Page published: 29 January 2021
On this page we have the main story from the magazine article referred to on the original Blog Post, together with some of the additional photos, to which I have added captions, that I sent to the publisher that could have been used to illustrate the published article.
The article appeared on pages 64-65 in the Jan-Feb 2007 edition of Anglia Afloat.
Ely's waterfront has been much improved over the last 10 years and if you visit the city you should be sure to walk the length between the "High Bridge", where the road to Newmarket leaves the city, down to the pocket park just before the appropriately named Muckhill Rail bridge. However, a far more pleasant way to see the sights is aboard the Liberty Belle, the 12 seat trip boat that plies its trade from its mooring on Ship Lane, halfway between the old Warehouse, now the home of "Waterside Antiques", and the Maltings, which houses a popular restaurant and community centre.
Taken from the stern deck of Liberty Belle on 30 July 2004. When visiting Ely, if I caught Steve's eye, I would usually be offered a ride so Steve and I would catch up on how life was going.
Steve King has been running the service every summer since 1999 when he moved to the area from London. "I'd bought the boat in the new year and fitted it out in a corner of Lovey's Marine. On June 1, the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, I brought her across to her working mooring at two thirty. By quarter to three I had the signs out on the quay and at three o' clock, the first trip was under way, with nine passengers aboard. The next three trips were full. It was a great start and remains as popular today."
Trips last 30 minutes and Steve has things timed to perfection, with five minutes allowed to load and unload passengers. As the steps are quite steep each passenger is assisted aboard. If you look carefully you'll see that as he welcomes passengers Steve always stands with one foot on the bank and one on the boat. What you may not notice is that he gently swings his weight from the boat to the quay as passengers take their first step onto the boat. Years of experience have taught him that some passengers can be surprised by the boat's movement and this "trick" reduces the risk of the unwary hitting their heads on the cabin roof and any fear that some passengers have when they no longer have firm ground beneath them.
With the fares taken, its just a matter of pushing off the bows and unhooking the single line that holds the boat. For speed of turn-round the line is not normally tied, but is kept tight by leaving the engine in gear at tick-over. Meanwhile, Wixoe, Steve's black Labrador, has been guarding the stern deck and steps aside as his master comes aboard. The loops of cord, which have been holding the tiller straight while the boat was loading, are released and the boat starts downstream.
Merry Lady, seen here on 12 November 2005, belonged to Sid Merry, and he is mentioned in Steve's trip boat commentary as the last of the Ely eel catchers.
I once remember making a post about this boat, suggesting it was of GRP construction, only to be told by someone clearly familiar with it that it was, in fact, steel. Looking again at the hull and cabin panels they certainly lack the curves that most GRP hulls have. Incidentally, even though it has wonderful curving lines, Liberty Belle is all steel as well, hull and superstructure!
Steve picks up a microphone and, once more, welcomes passengers aboard the Liberty Belle for their cruise along the Great Ouse. Within a minute the boat is passing under the Lincoln Bridge and Steve is explaining how Ely got its name and pointing out the boat that belongs to Sid Merry, the city's last eel catcher who at nearly 80 was still working the river, and how the only access to the bungalow beyond is via boat.
Once under the Muckhill Rail bridge, you get your first view of Ely's impressive cathedral that, in November last year, broke with centuries of tradition by starting a girls choir to rival that of the boys and men. In the opposite direction the seemingly unending flatness of the landscape, with higher ground only visible on the horizon on the clearest of days, provides some understanding for the cathedral's nickname of the "Ship of the Fens".
Before you turn to make your way up river, Steve's commentary explains the features of the river beyond - Denver Sluice, the connections, via the Middle Level to the rest of the waterway system, Kings Lynn, the Wash and the North Sea.
On the way back up river, as you pass the park, your attention is drawn to the different types of boat you'll see, especially the increasing number of narrowboats. This year you can expect even more than usual on the Great Ouse as the Inland Waterways Association is holding its national rally at St Ives. Many narrowboats will be leaving the the main canal system at Northampton, making their way through Peterborough, the Middle Level and Ely to reach the rally. Ely was the host in 1973 and the clostest its been since then was 1993 when Peterborough had the honour.
Once back under the Lincoln Bridge you pass your starting point and then the Maltings, built in 1868 to supply the local brewers, and restored by the local council after a fire. Opposite is Lovey's Marina, recently sold for a sum believed to be in excess of the £2.5 million pounds asking price, and home to some 200 craft. After the Maltings comes another small area of park, visited, while it was under construction, by the TV programme "Time Team". With so much of interest on the site, they turned their visit into a two hour special.
The new houses, at Jubilee Quay, which you pass next, were built in 2001 and at the time, were the most expensive housing development in the city. Then comes what is perhaps Ely's most photographed waterfront feature, The Cutter Inn. In spite of the picture on its sign, it is not named after a type of boat, but after the men who made the new cut, or channel, for the Great Ouse between Adelaide and Littleport as part of nineteenth century flood protection works.
The Liberty Belle proceeds up river until it passes under the "High Bridge", where once again it turns. Ahead, beyond Huntingdon and St Neots is the head of navigation at Bedford, some 50 miles and 16 locks away or, taking the tributary the Cam, just 16 miles and three locks away, is Cambridge - some four hours away by boat, Steve points out.
Liberty Belle, seen here on 25 March 2005 on the last leg of a trip, having just returned under the high Bridge.
This time I wasn't able to take a ride with Steve as I was with some Norwegian relations showing them the joys of the Fenland landscape, rather a contrast to the scenery they were used to!
Back near the mooring experienced boaters will be wondering about the wisdom of approaching with the current. However, there is not much of that during the summer months in the non-tidal section of the Ouse above Denver sluice and that is not the worry. What is of greater concern for Steve is getting the stern into the bank before the bows. "I need to leave my steering position and get the boat secure, before any of the more enthusiastic passengers attempt to leap ashore." he explains. "I had Liberty Belle fitted with a propeller that is pitched the opposite way to that which is conventional. With this screw, when I put her into reverse to slow down, the stern moves to port and so into the bank rather than push her away as a conventional screw would do."
Steve explains that it's an effect caused by suddenly reversing the direction of spin of the propeller. The blades moving nearer the hull struggle to pull water towards them effectively. As they turn away from the hull and into deeper water they act more efficiently, but at the point when the boat stops and starts to reverse through the water the propeller acts more like a paddle wheel and pulls the boat sideways.
All that remains is for Steve to help his passengers ashore and greet those waiting. "For 2007 I've decided to take Fridays off", says Steve. "It's becoming too exhausting working seven days a week through the whole of the season, but it is good to feel you're encouraging an interest in boats and in the town."