The Fens are the ancient marshes that used to cover most of East Anglia. They were drained for agriculture in the 17th century by a Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, and finished a century ago. Ironically, the drying led to subsidence and the basin is now, Dutch-like, below sea level. It harbors a system of natural rivers and artificial canals, the Middle Level, that stretch from Peterborough to Kings Lynn.
Visitors and retirees navigate the canals in narrow boats, steel craft about 7 feet wide and 50 feet long, powered by chuffing diesel engine and steered with a tiny rudder, standing at the tiller. The boats are spartan outside but with well fitted interiors similar to Dutch canal homes, bunks, galley, head, lined up along a central passage.
I’d always wanted to give it a try, and we found a 2-day midweek special at Fox Boats that was perfect. The rental ran from 9:30 am to 6 pm, enough time to meander at 4 mph (the top speed) through the villages of March and Outwell to the salt lock at the Great Ouse.
The boats are very easy to operate: the throttle goes full forward or back, the tiller works when there is pressure from the propeller. They pivot around their centers in a turn, so are easy to spin in a narrow channel. Watch a 5-minute video on operating the manual locks, stay right for oncoming traffic, duck heads for bridges and tunnels: ‘good to go.
The engines put out a lot of throaty noise and vibration, it keeps the circulation moving but doesn’t prevent conversation. The boats are dead stable so cooking is a breeze compared to a sailboat. There’s no cabin power, so the phone and tablet was blissfully off to conserve power. So, there’s not a lot to do once underway but talk, watch the birds, look for pubs to stop at, and wave to children along the banks.
‘given my recent history with boundaries and balance, what could be better? Hours of conversation and easy sunning along the waterways were just what I needed.
The lock is fun: a windlass handle fits into the gate and you wind to fill or drain the lock to the level of the boat. Push inside, transfer the water, open the opposite side. A 75-year old lock-keeper who’s been on-station for 30 years and keeps things moving.
We made the salt lock by 5 and had Pimms before dinner, then settled in with books and whisky for a restfully dark and quiet night.
More pictures, as always, at my Flickr site.