favour shortly afterwards for reasons too complex to explain. I did not take her punting that November weekend and had never done so since. This needed remedying. The girl managing the desk at Scudamores looked sceptical and pitying at my claim that I had last punted in 1994 (when showing Anna round the city and the university). I chose a wooden pole – always used one before – why change now? Because it’s incredibly heavy that’s why. I made it to the Mill and back in an hour and just kept balance sufficiently to avoid indignity – a triumph.  After that a good lunch with Perran and Jane was essential.DSCF0615

Today is 8 August, 27 years after I joined the Department of Education and Science. It was a radical change from farming and surprised some in the Department too. A director, told of my new post and my previous occupation, remarked “Rather an arcane job for a farmer, I’d have thought” and turned away. The only appropriate response was a Harvey Smith behind his back.

Jane joined us for the trip out of the city as we went back onto the Great Ouse. Coming from the South you can understand why Ely cathedral is known as the Ship of the Fens. Tomorrow we will get the tandem off the roof and bike into Ely to admire it.

A day off


We are two weeks out of London, have covered 186 miles, and been through 148 locks, 3 swing bridges and 1 tunnel. My phone tells me we could be back in London in less than two hours by car. We would normally be back on the mooring and at work nursing our post-holiday blues: not so this year – on we go.

Despite plans to take things slowly we have kept up a relentless pace. Leaving early in the morning, carrying on until the evening and beyond tired.

We planned to reach Cambridge by 6 August to meet up with our friends Perran and Jane. We have been so speedy, we are now in danger of arriving and leaving before they are back in their riverside house. Cambridge moorings have a 48 hour limit. I suggested we should stay here today.

Lying in our sunlit bed, relaxing and reading my kindle, with a background noise of birds and a distant machine working a field, I heard the noise of sawing – Dugald was already busy creating a temporary workbench. Next step was to undercoat our newly acquired gang plank. So much for a day off!


Off to the top of the bank again with my mobile wifi to see if I can locate a nearby pub. Perhaps there’s time for a walk and pub lunch between coats of paint. I found a riverbank path to Ely, and we returned from our five and a half mile round trip in time to put the first top coat on Dugald’s creations. There are still no spaces on the banks in the centre of Ely.



Walking along the path on top of the riverbank, lined with thistles and ragwort, I stopped to admire fluffy thistles about to send their seeds across to neighbouring field. Dugald was not keen: he has disliked thistles since he and his brother Hugh were sent out in the school holidays with ‘thistle spudders’ to pull up all the thistles on the farm. The ragwort is a mystery too: it used to be an offence to be found with ragwort in your fields, and certainly was seen as a disgrace. But we have seen it growing everywhere near the rivers and canals.


Our planned stop at Ely


I have been unable to post a blog or upload photos for 2 days, having moored each night in signal free zones. We knew Ely would deliver a good signal, a useful laundrette and an opportunity to explore the city and cathedral.

When we got there we managed to fill up with water, while being hassled by an impatient boat that wanted the water point. There are plenty of moorings, but each one we passed had a smug boat on it – not a space to be had.

It reminded us of sailing holidays in Greece and Croatia and the daily race to find a mooring for the night.


We continued up this large and rather monotonous river


But we enjoyed the company of families of Greater Crested Grebes for a little longer.


Further up the river we found a quiet spot, and I hope if I climb high up the river bank, I will have enough signal to post this tonight, watched by some sleepy looking cows.

Onto the flat and beyond


We came off the lovely River Neme at Peterborough, then down Stanground Lock that controls the water levels in the Fens to continue our journey below sea level. Tina is the third generation lock keeper who is dedicated and enthusiastic.


We thought this part of our journey would probably be boring, travelling on long straight drains with high banks. We were wrong.

The Middle Level is different, shallow, narrow and windy in some places with VERY low bridges.


Long straight open patches, initially quite industrial with chimneys of brickworks and factories.


Occasional isolated farms and frequent clusters of wind turbines.


Glimpses of corn fields over the top of the high banks, no livestock apart from a few tape lined fields of horses.


We wound our way very slowly through three pretty villages, March, Upwell and Outwell, where the river seems to take the place of the high street. Lanes run along the top of the river bank in place of pavements.


This morning we moored at Salters Lode Lock, a carefully managed exit point from the Middle Level onto the River Great Ouse. We had to wait for the tide to drop sufficiently to allow us to drive the boat out of the lock under a very low concrete bridge. There was a debate about taking the flowers and bikes off the roof in order to get under the bridge. The cheery lock keeper decided that moving us down the queue to third place would mean the river levels would be low enough to get through without having to take off all the clutter first.


So we set off round a very sharp bend onto the tidal part of the Great Ouse, heading for the tall gates of Denver Sluice, where we would go into the non-tidal and therefore safer part of the Great Ouse. Many ‘playground stories’ have been told about the extreme difficulty of this manoeuvre, including getting stuck on mudbanks or ending up outside the sluice on the tideway until the next tide.

We did put our lifejackets on, and checked where the anchor was hiding. As usual the reality was much tamer than the stories, and we made it uneventfully to Denver Sluice, and out onto the non – tidal Great Ouse.

We meet handraulic guillotines


Another early start this morning, not straight onto the river, but via a postbox to send an urgent birthday card. We walked past the ghost of Rushton and Diamonds, with sad weeds around the turnstiles.

We had a shock at the first lock. We were used to electrically operated guillotine bottom gates. This lock had a LARGE wheel for manual turning – a great deal of it. I elected to operate the wheel. I am still quite nervous of driving the boat. Helming suddenly seemed more attractive. I am now developing my helming skills fast!


This is the electric version. The handraulic model involves 150 turns to lower it, and then another 150 to raise it. We have met 4 of these today out of 12 locks.

I lost another lock windlass (the lock winding handle) so am in disgrace. We went into Oundle Marina to get diesel and two new handles, and another Nene guide to replace the one Dugald threw into the lock. An expensive replacement programme.

The entrance to Oundle Marina is like Jerusalem’s Eye of the Needle, and Dugald made it look easy – very irritating

This river remains a glorious experience, it is crystal clear, alive with fishes and birds. We have seen red kites; yellow wagtails; a kingfisher; swallows swooping around old mills; and thousands of dragonflies.

Tonight we are made up to the bank near some cattle. It feels like Bearley Farm, and that’s not bad.

The magic Nene

At 7 o’clock this morning we set off down the Nene river towards Peterborough.

Louis (Nb Madam) told us the Nene was exquisite. He is right.


We have wound our way through 16 miles and 16 locks to arrive at Irthlingborough. Intriguingly we are moored alongside the Rushden and Diamonds FC, Dugald is puzzled as to how David Bell – now Sir David – came to support them.


We have had a day of loss.

Dugald spilt my tea in the cockpit while I was winding locks. Clearing it up, he managed to flip the invaluable Nene guide into the lock. Later, I left my very special alloy lock key at one of the locks. Score: 1 all.

This river is a delight with birds and animals and trees – and very few boats or people



Leon starts us off

We arrived at Gayton Junction on Tuesday afternoon and a decision. Carry on going North, or turn east towards Northampton, and eventually Cambridge? Adventure suggested Cambridge. We turned right.

We walked along the towpath to the top lock of 17 down to Northampton. We met Leon at the top lock, and we arranged to meet him at 8 the next morning.

Leon gets a mixed press, but we found him both entertaining and very helpful.


Leon took us firmly in hand and sped us down 17 locks to Northampton. He moored us safely at the town quay and went on his cheery way. We will be calling him on the way back.

Dugald went off and snapped the architecture of Northampton, while I slept.


The first week

The first week flew by, we covered a further 70 miles, working our way through a further 75 locks, 3 swing bridges and a tunnel.


I collapsed in a heap at the end of each day, exhausted. I began to wonder if I would ever stop feeling tired. The events of the last few weeks, and the energy required to wrap everything up had obviously drained me more than I realised. Dugald somehow seemed to be on zoom, up with the lark as usual, and managed to drag me along with him.


We shared locks with some characters, and passed the usual eclectic mix of boats and their people.



In Leighton Buzzard we passed Wyvern Shipping, a hire boat company, and saw Marigold the first narrowboat we hired 21 years ago at Easter. We had horizontal sleet and snow over the weekend. Dugald and I got the bug, but the children were underwhelmed. Further canal holidays followed (without the children). During one of our ’10 year planning sessions’ we decided that we wanted a narrowboat to travel the canals in our retirement. So we evicted Dugald from his flat in Kennington and bought Ginger Bear for him to live on in London. We have often taken wrong turns, that one we seem to have got right.

We Cast Off

Leaving homeThe lead up to this trip has been long. Dugald has been counting the days to his retirement from the Civil Service for months, and is looking forward to pastures new enthusiastically. I have been slightly more hesitant, I am not enthusiastic about stopping the work I have done for the last 40 years, but I am tired of working long hours, and need a break to get fitter. So is it just for 3 months, or for good? We had 3 days between leaving work, and leaving our mooring. They were filled with leaving parties, a university reunion, our 40th wedding anniversary and finally drinks at our mooring. It became clear to us the final ‘morning after the night before’, that keeping up that level of partying in your 60’s is much harder than in your 20’s. We planned to leave our mooring at 11am on the Tuesday morning, and eventually got away at 2pm having loaded fresh provisions, collected washing, lifted half our plant collection onto the roof along with our bikes and Ginger Bear. We took a deep breath, and set off up the Grand Union canal from Brentford (2 locks off the Thames) towards Uxbridge. Going up the canal rather than out onto the Thames always requires an extra draw on the energy tanks because you go almost immediately into the Hanwell flight of 8 locks. We arrived at Uxbridge at 8pm exhausted, 11 locks and 8 miles later. Quick supper and fell into bed.