Witham Navigable Drains
|Witham Navigable Drains|
|Cowbridge Aqueduct carries the Stonebridge Drain over the Cowbridge Drain|
|Original owner||Witham Fourth Drainage District|
|Date of act||1801|
|Date of first use||1780s|
|Maximum boat length||70 ft 0 in (21.34 m)|
|Maximum boat beam||10 ft 0 in (3.05 m)|
|Start point||Anton's Gowt, Boston|
|Status||Navigable in summer|
|Navigation authority||Witham Fourth District IDB|
The Witham Navigable Drains are located in Lincolnshire, England, and are part of a much larger drainage system managed by the Witham Fourth District Internal Drainage Board. In total there are over 438 miles (705 km) of drainage ditches, of which under 60 miles (97 km) are navigable. Navigation is normally only possible in the summer months, as the drains are maintained at a lower level in winter, and are subject to sudden changes in level as a result of their primary drainage function, which can leave boats stranded. Access to the drains is from the River Witham at Anton's Gowt Lock.
The area in which the drains lie is fenland, most of it at about sea level, and has been subject to flooding for centuries, both from the rivers and from the sea. While there is evidence for occupation of the region by Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans, the first references to flood defences occur in the 11th and 12th centuries, when monks built a sea bank to hold back tides from their agricultural land. A sluice was constructed in 1142 on the River Witham to improve it for navigation, and Commissions of Sewers were appointed in the 13th century. They were empowered to investigate any problems with the drainage of the region, could appoint contractors to carry out work to rectify such problems, and had to assess how this work would be financed. Floods in 1394 resulted in a decision to rebuild a floodgate at Waynflete, with the villages affected paying the construction costs.
Attempts to enlarge some of the drains in the East and West Fens are recorded by the Duchy of Lancaster in 1532. The first Maud Foster drain was cut at this time, from Cowbridge to the Haven, but in 1631 it was inadequate, as there was widespread flooding in both fens, which resulted in Sir Anthony Thomas being commissioned to enlarge the Maud Foster drain and build a new outfall where it discharged into The Haven. Not everyone was in favour, as Adventurers destroyed sluices in 1642, but the local people took their case against the Adventurers to the House of Commons and won, with the result that the Court of Sewers were again responsible for drainage matters. Maud Foster drain was widened again in 1734, when another new sluice was built. The Witham Fourth Drainage District Commissioners were created by Act of Parliament in 1762, but the East Fen and the area managed by the Court of Sewers were specifically excluded from their sphere of influence.
As the drains became wider and more extensive, there were proposals to use them for navigation, and a lock at Anton's Gowt was first suggested in 1779. Funds were not available at the time, and so land doors were built so that boats could access the drains until the lock was completed in 1813.
|Witham Navigable Drains|
In 1784, Mill Drain was enlarged, with the intention of using it to drain parts of the East Fen, but this action was stopped by Fenmen blocking the drain, as they lived by fishing, fowling and cutting reeds, and these activities were threatened by drainage. A series of reports were made during the following years, and with Sir Joseph Banks pushing for a solution, the civil engineer John Rennie produced a plan for the drainage of both fens. After some modification, the plan formed the basis for an Act of Parliament obtained in 1801, which detailed the engineering works to be carried out, and extended the Drainage District to include the East Fen. A second Act was obtained two years later, and the main Hobhole sluice was opened in 1806. Another sluice at the end of the Maud Foster drain was completed in 1807, and although Boston was flooded in 1810, the East and West Fens were declared to be in good order soon afterwards.
The construction of Hobhole sluice was the first time that a steam engine is known to have been used in connection with Fens drainage. In order to keep the foundations for the sluice free from water, they were pumped out by a Boulton & Watt steam engine, rated at 6 horsepower (4.5 kW). The machine lasted until at least 1814, just 3 years before the first permanent steam pumping station was built at Sutton St. Edmund in South Holland.
The 1860s saw the first attempts to drain the Fens by pumping, as suitable steam engines became available. Ground levels in the extensive area of peat land in the northern half of the East Fen had been steadily falling since the fen was first drained and The Witham Drainage (Fourth District) Act, which was obtained in 1867, authorised the construction of a steam-driven pumping station at Lade Bank, which was completed by September, to resolve this problem. Silting below the Hobhole sluice was remedied by the provisions of the Witham Outfall improvement Act, passed later in the same year. Lade Bank pumping station had two pump wells, each containing an Appold double-inlet pump, and each was driven by a pair of high-pressure condensing steam engines. A pair of engines was rated at 240 horsepower (180 kW) and could pump 350 tons per minute (514 Megalitres per day (Mld)). The cost of the installation was £17,000.
A Royal Commission in 1927 considered the part played by the various types of drainage bodies, and the Land Drainage Act 1930 sought to unify these, by creating Catchment Boards, responsible for the main rivers, and internal drainage boards, responsible for the drainage of low-lying areas such as the Fens. The Act also expanded the Fourth District to include the area formerly managed by the Skirbeck Court of Sewers, and the Witham Fourth District IDB became the responsible body for drainage from 1 April 1935. Thorpe Culvert pumping station was built and commissioned by 1938, and upgrading of the Lade Bank pumping station from steam engines to oil was completed in 1940. The new equipment consisted of three Ruston diesel engines connected to 50-inch (130 cm) Gwynnes pumps, installed in a new building. The old building was retained, although the steam engines which if housed were scrapped. Soon after the Second World War, plans for a pumping station at Hobhole sluice, to replace the gravity outfall, were approved, and the station was fully commissioned in 1957. The disastrous North Sea flood of 1953, which affected so much of the East Coast of England had little effect in the Fourth District.
In 1956, work started on a new outfall for the Hobhole drain, to the south-east of the old sluices. A pumping station containing three Allen diesel engines was built, each driving a 88-inch (220 cm) pump. The station could discharge 800 tons per minute (1175 Mld) when all three pumps were running. Once the station was complete, the old sluice was blocked off. Further improvements to the drainage of the area occurred in the next few years, with a pumping station being built at Wrangle Horseshoe in 1959, and the first electric pump being installed at Lade Bank pumping station in 1963. The electric motor drove a 36-inch (91 cm) pump. Two new pumping stations at Leverton and Benington were completed in 1976. The pumping station at Thorpe Culvert was managed by the Anglian Water Authority, but a replacement in 1983 was partly funded by the Fourth District. The Hobhole pumping station was modified in 1988, when the old sluice channel was reopened and the sluices were fitted with four 33-inch (84 cm) submersible electric pumps, manufactured by Flygt. The number of electric pumps at Lade Bank was increased to three in 1990. These schemes resulted in the Fourth District being awarded a Borough of Boston Civic Design Award for the way in which the buildings were renovated.
Historically, the drains were used for importing coal to the fens and exporting agricultural produce. They are now only used for pleasure cruising; this is restricted to the summer months, for between October and April, the water levels are maintained at a low level, so that there is scope to deal with high volumes of rainfall. Consequently, there is insufficient depth for navigation, and operation of the sluices can cause rapid changes in water level. Between April and October, their function is to provide irrigation water for agriculture, and so they are maintained at a higher level, although changes in level can still occur at short notice.
Anton's Gowt lock is 75 by 18 feet (23 by 5.5 m), but although a boat of this size could pass through it, most of the drains are inaccessible to such large craft. The only other working lock is at Cowbridge, which is 70 by 10 feet (21 by 3.0 m), and gives access to the Maud Foster drain, enabling boats to visit the centre of Boston. From Cowbridge Lock it is also possible to visit the Lincolnshire Wolds, using the Stonebridge Drain and the East Fen and West Fen Catchwater Drains.
There is still a right of navigation on Cowbridge Drain and Hobhole Drain, but they are isolated from the rest of the system by the derelict East Fen Lock. Restoration of this lock was proposed by the Lincolnshire Branch of the Inland Waterways Association in 1975, who sought to encourage use of the drains by offering a plaque to boats that used Cowbridge Lock, but no progress has been made with this, and the lock has been infilled. Hagnaby Lock, near the top of the West Fen Catchwater Drain has no gates, but it is usually possible to pass straight through, while the lock which bypassed Lade Bank pumping station on the Hobhole Drain is disused.
In addition to sudden changes in water levels, there are a number of very low bridges with an air draft of less than 6 feet (1.8 m), which can cause problems if the water levels rise a little, and there are often no turning places at the end of the drains. Cruising can be hazardous due to weed growth, which forms a dense blanket in some channels, but a drain that was formerly virtually un-navigable may suddenly be cleared to improve its drainage performance and become navigable again. One unexpected possibility of cruising the drains is to visit New York, a hamlet just to the north of Hough Bridge on the West Fen Drain.
(Links to map resources)
|OS Grid Ref||Notes|
|Antons Gowt Lock||TF300474|
|Maud Foster Sluice||TF335430|
|Hobhole Pumping Station||TF366399|
|Lade Bank Pumping Station||TF379544|
- Boyes, John; Russell, Ronald (1977). The Canals of Eastern England. David and Charles. ISBN 978-0-7153-7415-3.
- Cane, Ivan (October 2011). Witham Navigable Drains. The Easterling. East Anglian Waterways Association.
- Cumberlidge, Jane (2009). Inland Waterways of Great Britain (8th Ed.). Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-1-84623-010-3.
- Hinde, K. S. G. (2006). Fenland Pumping Engines. Landmark Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-84306-188-0.
- Nicholson (2006). Nicholson Guides (Vol 6): Nottingham, York and the North East. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-00-721114-2.
- Squires, Roger (2008). Britain's restored canals. Landmark Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84306-331-5.
- "Witham Fourth District IDB: History". Retrieved 28 June 2009.
- Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 259–260
- Hinde 2006, p. 13
- Hinde 2006, pp. 175–176
- Hinde 2006, pp. 176–177
- Cumberlidge 2009, pp. 335–337
- Nicholson 2006, pp. 76–78
- "Witham Navigable Drains". Inland Waterways Association. Retrieved 19 November 2010.
- Squires 2008, p. 84
- Squires 2008, p. 92
- Cane 2011, pp. 6–7
- Tuesday Night Club, 2005 Cruising Log