Friday, 4 November 2011

Rowing on the Nene

For many people the River Nene is the river you cross at Sutton Bridge on the A17 - not at all suitable for rowing, but in the non tidal reaches above Peterborough it is ideal.
The river meanders through woods and meadows and there are stone built villages to explore. The water is clean and wildlife is abundant. When I spoke to locals about how surprised I was to find the Nene valley so delightful they said, "Yes, but don't tell anyone. It is one of England's secrets." There are locks at intervals and negotiating them provides a pleasant break from the pull.

We started our journey at Willy Watts Marine where we had an excellent picnic lunch in the shade of an oak tree overlooking the river. The marine is based in an old stone built water mill which still contains two derelict water wheels. The marine provides mooring for narrow boats and has a dry dock for repairs. The Nene joins the Grand Union canal so narrow boats have miles of accessible waterways to navigate.

We launched Jumping Jenny, which is a 14 foot rowing skiff, and loaded it with our camping equipment which included a tent, folding chairs, camp beds and a cooking stove. We waved farewell to my son who had driven us over from Norwich and set off for our first night at Thrapston.

The current helped us along and the lush greenery on the banks made welcome change from the drought we had been experiencing at home. Lucy saw her first kingfisher and we kept hearing them squeaking, but never saw them again, and eventually we realised it was the rowlocks. They squeak just like a kingfisher.

We camped just below the arched medieval bridge at Thrapston on the edge of a new housing development. The site was not inviting as it was covered in docks and teasels but with the boat pulled onto the bank and the tent up we found it was pleasant enough. There was a meadow and willow trees on the opposite bank and we were near a weir which we could just hear. We cooked venison sausages on a disposable barbecue and drank a bottle of wine. Our trip into the unknown seemed to be going well.

The next day we came through our third lock and if did not go as planned. The previous day a narrow boat owner could not resist telling two ladies exactly how to get through the locks. "You must hold the boat near the gate," he said, so not being used to locks we did as he said but it was nearly a disaster. The lock was exceptionally deep and the water flowing over the gate created foam which washed the boat across the lock and then was in a position to capsize it. it looked alarming but I managed to climb the slimy metal ladder and leap into the boat and paddle it out of the lock onto the lower reach where Lucy joined me and all was well.

Later that day we arrived at Wadenhoe which had the perfect campsite. It consisted of a wide grassy bank with a steep hill behind covered in open woodland. A narrow path led up to a Saxon church on top of the hill and Wadenhoe consisted of thatched stone cottages and a pub. After putting up the tent we had a swim and then went to the pub for our evening meal.

The next day we walked to Lyveden New Bield which is a National Trust property about two miles away across fields and through Rockingham Forest. The property was intended
as an Elizabethan banqueting hall but the owner went bankrupt before it was completed and it has remained a ruin ever since. The grounds were laid out as a pleasure garden with canals where the owners friends could travel by boat to high level walkways and four spiral mounds where guests could walk and enjoy the views. 400 years on we did just that and from the top of one of the mounds we watched a red kite gliding and then swooping onto its prey in a freshly cut hay field.

Wadenhoe has no shops and we were short of supplies so my ever resourceful crew begged for some vegetables from the pub's chef. In due course a potato, a carrot and an onion arrived on our table, and back at camp we made them into vegetable stew, it needed some herbs so I rowed off into the dusk and managed to find some water cress, so between us we produced an excellent meal.

The next day we packed up and set off for Oundle where we intended to find accommodation for the night. Unfortunately, I was chatting to a narrow boat owner at one of the locks and by mistakes forgot to remove my key for the electronically operated guillotine and did not realise until we had rowed onto the next lock. There was nobody about so we had to row several miles back and hope the key was still there, but it was not. All we could do was wait for another boat and go through with them. It was a hot Sunday lunch time and there were no boats on the move. By this time I was well grumpy. We had water to drink but nothing to eat and it was three o'clock in the afternoon. We were hoping to get to Oundle before the shops shut. At last a boat came and reluctantly they allowed us to come through the lock with them.

Shortly after this we arrived at Oundle Cruising Club where we were given a friendly welcome and our spirits were soon restored. We discovered later that they had heard we were on our way!

We were driven up to Oundle town where we bought food and found accommodation at the Ship Public House. Then it was back to the club bar for drinks and chat. As we cooked our supper on the river bank the Harbour Master joined us and said Purple Pete had warned him about us.
He had heard how as we approached one of the locks, where a lot of narrow boats were moored, a gust of wind blew my sun hat into the water. Lucy was rowing so I shouted at her to back paddle but the oar flew out of the rowlock by which time my hat was just sinking below the surface. Using my trusty boat hook, I reached out and just managed to hook it up. Wet but no matter. By this time heads were pooping up to see what all the fuss was about and Purple Pete offered us some Stella Artois and of course he was intrigued to know what we were doing. The next day he went down to Oundle Cruising Club and told them all about us. He even told them it was a denim sun hat which was true. News travels fast on the Nene.

The next morning my son came to collect us and Jumping Jenny and we all drove back to Norwich. We had had a mostly delightful few days and surprisingly - no blisters.