A guide for visitors to the East

These pages are intended to welcome those who are visiting the Fenland waterways for the first time from the rest of the canal system, and to provide some practical tips and hints.

If you spot any errors, omissions or inaccuracies, or have suggestions for additional content, please email me. GOBA does not accept any liability for the accuracy or completeness of this information.

This guide covers:

  1. Boat equipment
  2. Preparing for the EA’s Anglian Waterways – licencing, keys etc.
  3. Tips for the River Nene …
  4. … for the Middle Level
  5. … for the Ely Ouse and the Bedford Ouse
  6. … and for the River Cam (above Bottisham Lock).
  7. Some general tips on etiquette.
  8. Alternative access routes
  9. Key telephone numbers

In addition, click on these links for further information about:


1.    BOAT EQUIPMENT – read this before you set off

  • An anchor and suitable chain & warp is useful, in case of engine failure.
  • Lifebuoy or heaving line, in case anyone does fall in
  • Especially if you are boating alone, please consider wearing a lifejacket. Some stretches (the Ely Ouse in particular) are very deep, and isolated.
  • Decent length mooring lines, plus some spare mooring pins. Spring lines can be useful as well.
  • A mud anchor can be useful on occasions, particularly if you want to stop in an out of the way place and don’t need to get ashore.
  • If you want to cruise at night, you will need proper navigation lights (not a tunnel light!). Night-time cruising is not allowed on the Middle Level.
  • You will need at least one Abloy key, to unlock EA water and Elsan points, and the control panels on the Nene and Ouse locks. You can order these over the phone from the EA, or buy them in person from Northampton Marina. They do not float.
  • See below for advice on guidebooks

2.     ENVIRONMENT AGENCY ANGLIAN WATERWAYS

This section covers information that is common to the four waterways administered by the EA:

  1. River Nene from Northampton to Peterborough
  2. Ely Ouse – Denver Sluice to Popes Corner, including tributaries – River Cam to Bottisham lock, the Lodes (64 foot maximum at Upware lock), Lark, Little Ouse, Wissey, and the Old West River to Hermitage Lock.
  3. Bedford Ouse – Hermitage Lock (Earith) to Bedford.
  4. New Bedford River from Denver to Earith (tidal)

The licencing situation changed in 2021, following new legislation that requires a licence to use the Middle Level. For boats visiting from the CRT canal system, you have broadly two options. EITHER:

  1. For holders of a CRT/EA gold licence, or an EA Anglian annual licence, you have the option of buying an Anglian Pass, which will then also allow you to use the waterways run by the Middle Level Commissioners (MLC), and the Cam Conservators’ waters (above Bottisham lock). Note that, until 31 December 2021, CRT/EA gold licence holders can access the Middle Level without any further payment: such boaters would only need an Anglian pass if they wanted to access the Cam Conservators’ waters.
  2. You can buy short term visitor licences from the MLC and (unless you already have a gold licence) from the EA.

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You should subscribe to the EA’s river advice for boaters (also known as strong stream alerts), in order to receive alerts if the rivers are in flood. There are three separate alerts, covering the Nene, the Bedford Ouse from Earith to St Ives, and from St Ives to Bedford. The Nene system has two states: “NOT IN FORCE” (ie open for navigation) and “STRONG STREAM”. The Bedford Ouse system has an additional intermediate level of “CAUTION”.   (The alert system does not cover the Ely Ouse part of the system).

If strong stream alerts are issued, then find a safe place to moor as soon as possible. Note that some locks may be “reversed”. This rather confusing term means that the lock is open at both ends (ie the mitre gates are padlocked open and the guillotine is up), with very strong currents and with limited headroom. KEEP AWAY!

3.   RIVER NENE


4.   MIDDLE LEVEL NAVIGABLE DRAINS

  • The Middle Level (not Middle Levels!) Navigation connects the Nene at Stanground (near Peterborough) to the Ely Ouse at Denver.
  • You should book your entry to the Middle Level at Stanground 24 hours in advance (telephone 07824 600470)
  • At Stanground, you should buy a Middle Level Yale key. This provides access to the unmanned locks at Ashline and Lode End, and to the facilities block in March.
  • You can also buy there the special windlass (confusingly called an Ouse key) you need to operate the slackers (paddles) at Ashline and Marmont Priory.
  • When you arrive at Stanground, you should be given a copy of the Middle Level leaflet, which contains lots of useful information including on low bridges. https://middlelevel.gov.uk/navigation/ : look for “Navigation Notes” to download a PDF copy. Deep draughted boats may need to lock through backwards
  • Imrays published a new edition of their guide to the Middle Level in 2020.
  • If you do deviate from the main transit route, make sure you have decent maps, as there are no signposts! Benwick, Ramsey, Chatteris, Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen are well worth a visit.
  • In addition to the limited official moorings, good wild moorings are available at a number of places, for example: on the north bank between March and Low Corner (near the junction with the Twenty Foot); in Beavills Leam, just south of Angle Corner; and at Holme and Woodwalton Fen.
  • Contact the lockkeeper at Salters Lode before you get there (see below).

5.  GREAT OUSE SYSTEM – ELY OUSE (and tributaries), BEDFORD OUSE, and the NEW BEDFORD RIVER

  • Guidebooks are published by Imrays (a new edition is being published “very shortly”) and Pearsons.
  • GOBA maintain a map of moorings and other facilities here: https://goba.org.uk/map/
  • The transit from Salters Lode to Denver is tidal, and can be tricky. Watch out for the mudbanks. Normally transits are possible only once a day – contact the lockkeeper at Salters Lode for advice or see this note from the lock keepers at Denver. Make sure you know whether you are going with the tide (flood tide from Salters Lode to Denver, ebb tide from Denver to Salters Lode) or against it (vice versa), as this will affect the maneuvers you need to make and will determine whether you can get into the lock at Salters Lode without hitting the tyres.
  • If your boat is over 60′ in length contact the Salters Lode lockkeeper well in advance. You will need to lock through when the tide makes a level.
  • Join GOBA to gain access to our excellent moorings, and a smart pennant if you like flags on your boat. https://goba.org.uk/
  • Stoppage information for the Great Ouse is available via the Northampton marina website (see comments above about alerts) https://www.northamptonmarina.co.uk/navigation-works-calendar
  • Moorings are organised by the EA, various town councils, and by GOBA.  These organised moorings are invariably 48 hours maximum, and some have rules about when you can return. Check the local signage.
  • Wild moorings are possible, at your own risk, at some locations. Use your common sense, keep away from houses, cattle and wildlife, and be ready to move if the landowner asks you.

6.  RIVER CAM

  • The “Anglian Pass” mentioned above also covers the River Cam (above Bottisham lock).
  • Visitor moorings are very limited in Cambridge – two on the left by the Fort St George pub, and four on the right just below Jesus Green lock. An alternative is to catch a train from Ely or Waterbeach.
  • Cam Conservators website has a diary – worth checking for details of rowing regattas etc. https://www.camconservancy.org/
  • The section above Baitsbite is heavily used by rowing eights, of varying skill and speed. Note the section where the rule of the road is reversed – take the left side on Grassy corner, just downstream of the Plough pub – and where downstream boats give way to upstream boats.
  • Also, as you get into the city itself, keep a sharp lookout for rowing boats arriving at or departing from the many boathouses (which are all on the right hand bank).
  • If you think a rowing boat has not seen you – especially one without a cox – then give them a shout – “AHEAD FOUR”,  “AHEAD SCULLER”, or “TAKE A LOOK” will do nicely – or a toot on your horn (if they are ahead of you).
  • You may need to share the river with sailing dinghies at Waterbeach. Good luck.
  • It is possible for powered boats to access the river in the middle of Cambridge – the Backs – between 1st October and 31st March. Read the guidance note on the Cam Conservators website and use the booking form.

7.   ETIQUETTE and LANGUAGE

A few suggestions, especially for visiting narrowboaters

  • Moorings are scarce, so please moor close to other boats, raft up if you can, and don’t worry if you can’t get both ends of the boat into the bank or onto the “official” mooring.
  • On the Nene, leave locks that have V doors at both ends as you wish. Leave guillotine locks empty, with the guillotine gate fully raised.
  • On the Middle level, follow local signage (especially at Ashline and Marmont Priory) about how to leave the lock
  • On the Great Ouse system, you can leave locks as you like. Always leave guillotine gates fully raised: you may not need all the headroom, but the next boat might.
  • Please follow the rules for use of FOTRN and GOBA moorings. Both organisations are run by volunteers, and rely on the goodwill of local landowners and boaters to operate effectively.

A brief dictionary

  • V-Doors:              Mitre lock gates
  • Slackers:              Paddles
  • Pen:                      Lock chamber
  • Staithe:               Jetty or wharf (in Norfolk)

8.  ALTERNATIVE ACCESS ROUTES

  • If you are coming from the Fossdyke / Witham, a tidal transit from Boston to Wisbech is possible. Further advice here.  https://scholargypsy.org.uk/washing/
  • An alternative route from Denver to Earith is via the New Bedford River. This is tidal (but not very), and rather straight. See this guidance note. Contact Hermitage or Denver lock keepers for advice on whether this journey is feasible, and advice on tide times.
  • Bedford to Milton Keynes waterway – see https://www.bmkwaterway.org/

9.    PHONE NUMBERS

River Nene inspector07920 087741Ian Cook
River Nene inspector07760 422263Andy Hall
River Nene inspector07714 064034Roy Smith
River Nene floodline0345 9881188Dial 1 and then quickdial 032112
Stanground Sluice (Tina – MLC)07824 600470Book transit at least 24 hours beforehand.
Marmont Priory Lock (Maureen)07824 821737Ring as you go under the railway bridge at March, or pass the church in Upwell. The lock is now often self operated.
Salters Lode Lock (Paul)01366 382292Good advice on crossing to Denver. Ring for advice on transit windows.
Denver Sluice complex01366 382013Normally goes to answerphone
Denver lock01366 382340Only manned when lock is in use
Hermitage Lock01487 841548Open 0900-1800 in the summer, occasionally longer hours. Closed for lunch 1300-1400.
Although the river at Earith is tidal, the range is miniscule and this stretch can be navigated at all stages of the tide.
Environment Agency0800 807060 03708 506506Control room
Customer service
River Ouse Inspector07768 171256Matt Yallop
River Ouse Inspector07889 111829Mervyn Day
River Ouse floodline0345 9881188Dial 1 and then quickdial 033212 (Earith to St Ives) or 033211 (St Ives to Bedford)

AND FINALLY, it is worth remembering that much of this system is first and foremost a land drainage system, originally built by the Dutch, with optional navigation if the weather behaves.  If you want to understand how the system works, these excellent videos by Paul Burrows from the Environment Agency (produced over Christmas and New Year 2020) are a good place to start:

First published by Simon Judge: 18th February 2021.
Major changes to Licencing section: 23rd February 2021.
Last updated: 30th April 2021.