Forty Foot Drain

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Vermuden's Drain.

The Forty Foot Drain is a long drainage channel cut through the Great Fen from the edge of Huntingdonshire at the River Nene Old Course at Ramsey Forty Foot through the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire to Old Bedford River at Welches Dam. It is also known as Vermuden's Drain, after the famous Dutch engineer who created it as part of his scheme for draining the fenland.

The Forty Foot is one of the key elements in the draining the Middle Level of the Bedford Levels, in the Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire part of the Great Fen. Sir Cornelius Vermuyden designed the drain as part of his great drainage scheme of 1649-53, and it forms a broad, artificial river.

The name "Forty Foot" is given for the width of the original works – forty feet between the tops of the banks. There are two like-named drains in the Lincolnshire fens: the North Forty Foot and the South Forty Foot.


This waterways in the fens has borne several names, as fenland waters often do. In 1830, Samuel Wells, erstwhile Clerk to the Middle Level Commissioners and of the Bedford Level Corporation, wrote a History of the Bedford Level, referring to "Vermuyden's Eau or Forty Feet Drain", and also "Forty-foot Drain". Various Middle Level Acts since 1810 refer to the Forty Feet River or Vermuyden's Drain. Since 1824, the Ordnance Survey has mapped it as "Forty Foot or Vermudens Drain" (with or without an apostophe). "Eau" is a fenland word for a river (the Old English ea, 'corrected' by later scribes) but it is rarely for the Forty Foot – now and "river" and "drain" are frequently interchanged even in the same document.[1]


Vermuden's Drain was cut c1651 under the direction of Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a 9½-mile cut from the River Nene (old course) at Wells Bridge near Ramsey Forty Foot to Welches Dam Lock where it joins the Counter Drain (now the Old Bedford River).

Under an Act of Parliament in 1844, the Middle Level Commissioners were authorised to make a cut to join the Sixteen Foot Drain to the Forty Foot, then in 1848 to build a navigable pen sluice (Horseway Lock) in order to stop water flowing uncontrolled into the system from the Old Bedford River. At around the same time, the astonishing Middle Level Main Drain was cut from the northern end of the Sixteen Foot to the Great Ouse at St Germans, to drain the waters from the Forty Foot into the tidal river, relieving the Old Bedford.


The drain today runs 10½ miles. It begins at the River Nene Old Course at Wells Bridge by Ramsey Forty Foot, a hamlet named from the drain. It heads thence due east and soon into Cambridgeshire. The Forty Foot passes north of Chatteris and then east-southeast, to join the Old Bedford River or joins the Counter Wash Drain at Welches Dam, at Welches Dam Sluice.[2]

The waters of the Forty Foot Drain no longer discharge through Welches Dam Sluice as Vermuyden designed it but instead flow by way of the Sixteen Foot Drain to Three Holes and thence by way of the Middle Level Main Drain and the pumping station at Wiggenhall St Germans to the River Great Ouse and to the sea. The Sixteen Foot Drain connects to the Forty Foot drain above Horseway Lock.

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