Heritage & Culture

Escape to the river 

The sedate pace of a narrowboat forces even the most frenetic amongst us to unwind and take it easy. Fortunately for us, the River Nene’s rich history and pastoral good looks make it one of the best waterways in the country for a riverine escape. Hire boat company Nene Valley Boats invites you to step aboard and experience the perfect antidote to our increasingly busy lives 

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ So exclaimed Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. It’s a sentiment that’s as true today as it was when the book was penned a hundred years ago. As far as rivers go, you’ll struggle to find one as beguiling as the River Nene. From its source at Arbury Hill near Daventry to its mouth at The Wash, the Nene travels through some of the most varied and timeless scenery England has to offer. Walking alongside it is stunning enough, perhaps on the long-distance Nene Way. But get down onto it at water level and you are transported to an entirely different world – a place of intimate beauty that’s rich in wildlife and that moves at an altogether more relaxed pace.

Nene Valley Boats
Nene Valley Boats is the only place on the river where you can hire a narrowboat. Based at Oundle Marina, from there you can meander through the counties of Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire at your leisure, experiencing rare water and wetland birds, the flittering of dragon and damselflies and, if you’re very lucky, a glimpse of a real-life Ratty – the elusive water vole.

There are 38 locks in total, though as co-owner Dan McIntyre-Jones explains, most are now electrified: ‘It means you don’t have to wind them up and down by hand. Though there is the occasional old-fashioned one along the way – to keep people entertained!’ The locks help to punctuate the river journey, forcing the boater to slow down still further and drink in the views. Dan and his wife Carol have two narrowboats for hire. After an initial training session to make sure you are happy with the controls and the ways of the river, you are free to go as far along the river as you wish. A seven-night break might see you head downstream through Stanground Lock into the Middle Level River System. ‘From there you could journey out to Whittlesey then on towards March. There’s a lot to explore,’ says Dan. During a two-week break it’s perfectly plausible to lock through to the River Great Ouse and from there you could head down towards Bedford or onto the Cam to Cambridge.

‘The thing about a narrowboat holiday is that you’re in control. You don’t have to do any more cruising then you want to. Or you could be up at the crack of dawn and not stop till it gets dark. A couple of years ago we had a chap who took one of our boats for a week and managed to get up to Northampton. He then turned round, came back and went on through Peterborough as far as the Dog-in-the-Doublet Lock before turning round to come back again – it can be done!’ One of the few pubs on the river is located at Dog-in-a-Doublet, the final lock on the river before The Wash. The gastro pub of the same name is renowned for its quality British food served up in a cosy setting. Its curious name is alleged to honour a terrier kept by a previous landlord or lock keeper. The dog lost its fur and was made a leather jerkin, or doublet, to keep it warm. Weekend narrowboaters will need to aim for more modest distances. A typical two-day trip might take you as far as Dog-in-the-Doublet before turning back to Oundle Marina or, if heading upstream, Woodford or Irthlingborough

Must visit
The historical highlight arguably lies near Whittlesey where, just four years ago, eight remarkably preserved log boats, and the partial remains of a ninth, were unearthed in a brick quarry at Must Farm. Dating back three-and-a-half millennia, these Bronze Age boats hint at the importance of the area during this time, when its location brought it relative wealth and prosperity. It was a unique set of circumstances that led to the Must Farm boats’ discovery. The extraction of clay for the brickmaking ensures that remains far deeper in the soil profile than would normally be excavated can come to the surface. The boats represent one of country’s major archaeological finds of the past century and help us to piece together the lost Bronze Age landscape of the Fens.

The boats have now been moved to the archaeological site of Flag Fen, a five-minute walk from the river, and which itself was only discovered in 1982. Here you can also see a wooden causeway and platform, similarly preserved by the wetland and built as a place of worship around the same time the Must Farm boats would have glided through the watery landscape. If you think grand engineering projects are a modern phenomenon, consider the ambition of those Bronze Age folk, who drove more than 60,000 posts into the ground as support for the many hundreds of thousands of planks laid into position.

‘The sites at Flag Fen and Must Farm are part of a Bronze Age landscape which is the most significant in Northern Europe,’ adds Stuart. ‘The remarkably preserved archaeology gives us a window into a distant past when our ancestors were coping with, and indeed taming the newly flooded landscape that we today called the Fens. The finds, such as these incredibly preserved log boats, show that they adapted to their new surroundings. Rather than being primitive, they were able to construct the engineering marvel that was the Flag Fen causeway, bridging over half a mile in length with an artificial island the size of a football stadium halfway across. No wonder it has been sometimes referred to as ‘the Stonehenge of the Fens’.’

Timeless beauty
The Bronze Age landscape beyond this point would have been a marshy wilderness of untamed beauty. Though long-since drained, the modern river and its associated network of waterways convey that same sense of remoteness. Most settlement is built away from the river so as to avoid its inundation during times of flood. The result is that the river is a very quiet, isolated experience.

‘There are a few buildings at Wansford,’ explains Dan. ‘But for the vast majority of the time you could be anywhere.’ The sense of solitude is reinforced downstream of Peterborough as the pancake-flat landscape and wide, open skies of the Fens comes to dominate. The landscape and its accompanying sense of calm is what makes a narrowboat holiday on the River Nene so unique. ‘It’s amazing how quickly people can really relax into a holiday. People have had to pack and travel. They may have got stuck in traffic and then they’ve got me in their ear telling them all the things they need to know,’ says Dan. ‘Then we get out of the marina, they’re steering the boat and you can see the calm descend on them. As soon as they start doing a bit of cruising the realisation dawns that ‘gosh, I’m going to be doing this for four days now.’ Seeing that transformation from stressed to calm is one of the little pleasures of running a narrowboat company.

Getting around
There’s a lot to take in when you’re on the river. Thankfully directions, insiders’ tips on where to moor, dining recommendations and historical commentary are all provided in an app that Dan and Carol have written specifically for their customers. ‘History is one area we have a real interest in,’ explains Dan. ‘We researched it as thoroughly as possible and it’s all in the app. As they come to each lock they just click on the next chapter for everything they need to know about the river up to the next lock.’ Most of the pubs, restaurants and cafes are located in the villages and towns near to the river, but not on it. ‘We occasionally get comments from people saying ‘we didn’t find too many pubs along the river’. But you won’t because people were a bit more sensible than to build them right next to a river – they built them up the hill!’

The app means that minds are free to concentrate of wandering rather than worrying about where to pitch up for the next refreshment stop. Of course, that’s the beauty of a narrowboat holiday – the chance to let the mind wander while you wander. A trip on the Nene is the prescription needed for the modern ills of pressure and stress. It’s the antithesis of a hurried existence. Take yourself down onto the river and discover why there’s simply nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Steeped in history
The river’s sense of timelessness ties it closely to its history. Down on the river, far from the madding crowd, you can almost reach out and touch it. Generations of people have used the river and, as a link to the east coast of Britain, it would have been of strategic importance in bygone centuries. Nowhere is this more obvious than just four miles downstream of Oundle at Fotheringhay Castle. Sadly little remains of the once substantial motte and bailey castle – a mound, traces of the moat and a solitary section of masonry – but it was here that Richard III was born in 1452 and where Mary, Queen of Scots was executed in the castle’s great hall. With the often eerie silence interrupted only by the wind it isn’t hard to imagine the sense of loneliness that Mary must have felt as she knelt to pray the night before her beheading. Stuart Orme, from Peterborough Museum, comments on the castle: ‘It’s difficult to imagine today what Fotheringhay would once have been. It was one of the largest and grandest castles in England, nicknamed ‘The Fetterlock’ because the footprint of its keep was shaped like a padlock. It was home to the Dukes of York and was one of their power bases during the Wars of the Roses, including being the childhood home of Richard III, as well as the scene of the bloody demise of Mary of Scots in 1587.’

Continue downstream a little beyond Water Newton and you reach the location of the Roman town of Durobrivae. The fortified town lay at the centre of a major pottery industry, using local clay to produce Castorware. It was the Roman equivalent of The Potteries of Stoke on Trent. Castorware found its way throughout the Roman Empire, putting Durobrivae firmly on the map. Cruising through at this point the peace is temporarily disturbed by the thunder of traffic on the A1. In Roman times it would have been punctuated by the arrow-straight Roman superhighway that was Ermine Street, which like its modern counterpart linked London to the north. Stuart says of this site: ‘Durobrivae developed in the late first century AD after the Roman army had moved on from a fortress on the other side of the river, underneath what is now Thorpe Wood golf course. The town became really substantial and very wealthy from the trade down Ermine Street, the local pottery, ironworking and salt production from the river. Dominating the town across the river was an enormous villa complex under what is now Castor Church, this villa being the second biggest building in Roman Britain.’

Nene Valley Boats 01832 272585, www.nenevalleyboatholidays.com

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