GUIDE TO THE GREAT OUSE
(Bedford to Holywell)
NAME OF RIVER: River Great Ouse.
WHERE IS IT?: Bedford sailing club to Holywell, near St Ives.
PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS: We used the priory sailing club at Bedford, and the grass verge out side the Ferryboat Inn at Holywell. However as we passed through Huntingdon there appeared to be low banks and car parks close to the river, however the access agreements are unknown.
David Wilson (September 2005)...'Other put in points are at Great Barford, below Bedford (free roadside parking close by); St Neots (car park next to river, west bank just south of bridge), Godmanchester (small car park in center of village on west side of High St); Huntingdon and St Ives (riverside frontage in town; we stopped for a break but dont know parking arrangements) and Holywell. We split our exploration into three approximately 8-mile sections, then took taxi back to fetch the car to load up; Great Barford St Neots; St Neots Godmanchester; Godmanchester Holywell.'
APPROX LENGTH: 32 miles.
TIME NEEDED: 3 days (We were doing our Duke of Edinburgh's Award silver expedition!).
ACCESS HASSLES: A key is required for the gate at the sailing club, but at Holywell the situation seemed informal.
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: Most of the locks have these. When we visited the water levels where very low, so manoeuvering the canoes around locks was a challenge.
GRADING: Grade 1/ flat...suitable for D of E silver group.
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: The locks are very deep, and most have humongous weirs to match. We only found one weir that was safe to shoot, but this would also normally be too dangerous (the water was a good 40cm lower than the worn marks on the river banks when we passed through Great Barford Lock).
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The campsites we used were both caravan club sites, the first was very friendly and gave a significant reduction in price because we were a Duke of Edinburgh group. This was just before Eynesbury - the facilities where good, and the showers hot and free. The camp shop sells very basic supplies, and should not be relied upon.
The second nights campsite was Houghton Mill; this was over priced and gave no reduction, and charged per person, per tent and per canoe (bike price). The campers are all in caravans and some where a bit annoyed that backpackers in canoes had arrived to use their caravan site, we took no notice! Facilities here are good, the toilets are clean, the showers are warm and have very large cubicles, and are free, however a key must be obtained from reception; so if you are not camping there is no chance of jumping ashore to spend a penny. However there was a small riverside boat yard and coffee shop with a loo about 2 or 3 miles before the campsite (this also sells a good range of ice creams and has moorings for all sizes of boat).
Taking the boats out at the Ferry Boat Inn, Holywell was reasonably straightforward, although water levels were low, so would usually be very easy. The Ferryboat Inn was set back from the river, with a wide bank (about twice the length of a canoe in width), and a narrow road (we were there for about hour and only saw 2 cars use it). The Inn itself has a very large pub garden, sells hot and cold food, and is a good place to stop for a meal. It also claims that it is one of Englands oldest, and it has a very good reputation within the area. Or the bank is ideal to use as a put in or take out, since there is the wide bank and very easy access, parking etc is free on the grass too.
St Neots lock at the far end of the lock is a road bridge, so portage is impossible. After crossing the busy road there is a 50m walk way, which is only 1 m wide in places, then at the end of this is a reasonably steep slope with landing platform to put the canoes back in on. We passed through during the morning rush hour, drivers gave us incredibly funny looks as one of our party acted as a lollypop man and four more of us dragged a canoe across the road, it was not the wisest time to pass through and best to avoid 9:00 on a weekday morning if possible!
St Ives lock the town lock is longer than most than most, and the drop is about 3/ 4 m therefore putting the canoes backing is difficult, there is a staggered landing platform however to get to it there is a 20m long narrow path with weeds on both sides.
Both locks are possible to do with canoes, however I would not suggest attempting it on your own, a group of at least four would be suggested.
OTHER NOTES: Although the first campsite was the better of the two for canoeists, for prices and the banks here lower for the boats, the paddling for the first few miles after the sailing club, was highly polluted by rubbish and sewage. So best to avoid it and start further downstream.
Passing through Huntingdon town was very pleasant despite the wind being against us. About 2 miles worth of park land the left with car parks and paths etc, so perhaps could be used as a put in point. And farm land on the other side for much of it. Simply a beautiful and very pleasant area to pass through.
St Ives was also a pleasant area, until you reach the lock its a pig! The town bridge may be of interest. It still has its original toll gate/point, which can be seen from the river.
The following supplementary notes are from David Savage (BCU River Advisor / East Region RAO)...
PUT-INS/ TAKEOUTS: Probably better to put on at Gt Barford just below the weir, rather than at Priory. Avoids the grubby stretch in Bedford
ACCESS HASSLES: No problem as it is all a navigation, but you should either be BCU members or buy an Environment Agency Licence to be legal.
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: All the main river weirs have unpleasant features and should be portaged.
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: You can avoid several of the locks around Huntingdon by following the backwaters:
After Brampton lock, bear left around the pub and follow the backwater. After a small bridge, follow the right hand fork (left is Alconbury Brook) You get an excellent view of Hinchinbrooke House (now a school, but formerly one of Oliver Cromwells residences). This leads you into the woods and a low limbo girder bridge. At summer levels lie down and pass underneath the girder; at high water levels you may need to climb over the girder! After another right fork, youll hear the sound of rushing water and youll know that the weirs are ahead. The right hand weir may be shot by short kayaks (it has a concave face) but most people prefer (and open canoes must) go down the left hand weir. It is has a very gentle slope with a small drop at the bottom usually a scrape. I often get out onto the left hand wall, line the canoe down and then climb down the wall to get back into the canoe saves boat wear and tear!
Follow the meandering backwater through to where it re-joins the main river just above the A14 bridge in Huntingdon. Turn RIGHT, paddle past the marina on your left and turn down Cooks Backwater.
This is a very pleasant meander with more flow than the main river; the left fork will take you to Hartford church, but carry straight on to where the backwater joins the main river at the very large Harford Marina turn right downstream. (You will see a small side weir on the right about 100m before the end of the backwater; it is possible to drop over this and bushwhack you way through to Rhymers Pool, but the cut is very overgrown nowadays).
Just after Daylock, youll see a wide weir which drops into Rhymers Pool. If there is any water on it, then kayaks can shoot the middle of the weir which has a very gentle slope but a sharp edge at the bottom since recent work. Open canoes are best to line down the far left side of the weir and re-enter. Rhymers Pool is shallow and a very good place to practice your poling technique. Continue through onto a widening backwater which leads you down to Hemingford Abbots.
Turn left at the back of the Island, rejoin the main river, and paddle upstream for 200m to find the next backwater on your right, with a small footbridge across it. (The Houghton National Trust Campsite is just upstream from here, but they dont like teenage groups and DofE grops may be better to try to camp on Holt Island (with permission!)It is a Sea Scout base, just above St Ives.)
Slither down a very small slither! and wend your way down Trout Stream (although Ive never seen a trout there!) to where is joins the main river in the pool below Hemingford Lock. (Turn left)
Below St Ives quayside (on the left) youll see a small cut with moored boats. This is the Old River and originally bypassed notorious shallows in the town Centre. It can be used to bypass the St Ives lock. but BEWARE. IT IS NOT SUITABLE FOR OPEN CANOES.
The clearance under the very small bridge is only 15 inches in summer and less when it rains and is immediately followed by a small (6 inch) drop over the old lock cill. A pin on the bridge could be very serious at best you would look pretty stupid to the inevitable weekend fishermen who use the stream and at worst.. It is better to portage the lock unless you are very sure of what you are doing.
CONTRIBUTED BY: Karen Jenkins, Trevor's D of E group (Northants), also David Wilson and David Savage.