Waterways of the Humber

Waterways of the Humber

Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Busy River Idle

It's now a little-known waterway but in centuries past the River Idle played a crucial role in the industrial development of the north midlands.  But in the 18th century the construction of the Chesterfield Canal changed the character of the Idle, now its important task is drainage and flood prevention.

The Idle's outfall is into the tidal Trent, at West Stockwith in Nottinghamshire, just a few yards downstream of the Chesterfield Canal.


But a boat entering the Idle from the Trent is a rare event, seen only on special occasions organised by local boaters.

 The reason is a barrier across the Idle, just upstream of its outfall, which keeps the high-tide waters of the Trent out of the smaller river.  By special arrangement, and at a suitable state of the tide, the barrier can be lifted to allow boats to pass beneath.

Then, only a little further upstream, there is a pumping-station where, when necessary, drainage water from the Idle's extensive catchment area can be raised up if the Trent's waters remain high.

It's an ongoing task to balance the ever-changing water-levels of the Idle and the Trent.  However, the pumping-station does have a gate, on the left of the picture, which can be raised to allow boats to pass.  However, this can only be done if pumping is not taking place and the levels in the Idle are stable.  Navigation past both the barrier and the pumping-station is very expensive, the Environment Agency levying a high fee to provide the staff to make it possible.  So groups of local boaters visit the Idle, on rare occasions, to share the costs  -  events usually organised by the Retford & Worksop Boat Club, based on the Chesterfield Canal.

The chimneys of Misterton Soss mark the site of an earlier method of water control in this low-lying area.


There is no evidence now of the crucial role the Idle played for centuries, until the 1780s.  Bawtry was the furthest upstream where reasonable depths of water could carry sizable craft, so it became the port for the north midlands, a link to the national and international shipping on the River Trent.  The towns and mines of the north midlands had no other outlet for water-borne transport, easily the most effective method of moving heavy cargoes before good roads and railways  -  by the middle of the 18th century an average-sized boat trading on the Idle was 48ft long, with a 15ft beam, carrying 12 to 24 tons.  They had a mast and a square sail, and easily navigated upon the Trent.

So important was Bawtry that the initial proposals for building the Chesterfield Canal assumed its best route would be to the busy port on the Idle.  In the 1770s the change in the canal's route to incorporate Retford, and therefore bypass Bawtry, proved to be the historic port's death knell.  The Chesterfield Canal was a far more efficient transport route to the Trent, and it served Bawtry's catchment area.  The tidal and winding River Idle could not compete.

 However, local trade did continue.  In 1826 the landlord of the Haxey Gate pub (pictured left) was running a market-boat, an example of many instances of licensees running such craft from somewhat inaccessible locations.



Currently Haxey Gate, just downstream of the pub, has again a trading profile with the only commercial moorings on the River Idle.  (The owner has an agreement with the Environment Agency re the passage of his moorers' boats through the Stockwith barriers, but I'm not aware of the details). 

Subsequent drainage realignments of the river have straightened its course to Bawtry.  Apart from a sign on the road, which crosses the Idle here, there is no indication of the busy port described in 1758  -  commodious wharves, coal yards, warehouses, boat-builders, timber stacks, piles of iron and lead, flax and hemp.  

Instead a long viaduct, carrying the east-coast mainline railway, divides the town from the river. It's a scene which varies depending on the month of visit because this is one of the Idle's main flood-plains, part of the management system for these waters.  In the summer its obvious where the river is, within a vast area of flat lands. 

 But in other seasons all can be covered - as here in November 2012.

On the 2nd of May 1999 the boats on the organised visit to the Idle managed to pass under Bawtry's road bridge, stopping at the last point where turning could be guaranteed, at the confluence with the River Ryton.  

 Although two determined crews went further along a now-winding Idle towards Mattersey.  The cruise of 2009 couldn't get under the road bridge at Bawtry.


The largest town on the River Idle is now Retford, and in the past boats could struggle that far upstream, but it was never easy and many schemes for improving navigation came to nothing.  So, when plans for the Chesterfield Canal were heard, in the late 1760s, the town quickly advocated a route to bypass the River Idle.  Other than local trade, business on the river died out very quickly and Bawtry relied on its location on the Great North Road and the trade it bought.

When the Chesterfield Canal was conceived it was never planned that its narrowboats would venture out onto the wide waters of the tidal Trent, but they very quickly did so.  My theory is that they were manned by boatmen who had once traded on the Idle and had a good knowledge of the major river.  Masts were rigged on the narrowboats and square sails hoisted, just as they had on their own boats, and out they went onto the Trent  -  upstream to Gainsborough for the coastal trade, and Torksey for access to the Fossdyke  -  downstream and sometimes up the River Idle.

Sunday 26 August 2012

Trent Falls

Where the Trent and Yorkshire’s Ouse meet, to form the Humber, is one of the country’s major waterway junctions.  The water drained from one fifth of England’s total area flows through here.  Why is it called Trent Falls?  Don’t know.  As far as I know it isn’t called Ouse Falls, although the more pragmatic do call it Trent End, but not Ouse End (and not Humber Start).

So, sticking with Trent Falls, there’s only one place ashore from where the whole geography can be seen and that’s the small village of Alkborough.
During the last miles of the Trent’s approach to Trent Falls the river flows along the bottom of a steep ridge on its eastern bank.  High for this part of the country.  Alkborough is on top of that ridge, near where it falls way to allow the Humber to flow to the east, so it has a viewpoint over Trent Falls and the flat country extending for many miles beyond.

The pale-coloured land on the left, just below the line of the horizon, is between the Trent and the Ouse.  The white post where the rivers meet is Trent Falls, and the white boat has cruised up the Humber and is turning into the Trent.
(Click on any image for a larger view).

From the skipper’s viewpoint it would look like this, a picture kindly supplied by Rachael Jennings, taken from her motor-cruiser.   www.naughty-cal.blogspot.co.uk

In the foreground is Alkborough Flats, an agricultural area for thousands of years, but now used for another purpose.  For 500 years there was also a small port on the Flats, until the 1700s, because the rivers limit access to this area and it’s still quiet and undisturbed.  There was more activity in 1643 when the Royalists in the Civil War brought an artillery position onto the Flats to defend access to the Trent, but the guns were eventually overcome by the Parliamentarians.  Late in World War 2 the Flats were used as a bombing-range by the RAF, USAF and the Polish airforce.

Agriculture eventually ceased on the Flats.  In September 2006 a breach was made in the floodwall, which allows the tide to flow in and out of a third of the 1,000 acre site.  During extreme high tides water also flows over a lowered section of the wall into the whole of the Flats, to alleviate flooding in Hull, Gainsborough and York.  During construction of the breach unexploded bombs were found, from the 1940s bombing range.

Today Alkborough Flats is also a wetland haven for birds and other wildlife.  It’s accessible from Alkborough (from Whitton Road, turn down Prospect Lane).  There’s a car-park, hides, information panels and seats.

Places with a spectacular geography usually have an ancient history and Alkborough’s viewpoint is also the site of a turf maze, known as Julian’s Bower.  Its age and origin are a mystery but it’s thought to be medieval.
The Victorians prudently copied the ancient design of the maze into the floor of the porch of the village church.

When in Alkborough we always visit The Paddocks Tea Rooms, which is on a working farm, for the best of service and food, and copious leaflets about exploring the area. www.collegefarm.org  They also have a caravan site.

Finally, it’s possible to drive further round the end of the ridge for views across the Humber.

As a dedicated blog-writer I, of course, spent many days waiting for a white boat to arrive to complete this picture!


Monday 20 August 2012

Waterways by Train

We enjoy taking a train from Rotherham to Hull, and have done so a number of times during different seasons. It’s the easiest way to see a selection of Humber waterways, and to gather a broad impression of the geography of the region  -  a geography created by the waterways.

Although Hull is not really covered by this blog it’s a city with a lovely riverfront on the Humber, and boats and shipping to see (dependent on the tide of course), so we are always happy to visit it again.

This post describes a railway journey starting at Rotherham’s new snazzy waterside station, officially opened in July this year.

The railway shares the valley created by the River Don.  Sitting on the right-hand side there are always waterway glimpses, although less so in the summer when the thickly-wooded surroundings block sightings.

But before we leave Rotherham behind there’s a clear view of the large canal basin, usually with flocks of swans, where very large commercial craft turn at their head of navigation.  The Don is a typical river navigation, so between Rotherham and Doncaster boats are sometimes on the river and other times on canal lengths which bypass weirs and shallows.

Next in view are massive steelworks through the centre of which flows the Don.  I mention this as proof that steel is still made in Rotherham despite the many ill-informed impressions.

Having got that off my chest it’s back to the waterways.  Near Swinton station derelict locks on the Dearne & Dove Canal are now the boatyard of the Waddington Boat Company.  And on leaving Mexborough station the line crosses a navigationally by-passed section of the River Don.

The Don looks different when in flood with fresh water from the Yorkshire hills.

Before reaching Doncaster the line passes through a tunnel and a deep cutting.  This is the limestone ridge through which the Don has made one of the few passes  -  further south the Chesterfield Canal had to tunnel through it to reach the Trent.

We changed trains at Doncaster - again sitting on the right side has the best views.  The line crosses the navigation just after leaving the station, but it’s masked by buildings, fences, etc.  A little later the Don is crossed and a small weir can clearly be seen, which looks insignificant, but it’s what stops the tide from travelling further upstream on this river.

From now on the geography is totally different.  For many centuries the tidal River Don, freed from the limitations of a valley, and a steep cutting through a ridge, flowed where it wanted through flat low-lying land.  That all changed in the 17th century when it was confined by Dutch engineers into an artificial course, that’s why the lower reaches of the Don are now known as the Dutch River  -  its straightened lines obvious on the map as it approaches the River Ouse.

By doing so a vast acreage of land between the Dutch River and the Trent were drained and developed into a rich agricultural resource, which is pleasant to see out of the train window.  Sheep grazing on the flood-banks of the waterways, small-holdings with a mixture of animals, remote small roads, horses in paddocks, and fields of crops of many varieties.

If facing astern it’s possible to catch a glimpse of Long Sandall Lock on the Don Navigation, but it is only a glimpse and I’ve never managed to get a picture of it from a train window.

After Stainforth station the line passes under the M18 and, a little further on, crosses over the Stainforth & Keadby Canal at Thorne.  There’s always moored boats to see from the train in this busy little waterways town.
 Soon afterwards is Thorne North station, the approach to it adorned by a lovely park with lakes.  After passing through more drained arable land the train crosses the Dutch River  -  it’s banks indicating the state of the tide.


 Immediately afterwards it’s a bridge over the Aire & Calder Navigation, as it nears Goole docks.

On the approach to Goole station the superstructures of ships in the docks can sometimes be seen beyond the buildings.  It’s a sign that major waterways are near.

The first is the Ouse, the king of Yorkshire’s rivers.  The train clatters across a long bridge over the Ouse which swings open to allow ships up to Howdendyke wharf  -  so it’s unlikely you’ll see a ship from the train!

And this is the type of ship the bridge swings for, unloading at Howdendyke wharf.

More flat lands, this time drained via the Market Weighton Canal.  I keep missing photographs from the train, so here’s one I took earlier.

Brough is a Roman town, created to guard the northern end of their Humber crossing-point.  From here the rail line gets closer and closer to the Humber, eventually after Ferriby there’s spectacular clear views as the train runs along the north bank.  Facing backwards shows the wide upstream channel of the Humber, but facing forwards gives a lovely view of the Humber Bridge.

Eventually the Humber Bridge is so near it requires the train-track to run under its northern approach road.  After Hessle station the Humber can still be seen but it’s beyond a busy parallel road.

Hull’s Paragon railway station is a delight, with flowers and a small area as it was when trains were the major form of public transport.

It’s an enjoyable walk from the station’s main exit, across the main road, along Paragon Street, at its end turn right into Princes Dock Street which is considerably more pleasant than it sounds.  The Princes Quays shopping centre is set in a water landscape with fountains, there are outside cafes, and on the other side of the street are historic buildings still in use.  At the end of Princes Dock Street there is a crossing to the marina with, at its far end, a lock into the Humber.

Downstream, left facing the Humber, is the start of a very pleasant riverside area, including a pier from where the river-crossing ferries used to sail, a footbridge over the River Hull, The Deep (aquarium) and a waterside footpath along the Humber.

It’s a day out of which we never tire, and Doncaster-Hull is only an hour on the train.

Thursday 28 June 2012

Rotherham's Bridge Chapel

What are the oldest buildings on our inland waterways?  Bridge chapels have a good claim.  Only four remain on their bridges, and the only one entire and unaltered is at Rotherham  -  over the River Don, a few yards downstream of where it’s joined by the Rother.

Such chapels were once a common sight for travellers, thankful for a substantial bridge, rather than the ferries from which many lives were lost, or the fords that were impassable when river levels were high.

But a stone bridge was expensive to create and maintain.  Medieval non-military construction engineering was almost solely in the hands of the church.  The men who built the great cathedrals were probably responsible, chapel-bridges usually having spans the same shape as arching and vaults in religious buildings.

It was chantry-chapels that were built on the bridges, specially designated as sites where priests were paid to chant masses for local people.  The funds received were used to maintain the bridge, a system that survived until 1547 when masses, and chantry-chapels, were abolished in the religious traumas of that century.

That was when most of the bridge chapels were lost  -  Rotherham’s survived, but lost its fittings and windows.  After that it had centuries of various uses, an almshouse, a jail with a cell in the crypt, a house, then a tobacconist’s shop in the 1880s. 

The town’s inhabitants signed a petition for the restoration of the chapel and in 1924 it was re-consecrated by the Bishop of Sheffield.

Now attention switched to the bridge.  The challenge was to create a bridge for motorised traffic without harming the chapel or the medieval arches on which it stood  -  built in c1483 its roadway was only 15 feet wide, increased to 24ft 6ins in 1769.

The answer was the present Chantry Bridge opened in 1930, about 20ft upstream.  The old bridge was incorporated into it as a footway only, reduced to its four arches and original width.

And the River Don?  It’s no longer the navigable route, having been bypassed by a lock-cut, and the growth of the town meant its channel was progressively edged westwards.

As a result the chapel’s bridge-arches are now usually on dry land  -  but not always.

When water levels are very high the Don still flows under the bridge of the Chapel of Our Lady.

The four arches of the original bridge are shown here, with the current road bridge extending from it over the Don's main channel.

 Services in the Chapel of Our Lady  -  Holy Communion, 11.00, Tuesdays.

The other three chapels still on their bridges are at  -

St.Ives, Cambridgeshire  -  over the Great Ouse.
Wakefield  -  over the River Calder
Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire  -  near Bradford Lock on the Kennet & Avon Canal

Tuesday 26 June 2012

So Few Visitors?

I write this blog to spread awareness of a lesser known region of the waterways network.

It seems my efforts are needed  -  at Castleford flood-lock the car-park provided by British Waterways appears to be miniscule.

Only one visitor at a time?

And only one fisherman?

It's to be hoped that when the Canal & River Trust take over running our waterways adequate facilities will be installed!  Or an awareness of apostrophes.

On the other hand  -  when driving to the flood-lock the road-lanes for Castleford and Pontefract were painted Cas' and Pont'  -  just two little blobs of white paint, but a pleasure to behold.