Page updated: 2 February 2021

Once a short page with just one photograph, I am now expanding it more than 20 years after the event. It means I am largely relying on Posts on the Internet made at the time and the photographs that Robert Laws sent me to prod my memory. I still have the envelope the photographs arrived in with its post mark dated 20 December 1998. In recent years I had assumed that I would have taken photographs myself, but I can't find any in my collection and those Robert sent suggest that, perhaps, I did not have a camera with me.

Go to Top Background to the Day

Tony Hinsley, a Town Councillor at Soham, had begun a campaign to make Soham Lode navigable again. Generally believed to have been constructed in the 1790s, one author claims it was dug in the 1630s by Cornelius Vermuyden. He was the Dutchman employed by the 4th Earl of Bedford and the "Adventurers" to drain the fens. Lighters were known to have been used on the load to bring corn to Soham Mill, and later coal when steam power replaced the water wheel, but it fell into disuse as a navigation around 1900. As a canal enthusiast and boater, Tony saw the potential economic benefit to Soham through the increase in tourism that reopening the lode to navigation could bring.

Go to Top Planning the Day

Sunday 25 October 1998 had been set for a campaigning cruise up the lode and by the third of the month Tony Hinsley posted that:

...a time of 10:30am at the Lode entrance had been set. The late hour being for the benefit of the media as they can't get up early. VIPs attending include the chairman of Soham Town Council, Margaret Ennion, in her regalia, well her badge of office. She is only coming for the boat ride! The local MP, James Paice, will also try to come.

And five days later it was recorded that the following craft would be taking part:

On 12 October I posted:

Hi Gang,

I've just been sanctioned to skip the housework for the day! :-)

Anyone looking for an additional crew member for the trip up the Lode on 25 October?

I'm willing to brew the tea, fend off obstructions, rock craft stuck on silt, stoke the boiler, row, quant, or whatever seems appropriate!

Boatless - but working on it!

Initially when writing this, such was the Chapman household routine at the time, that my reference skipping housework led me to assume that the cruise was to be on a Saturday, but I have since realised that 25 October was a Sunday. Perhaps Tony should have been more sympathetic about the media!

At one stage it was planned for all boats to assemble at the Environment Agency's moorings at Little Thetford, to collect passengers but it turned out they would be closed for repair over that weekend so the plans were changed and any boats planning on making the trip were to be at Ely at 09:30. However, it didn't work out quite like that.

Go to Top Boats and Passengers Begin to Assemble

Robert Laws set out from his home mooring, in Cambridge, on the Saturday and posted the first of his "Live" reports and updates to news:uk.rec.waterays and other places. "Live" was, of course, almost revolutionary in those days. Bear in mind this all took place via a 2G mobile phone in the days before smart phones. Even those with land lines often had no more than a 14.4kbps connection, not the multi-megabyte speeds available to some today.

This mail is from 'St.Kilda' en-route to Soham Lode for tomorrow's excursion up the lode from the Great Ouse with three other narrowboats and a steam launch.

We left Cambridge at 12:00 and passed through Bait's Bite lock. We are now at Bottisham lock (about half way to Soham Lode) but I don't know how much further we will get today because the wind is terrific. They forecast 60 mph winds and it's beginning to look as if they might be right!

More updates in due course.

Robert and Jean on "St.Kilda"

Later he posted:

We have now reached the entrance to Soham Lode, at least the nb St Kilda has. We passed Gipsy Rose at Horningsea with no sign of George and Jean and we passed Mark in 'Jabberwocky' just as we reached the Lode. He is continuing on to Ely; we have tied up here at the Lode.

The wind and rain are astounding. The waves on the Ouse have white tops to them and the whole boat is rocking like a cork. Rain is creeping in everywhere.

Entrance to Soham Lode

© Andrea (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The pumping station at the entrance to Soham Lode, seen here on 23 June 2016, complete with heron amongst the reeds. By that time there was considerably more metal work and fencing around the pumping station.

At the entrance to the lode on the Sunday morning, Robert reported:

The steam launch Lady Sara has arrived with an enthusiastic "toot toot". He's gone on to the nearby E.A. moorings to check for passengers. The gates to the lode are shot but Tony Hinsley swears this will not be a problem. Tony says "Hi, we've started. We have three narrowboats, the steam launch and (it is claimed) an electric launch owned by the editor of Canal Boat.


Note: we are not receiving the newsgoup, only sending. Too much traffic :-(

Technical Aside:

Robert's note, at the end of the message above, may not make sense to some as few, these days, are familiar with "Newsgroups". Back then, Internet speeds didn't really allow for more than text to be transmitted. When large numbers of people wanted to exchange views and information on a subject, rather than send emails they would post to a Newsgroup.

One of these was "news:uk.rec.waterways" and it would accept "articles" on the recreational use of waterways in the UK. A user would subscribe to this newsgroup and in the same way they you might regularly check for email, you would use "newsreader" software to check for the latest articles and any responses. Initially, all that you would receive would be a list of subject lines (with the author and date) of new posts within that topic. You would then opt download the bodies of only those articles in which you had an interest.

What Robert's postscript was saying was that he'd only be posting while aboard St Kilda and not downloading any responses to his articles, so there would be no point in posting requests for further details about any of his posts as he would not be downloading any responses due to the bandwidth limitations to his Internet connection.

Meanwhile, at Ely, the dignitaries and others were assembling on the quay near the Maltings. I had arrived from Pymoor, a couple of miles beyond Little Downham, some five miles out of Ely. I recall it as being heavily overcast but without the strength of winds that had been forecast. There were various people clustered around nb Jabberwocky but I introduced myself to Mark Zytynski, who I knew from uk.rec.waterways, was its owner. It was arranged that I would travel with them to the lode entrance, where I told him I was to join Robert aboard St Kilda.

Go to Top Assault on the Lode Begins

Picture from the ELY STANDARD

For years this picture had the caption "nb Gypsy Rose tows nb St Kilda out of Soham Lode" now shown to be wrong.

I remember nothing of the the journey to the pumping station at the lode entrance. Nor do I remember seeing Lady Sara or whether Gipsy Rose was also waiting there or that we had to wait for her to arrive from her overnight mooring. All I know is that once there I transferred to St Kilda and, by the time we entered the lode and the first of Jean's photographs was taken, Gipsy Rose was certainly with us.

I had been aboard St Kilda a number of times at that point, most recently at the Ely "micro-GIG" held two months earlier, in August. The first occasion was probably in 1997. One lunch hour, in warm sunny conditions, I had walked from Shire Hall, where I then worked, down to the river in Cambridge after soliciting a meeting with Robert aboard his boat. I had been contemplating a liveaboard life. Robert was then one of the very few liveaboards on the river at Cambridge and I suspect that I discovered him, either through his web site or through the "Camboaters" YahooGroup that he had created.

When I started looking at the photographs that Robert sent me, it became clear that my memory had corrupted events. I had come to believe that the stern to stern arrangement for towing each other in and out of the lode had St Kilda towing Gipsy Rose into the lode. However, all the photographs show it is George's Gipsy Rose that was towing St Kilda into the lode and the one picture I had seen before them must have been taken as they approached Barway Bridge.

I am hoping that someone reading this will be able to identify those in the first photograph below showing St Kilda entering the lode backwards. I am sitting on St Kilda's roof, but who is the lady that appears in all the other photographs standing in the starboard hatch. I wonder if the lady with the boat hook holding open the lode gate is Tony's wife. I know that Tony and Barbara owned a narrowboat based on the main canal system and she appears to be actively helping manage the boats in all the photographs, often close to Tony. Currently, I'm guessing, from the kit bag one is carrying, that the pair on the right on the bridge are from the press and the bearded guy a local supporter of the campaign.

If you have memories of the day or can identify any of those in the photographs, please .

Entering the Lode

© Jean Gawlinski

Entering the dyke backwards! I'd love to know who those apart from me appear in the photograph.

The pumphouse from within the Lode

© Jean Gawlinski

Now clear of the lode entrance, I presume the boat seen here is the "electric dinghy" that Tony referred to in his posts to uk.rec.waterways.

Cover of A Boaters Guide to Boating

The definitive guide to handling a working narrowboat.

Once clear of the Pumping Station the lode narrows considerably, and runs in a straight line for some 600 yards. Towing a boat backwards is next to impossible! The wash from Gipsy Rose's propeller runs straight into St Kilda's rudder pushing the boat from side to side and pulling Gipsy Rose's aft end with it. Meanwhile St Kilda's bows have nothing to keep them pointing the right way so volunteers were found and lines taken ashore in an attempt to hold the boat as straight as possible. Travel along the lode was not speedy!

In one of his reports Robert says "We discussed at length what "that book" said about the length of towing ropes but found by experiment that short ropes worked best". I think that is a reference to Chris Deuchar's superb book on handling a working narrowboat. The chapter on "Working with a Butty" would have been the one we were discussing. It goes into immense detail on how to use long lines and cross straps and the benefits of each in different circumstances and conditions, such as having a light or heavy laden butty in tow. Chris was a regular poster on uk.rec.waterways and I remember buying my copy of his book from him one day when visiting Braunston. It's sixty six pages is a master work!

© Jean Gawlinski

No longer with a boat hook, but now with the paper seen in all the other photos is our female helper and one of the two guys seen on the bridge is now helping with a line to St Kilda.

© Jean Gawlinski

It's not clear what Tony's gesture means in this shot!.

Go to Top Things Begin To Go Wrong!

I believe that it was towards the end of the initial long straight that Gipsy Rose ran into trouble. The narrowboats I've part owned or hired have all had "skin tanks", in others words, their engine cooling systems were not unlike that of a car - sealed systems. The difference being that while on a car there is a relatively small radiator through which air passes to cool the water circulated round the engine, on a boat made of steel the radiator is replaced by a set of large tanks formed by giving part of the the hull around the engine a second skin. The cool water in the river passing constantly pass the hull provides all the cooling needed.

However, Gipsy Rose did not have skin tanks. It simply takes river water on board, pumps it round the engine and, once the water has done its job of cooling the engine, expels it back into the river. Such a system works very well in deep clean waterways, but it is prone to failure in muddy or weed filled dykes. Given that I could remember that incident it is strange that I had managed to reverse the position of the two boats in my memory.

Suffice it to say, the cause of the steam was quickly diagnosed and the inlet cleared. I don't remember the details, but I know it was a worrying few minutes for George.

Mechanically, Gypsy Rose was interesting in other ways. I had had the chance to see her transverse mounted diesel engine and hydraulic motor back in August. It's a system that became very common on Broads boats in the 1960s when a new class of hire boat was developed. Traditional Broads boats had aft or centre cockpits with the engine fitted under them and the engine driving the propeller via a long shaft. The "Caribbean" class changed all that! It had single level floor throughout the length of the boat and its steering position in the saloon at the front of the boat, the entire crew could stay together during the day as far from the noise of the engine as possible. When they retired to the sleeping cabins at night it didn't matter that they'd be near the engine as it would not be running then.

© Jean Gawlinski

We've reached the end of the first straight beyond the lode gates and make the tight turn before the bend round to Barway Bridge. nb Jabberwocky now appears in the background.

© Jean Gawlinski

Now Jabberwocky reaches the bend we were at in the previous photo. Ellie, Robert and Jeans young cocker puppy that I first saw in August has been allowed on St Kilda's roof.

Go to Top We Reach the First Bridge

Although not all the photographs don't appear to show it, the further through the day we got the more the clouds broke up and sun appeared. One of the things I'd love to check, by looking through the negatives, is the order in which the pictures were taken. Here, they are presented in order from Lode entrance to as far as we got. They do seem to hold together that way. There is one exception but we'll come to that at the end of this tale.

© Jean Gawlinski

For the first time we see a view forward as Gipsy Rose is about to tow us through Barway Bridge.

We make it through the bridge but almost immediately get stuck. It's at that point Robert posts another update...

Well, we made it under the first bridge. The narrowboats are now stuck on the mud with crew drinking cups of tea. Gipsy Rose and St Kilda made it a bit further than Jabberwocky (which is deeper drafted) and the fourth narrowboat got cold feet and didn't come very far at all. Gipsy Rose's engine overheated following a silted up cooling water intake but we don't think it's serious.

The VIPs (local MP, leader of council, waterways and local press etc) have departed. The steam launch made it a bit further but then found that it was too shallow even for them. The electric launch is starting from the mill pond at Soham coping the other way and we hope they'll meet us here.

The local anglers didn't stay to watch :-(

nb St Kilda
Aground in Soham Lode

It looks as if the next picture is taken before the anglers and press disappear and we take our tea, but it is quite possible we realise we're aground again and worrying about Gipsy Rose's water inlet.

© Jean Gawlinski

We're through Barway Bridge and this is the first time you can clearly make out that it is Tony Clarke with us on the roof of St Kilda.

I say that because after the event Gordon Chesterman, who describes himself as stoker of Steam Launch Lady Sara, reported things this way...

We got as far as Goose Fen Bridge which is about half a mile on from Barway.

Our big problem was that we were getting slower and slower and slower. We checked the depth with a paddle and found it to be deep enough and checked the prop for weed and that was OK. The water colour was a bit strange and we soon discovered we were not in water but in very thin MUD, the consistency of chocolate milkshake near the surface and thick bisto gravy about a foot down. This is BAD NEWS for a steam boat that requires to suck out of the river about two pints of CLEAN fresh water per minute for the boiler. It doesn't take long to build up a layer of mud in the boiler and pop, or rather, BANG, the boiler blows up.

We therefore turned round, had a pleasant glass of Whisky from a friendly native in Barway and scooted back into the Ouse. I am sorry we didn't hang around to help any of the narrow boats. We did try towing one earlier on and failed hopelessly and we were fully laden.

© Jean Gawlinski

The lightweight and shallow drafted steam launch "Lady Sara" was ahead of and passes us returning to the lode entrance.

As the last of the gongoozlers on the bridge appear to leave, Lady Sara passes us on the way back to the entrance of the lode. In spite of the obvious worries they must have had, Gordon appears quite relaxed as Lady Sara makes her way past us. Perhaps that was the after effects of the encounter with the friendly native?

I do recall that the advance party Jean photographed went ahead of us before we had concluded whether it was worth the risk of attempting to go further. Tony had suggested that there may not have been sufficient headroom for the narrowboats. Maybe Gordon told us that he was doubtful Lady Sara's chimney would have fitted under the next bridge had they not had to withdraw because of the Bisto! As it was, back on St Kilda and Gipsy Rose, the decision was not to try to go any further.

© Jean Gawlinski

Clearly Jean has managed to leave the boat and has gone 500yds ahead to the next bridge where a party is checking headroom. Could that be Tony Clarke under the bridge?

I do know I never went ashore and that St Kilda never got round the final bend to be able to see down the length of the next straight to Goose Fen Bridge. I also deduce from the consistent sunshine in the pictures and the fact these are the only two taken from the banks that these are Jean's shots taken on her return trip to the lode entrance and that she was giving Ellie a run.

© Jean Gawlinski

It seems that part of the reason for going ashore was to give Ellie a walk. This view appears to taken looking back towards the end of the straight before the lode makes its sharp turn before the gentle curve round to Barway Bridge.

I remember no more detail of the return from Barway Bridge than I do of the outward leg. I guess Gipsy Rose's engine was able to take a break. Robert reports that we had more grounding incidents as the water level was falling. While Robert earlier reported that Lady Blatherwick got "cold feet" and didn't make it into the lode, it seems that later he began to realise the particular difficulties she was having with the wind.

Once he was out of the lode Robert's final report says that Lady Blatherwick was blown onto the mud on her way back to Ely, was towed back to the lode entrance by a passing narrowboat, but didn't stay and, he assumed, got home successfully on her next attempt. Meanwhile, because the wind was still severe, they had decided to stay at the lode entrance alone for the night and made the return to Cambridge on the Monday.

Robert's final "round-off" post made on the Monday included these snippets...

Greg Chapman and Tony Clark (well known on u.r.w.) provided vital poling and, at one stage, roof walking support during the towing.

I can only assume that this last remark meant Tony and I played at using the old boatmen's method of propulsion in tunnels. We lay on our backs and "walked" along the underside of the bridge arch - but I don;t remember doing that! He continued...

Today proved bright and clear and we had an uneventful trip home (apart from a rowing four (Queens' college to be precise) that overtook us and then stopped directly in front of our bow to discuss some fine point of technique with their coach on the bank, they decided, as we approached to nip across to the other bank; there's no speed limit for rowing boats on the Cam, only for powered boats).

nb Gipsy Rose set off for Horningsea (where she moors) but found that Bottisham Lock's guillotine gate would not open. These things are electric/hydraulic and double as flood control structures so they sometimes behave with minds of their own. They waited until today and then went on to Cambridge to drop off a passenger who had missed her connection because of the delay. Her engine does not seem to have suffered from the overheating it developed in the lode.

nb Jabberwocky reversed out of the Lode and returned to Ely with most of the boatless part of the team.

My son and his friend spent the entire trip inside the boat playing board games :-(

Such is youth! No interest in the things a parent does!

Go to Top