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PETER FROST takes a break on and around the Middle Level Navigations – one of Britain’s best kept boating secrets – and discovers that despite their name the Fenland Drains are a real delight.

When Sir Cornelius Wasterdyk Vermuyden drained the Fens in 1650 he had engineers and labourers, carters and horses and a lot of shovels and wheelbarrows. What he didn’t have was a marketing department and there wasn’t a waterways brand manager in sight.

Perhaps if he had known then what our waterway masters know today he might have spent a groat or two getting some more romantic names for his quiet and beautiful waterways.

Alas he didn’t, so we are off in this feature to spend some time on dozens of Drains and a surfeit of Sluices. Before you let that put you off we’ll also be discovering Leams and Lodes and the most poetically named navigable waterways in England – The New and Old Popham’s Eau.

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We are on and about the Middle Level Navigations; the fourth largest Navigation authority in the UK and the one that offers by far the best value. This Authority make no charges at all for using their many miles of delightful waters. There are no tolls and no licences required.

Not only that but the Middle Level Commissioners offer a fully illustrated guide to the navigations complete with maps that can be downloaded, again for free, from http://www.middlelevel.gov.uk

You will need the guide for these waters offer some unusual challenges. Remember the main job of these waterways is drainage and water control. Locks and sluices work in unusual ways, water levels go up and down sometimes going up very quickly, sometimes annoying taking days to go down. Automatic sluices and water gates can open remotely with no warning.

Bridges have low and variable headroom. The lowest is Exhibition (Stoke’s) Bridge on The Old River Nene at 1.53m 5’ 0”. Some bends are a bit tight – especially for full length narrow boats. However there is nothing to be afraid of and all the information you need is clearly explained in the free guide and there is usually an alternative route.

Boaters arriving from other waters such as those coming down the Nene from the main English narrow canal system or from the Ouse at Bedford or from the southern Fens towards Cambridge will need the appropriate licences of course and a fair time to make the journey.

There are plenty of narrow boats and day boats for hire locally and more remote visitors might find they are the best way to explore this little known corner of the English waterway’s map.

Canoeists will find it easy to find launching places.

Perhaps the greatest Middle Level delight is the myriad of little navigable rivers and cuts that can be explored. Most go nowhere; just a mile or two of peaceful almost secret waters ending in a sluice, water gate or pumping station. Otters, swans, grebe and heron will be surprised to see you.

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Main system boaters coming on the Nene via Peterborough will enter by Stanground Lock. You need to give 24 hours notice before passing through the attended Lock (01733 566413). The keeper here sells the special windlasses you will need for the Middle Level and Great Ouse Locks that spindles with collars.

Whittlesey is an old market town with plenty of shops and pubs and an amazing folk tradition known as the Straw Bear. There are moorings before the lock. Our route continues to Floods Ferry where Whittlesey Dyke joins the Old River Nene. From here many will take an eight miles diversion to the pleasant overnight moorings of Ramsey.

Otherwise continue on the Old Nene to March where you can moor overnight before locking into King’s Dyke the start of the most popular route to across the Levels to the Great Ouse and its many river connections.

Two locks; Ashline and Marmont Priory will take you on to the twin Fenland villages of Upwell and Outwell. Beyond, Salter’s Lode Lock is a curious device. It appears just over 60 feet long but full length narrowboats can pass when the tides are right with help or advice from the Lock Keeper. It isn’t always possible to get longer boats through this lock so plan ahead and take advice.

After Salter’s Lode you have a shallow tidal stretch to Denver Lock and some pleasant cruising along the Great Ouse to Earith. One problem in the Fens is that waterways change names without notice or often without any indication. The Great Ouse here is usually called the Old River.

Off the Great Ouse you have a choice of cruises. One is to take the pleasant River Wissey. Another, Brandon Creek, offer thirteen miles of tranquil lock free cruising.

The last tributary before Ely is the ten mile long River Lark. Ely cathedral can be seen for miles across the otherwise flat fens. The cathedral has some of the best stained glass in the world

Three miles beyond Ely we come to Popes Corner with a famous and pleasant Fenland hostelry the Fish and Duck pub. Straight on is the River Cam, leading to the sophistication of Cambridge. Turn right and the Ouse will take you all the way to Bedford.

The rivers, drains and pumps of the fenland waterways all have one main purpose; to drain the rich fenland into the Wash, that vast bite shaped bay on our island’s Eastern coast; a huge indentation into the flat lands of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and North Norfolk.

Four great eastern rivers, the Witham, the Welland, the Great Ouse and the Nene drain most of England’s East Midlands into the Wash.

Fishermen still go out on to the Wash mudflats to harvest the cockles, mussels, whelks and other delicious delights. Those rich pickings in the mud are what bring half a million wading birds and wildfowl – not to mention thousands of birdwatchers to the Wash.

Denver Sluice (our title picture) is one of England’s great water gates. Here the river Great Ouse and the Old Bedford Rivers are controlled by sluices to keep the sometimes angry tides of the Wash from flooding the fenlands.

In 1835, two years before a young Victoria took her throne they built a mill at Denver. Flood, fire, gales, progress and lack of interest have all contrived to knock the proud mill down. Indeed late in 2011 it lost its sails once again.

The windmill was only twenty or so years old when a steam powered mill was built in outbuildings here. That mill still grinds corn but in the 1920’s the steam engine was replaced by a rattling Blackstone Oil engine which still runs today. There is an electric powered mill here too so that you can see the whole history of milling in one location.

Now you can climb the mill for amazing views over the fens or just feast on the bread scones and cakes made here. http://www.denvermill.co.uk

This article was written for the now defunct Canals, River and Boats Magazine in 2010.

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