Cruising the River Great Ouse

We cruised the River Great Ouse in 2009, and a much under rated waterway it is too.

I wrote some articles about it for “Keels & Cuckoos” (the magazine of our local Inland Waterways Association branch) and below is part one. I’ve decided to put this on the site because it’s possibly some of the best writing I’ve ever done, particularly the bit where we went up Waits Quay at St Ives !

Cruising the River Great Ouse 300W L10

Ever since I used to go on The Broads with my family when I was a kid I’d look excitedly through each new Hoseasons brochure to see what was for hire and where, and I was always intrigued by the River Great Ouse. It seemed out on its own, so near and yet so far, like Fair Isle, which, ironically, we’ve recently been to as well ! So when it came to deciding where me and the wife should go for our third boating holiday back in 2009 I was drawn back the land of meandering rivers, dead straight “drains”, and huge vast open skies. And because, to me, boating is all about getting away from it all with some peace and quiet, I’d also hoped it wouldn’t be that busy, something which has put me off, so far, going back to The Broads.

We could only find one boatyard hiring out craft on the Great Ouse, and that was Bridge Boatyard in Ely. We learnt pretty early on in our boating career that it’s always worth hiring a bigger rather than smaller boat, particularly for a week or more, and whilst the boats at Bridge’s aren’t the newest they’re pretty cheap, so we actually hired Sunquest, a 4/6 berth, for the two of us. Coincidentally, it turned out, the boat had also originally been built in Ely, it was an Elysian 34, that’s Ely sian and 34 feet(ish) long, with a BMC diesel engine of 1.5 litres (36 hp). Now 34 feet may be a small narrowboat but at 10 ft 6in in the beam a cruiser of that size is actually really roomy, and it had two bathrooms, which is always a good idea when cruising with members of the fairer sex, obviously. In fact the boat would have been fine for four, though I’m not sure about for 6 ! On the subject of which, we had an interesting chat with the boatyard owner and he said that in the 70s and even the 80s, people would actually hire a 27ft boat for 4, or a 35ft boat for 6, but now it’d be for 2 or 4 respectively. In fact me and the wife hiring a 4/6 berth for only 2 wasn’t that uncommon now, people expect more these days...

The original plan had been to cruise down to Cambridge then back up and out as far as we could get towards Bedford, but the boatyard reckoned that a bad idea as that weekend was a bank holiday. They advised ending with Cambridge as it’d be less busy later in the week, good advice we thought, and we followed it. So, having stocked up with provisions at the Tescos just across from the boatyard, we set off southwards down the Great Ouse. And how lovely it was, sunny and quiet, but there was something else, we hadn’t really expected that much in the way of wildlife but we were pleasantly surprised at the number and variety of birds we saw every day throughout our trip. There were a few things to get used to on the boat though, it had a steering wheel, not a tiller, so how do you know where “dead ahead” is ? We solved that by putting a piece of tape round the wheel corresponding to dead ahead, that was very helpful. Another problem was I’m 6ft so kept bashing my head on the door lintels and the internal handle for pulling the sliding wheelhouse back and forward. We only solved that half way through the trip (by which time my cranium was cut here there and everywhere) by taping cardboard onto the lintels, I still hit them (when walking through and not concentrating), it just didn’t hurt as much !

Around three miles south of Ely is Pope’s Corner where the River Cam branches off to the left on its way to Cambridge, we stayed on the Ouse (which, on this section, is also known as The Old West River) continuing for another 7 miles or so and moored up just past Twenty Pence Bridge. Looking for a mooring reminded me of one big advantage that canals have over rivers, on the former, as far as I’m aware, you can moor anywhere (on the towpath side), but on the latter most of the banks seemed to be private property. We were advised we could moor on any GOBA (Great Ouse Boat Association) moorings which we usually took advantage of, but we also went “wild mooring” if the site was remote enough that there was no chance of crossed words with anyone ! On this first evening we did the latter and to me it was what boating is all about. Where we moored there were no other boats or even houses, it was peace, perfect peace. From memory I don’t  think any boats passed us from when we moored up till the following morning.

One of the big advantages of the Elysian type cruiser is the sliding centre wheelhouse because it means you can eat your meals al fresco, assuming it isn’t raining, which it wasn’t on this night. And how wonderful it was, me and the wife, seemingly miles from anywhere, having our meal outdoors watching the setting sun, but, crucially, in comfort ! Half way through the meal a herd of friendly Friesians came up to us to see what was going on, joined a little later a pair of sociable swans, it just added to the interest, wonderful.

On the Sunday we were in relaxed mode so didn’t leave the mooring till late morning but it was a lovely sunny day as we cruised along the sinuous Old West River towards Hermitage lock. From here, where the Old Bedford River and New Bedford River flow out to the north, the river officially resumes the title Great Ouse. More significantly the 2 mile stretch between Hermitage lock and Brownshill Staunch lock is tidal with a typical rise and fall in the summer season of about a foot, though spring tides can reach 2 or even 3 feet.

Brownshill Staunch lock was were we encountered our first queue of boats, sods law being the norm in life this was right over the time we’d planned to stop for lunch.

We decided to stop off for some water at the pretty town of St Ives and the water point we chose to use was The Waits Quay round the back side of Holt Island. And lovely it was at the quay, a manicured lawn surrounded by flower beds. Having filled the water tank we had two choices, turn back which would require tying off the bows and spinning round, or, as the map indicated, keep going round the back of the island and rejoin the Great Ouse there. Since there was a fair number of other boats around I decided to follow the first rule of boating, don’t attempt anything difficult or flash when there’s an audience about, it invariably ends in tears, or, at the very least, significant embarrassment. Any boater will tell you perfect boat control only ever occurs when there’s no audience to appreciate it..... So we set off with a friendly wave to the moored boats as we cruised past, their response was friendly but somehow rather quizzical at the same time. We slowly motored on round the bend only vaguely noticing that the trees on the banks seemed to require pruning as a few low branches just missed us. We still had faith in our map and the optimism of ignorance, but the stream, for a river would be an altogether too grand a title, became narrower, and narrower, and narrower. It was about then that we realised that when it came to getting back on the Great Ouse by cruising down this way, it just wasn’t happening. The trees had long since ceased being a pleasant accompaniment on the side of the waterway, it even seemed some while since they had become a sylvan tunnel, and that tunnel was becoming small enough to require redefining as “a hole”, but as it happened this was all irrelevant because there straight in front of us, was a footbridge. Not just any kind of footbridge you understand, no, it was a low footbridge, certainly low enough to mean a change of course (to the tune of 180 degrees) was definitely required, one way or the other. We knew we were in the unmentionable because there wasn’t room to turn the boat and reversing it up that curved narrow stream was not something I really wanted to think about and certainly not when there were load of boaters watching…..

Now mirages are generally water related, albeit in deserts, but I’m prepared to declare that we saw one whilst already surrounded by water. There it was, as if in answer to a prayer that we’d not got round to offering up, yet, the stream opened up on the right hand side. I think it may originally have been a slipway, hinting at shallowness, but it was the only game in town, and anyway, we’d never yet grounded a boat without being able to get afloat again. So I nosed onto the shallow bank put the rudder hard over, put a few revs on, and adopted the pose of a skilled helmsman as the stern reassuringly swung over. The thing is all the boats we’d hired up to that point had been canal boats with flat bottoms not pointy keels, and every time I’d done this before it was on a muddy bank. This may or may not be relevant, but upon pulling the lever back for astern, there was a rise in revs, but precious little movement. I put a few more revs on, still no movement, not in the slightest, gradually I increased the power till it was full astern, but still, in the way of rearwards travel, nothing. I’m pretty sure the boat’s control linkage wasn’t actually giving me full power from the engine but on the other hand more power astern may well have just grounded the bows even harder, we’ll never know the answer to that little conundrum. What we do know is that the boaters infallible rule had come to pass, we were looking like idiots, so a crowd had gathered, a small crowd I grant you, but a crowd none the less.

A change of tactics was called for so I tried pushing us off with the pole, obviously that wasn’t ever going to work, and it didn’t. This was possibly because my weight was then right at the front of the boat which was grounded, at the front..... So, I thought, I want as much weight at the back and as far back in fact, as possible. I climbed over onto the footbridge, which had just been our nemesis, looped a rope round its handrail, and jumped back on the boat, the back of the boat it must be stressed. The wife, who was piloting during these attempts, put the boat in full astern and I then pulled on that rope like my life depended on it. Actually I didn’t pull on the rope like my life depended on it, it was obviously far more important than that. Nobody likes looking like a halfwit and I had visions of the crowd getting bigger and bigger before we would eventually have to give up and call the boat yard, resulting in still greater embarrassment. Then it happened. I detected a slight, ever so slight, "adjustment in our position", for I wouldn’t go so far as to call it movement. Not yet anyway. But we live in hope and hope will always triumph over evil, or at least being grounded. Then, all of a sudden, we were free ! Floating ! Forget cruising down the waterway into the sunset, at that point just being afloat was better than anything I could have dreamed of. And I’ll tell you something else, just to add to my sense of euphoria, the crowd, a small crowd as I mentioned, but a crowd none the less, broke into spontaneous applause. Well, boating life doesn’t get much better than this, and as we slowly cruised back up past the line of boats, our craft wearing its broken off tree branches like a garland of flowers, it was worth it to see the look on all our fellow boaters faces, “they went up there, in a 35ft boat, facing one way, and came out facing the other way, how did they do that”……