The Cruise of the Dondevoy


I was woken up this morning by a cry of "Are you there then boy?", in a broad Norfolk dialect. It was half past seven, and the time had come to "lock through". As the tide was still going down, and was not quite level, there was a rise of about a foot to be negotiated, but this was no trouble. Then I had to wait for over half an hour at the Old Bedford Sluice for the tide to level off, which I spent in chatting to Mr Everett the lock keeper, who explained that I should have to lock through with "a rush of water" so he could have enough pressure to shut his gates again. When he finally began to open the doors, I could see that there was a drop of about six inches, and the water certainly was a "rush", but when both doors were fully open, the boat drifted calmly through as if she did it all the time. The gates closed with two enormous crashes, and I was on my way.

The Old Bedford River was the first of the great schemes for draining the fens, and is over two hundred years old. It goes straight to the horizon as far as the eye can see, and cruising is nothing if not monotonous, but compensated by the plant life, which is too varied to give a list, but which is typical of Fenland.

Arriving at Welney, about halfway along, I had my first meal of the day, which, as it was midday, I shall call lunch.

Then, a visit to the Three Tuns, where the landlord is very friendly, and his bottled Guinness first class; I can thoroughly recommend a stop here for anyone in a boat. The moorings are poor, but the welcome more than makes up for that. He made me sign a Visitor's Book, which he keeps especially for visitors with boats. The book's first names are the Chairman of the Inland Waterways Association, and two of the committee, a very fine testimonial!

After buying some fuel and provisions from two quaint little shops, I was under way again, and got within half a mile of Welches Dam, when I was stopped by a floating footbridge crossing from the village to some bird hides on the opposite bank, maintained by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and overlooking the Washes, the area between the New and Old Bedford rivers. Mr Thorby let me through, but before doing so, he took me across the river and up the bank to look at the bird sanctuary, which one could hear was full of birds of all sorts. The view was magnificent, Ely Cathedral was plainly visible to the East, and in the other direction, we could see as far as March and Sutton.

Welches Dam Lock

Welches Dam Lock seen from the West in 2013. Photo from ©Copyright Richard Humphrey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Welches Dam Lock

Welches Dam Lock seen from the East in 2007. Note the piling that makes this lock currently unnavigable, and the overgrown state of Vermuyden's Drain beyond. Photo from ©Copyright Colin Turner and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Welches Dam Sluice ought to be called Welches Damned Sluice; it took me over an hour to get through. There are no balance beams on the gates, which have to be hauled back with chains, and worst of all there is a wide bridge across the middle, which necessitated dropping the mooring line, and eventually I had to get help to retrieve the boat.

Horseways Lock

Horseways Lock seen from the West in 2010. The lock gates are in a bad state and the channel beyond is choked with reeds and is unnavigable. Photo from ©Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Horseways Lock came next, after a pleasant cruise along a narrow drain with high banks on either side. I had now abandoned any hope of getting to Ramsey before nightfall, which was just as well, as I could not fathom out how to work the lock; my lock handle fitted the shaft, but I could not turn it. After a while I abandoned the attempt, and moored for the night. Tomorrow I shall do as the navigation notes say, and go to the "nearest cottage" for the proper handle. The nearest cottage is about a mile away.

A good description of a navigation of Horseways Lock in 2001 (with pictures) is available at

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