Great Ouse

From Wikishire
Jump to: navigation, search
The Great Ouse at Offord Darcy
The Great Ouse after Brownshill Staunch, near Over, Cambridgeshire

The Great Ouse is one of the major rivers of eastern England. It is 143 miles long, which makes it the fourth-longest river in the United Kingdom. It flows through 6 counties; it rises in Northamptonshire then takes itself through Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, before entering the sea at the Wash.

The river has been important for navigation, and for draining the low-lying region through which it flows.

The Great Ouse has a catchment area of 1,320 square miles and a mean flow of 2,590 gallons a second. Its length of 143 miles makes it the major navigable river in East Anglia, and the fourth-longest river in the United Kingdom.[1]

The river is navigable from the Wash to Kempston Mill, which is just beyond Bedford; a distance of 72 miles. This section includes 17 locks, which are maintained by the Environment Agency, who are the navigation authority[2] and who attempt to attract more boaters to the river.

The Ouse Washes are an internationally important area for wildlife. Sandwiched between the Old Bedford and New Bedford rivers, they consist of washland which is used as pasture during the summer but which floods in the winter, and are the largest area of such land in the United Kingdom. They act as breeding grounds for lapwings, redshanks and snipe in spring, and are home to varieties of ducks and swans during the winter months.[3]

Name of the river

The name Ouse is an ancient name, believed to come from an old Celtic or pre-Celtic root reconstructed as *Udso-s,[4] which probably means simply "water" or "slow flowing river". The same root has been traced in the word "otter".

"The Old West River" is a name boatmen use for the lower reaches of the Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire, and "the Ely Ouse" is also heard.

In common usage the river is often called simply "the Ouse"; the adjective "Great" serves to distinguish the Great Ouse from several others called the Ouse, amongst them the Little Ouse, a tributary entering the Great Ouse as it enters Norfolk.


From source to Bedford

The Great Ouse at Bedford

The river has several sources close to the village of Wappenham in Northamptonshire. Thence flows through Brackley and into Buckinghamshire, though Buckingham, Milton Keynes (at Stony Stratford and the northern edge of the town), Newport Pagnell and Olney, then passes into Bedfordshire

In Bedfordshire it reaches Kempston, which is the current head of navigation. The Ouse is already a broad and impressive river in Bedford, and prone to flooding the town in recent years, which has been blamed on housing developments' being built on the river's natural floodplain.

The river swallows the River Ivel at Tempsford, and then turns north, passing between Eaton Socon in Bedfordshire and St Neots in Huntingdonshire.


The Great Ouse at Little Paxton

The Great Ouse and its meadows lie broad at the edge of St Neots. It is said that in Huntingdonshire the Great Ouse enters its favourite county, and certainly the meadows by the river in Huntingdonshire are of utterly surpassing beauty. The Ouse flows gently through the heart of the county, beside three of its four towns; St Neots, Huntingdon and St Ives, and many pretty villages in between. Houghton Mill on the river is featured on many a picture-postcard, and there are several marinas on the river here.

William Cobbett wrote of the river at Huntingdon:

Above and below the bridge, under which the Ouse passes, are the most beautiful, and by far the most beautiful, meadows that I ever saw in my life. The meadows at Lewes, at Guildford, at Farnham, at Winchester, at Salisbury, at Exeter, at Gloucester, at Hereford, and even at Canterbury, are nothing, compared with those of Huntingdon in point of beauty[5]

From Holywell there is a short tidal section of the Ouse; it is an oddity of the river here that it becomes tidal and then ceases to be so after a mile and a half or so. The reason is found at Earith; the connection of the river here to the Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River, the two great drainage channels of the Great Fen. The two drains are tidal and take the excess waters of the Great Ouse in a straight line across the fen to the lower river at Denver, and they take the river's tide with them; below Earith is a sluice below which the Great Ouse is tidal no more.

The Old West River in Cambridgeshire

The Great Ouse at Ely

After Earith the river enters Cambridgeshire. It crosses the fenland, now drained for farmland, and swallows the River Cam in fens near Stretham and the combined waters flow north, deep in the Isle of Ely. The Ouse and the Cam in these parts are frequented with barges and pleasure boats, and there are marinas at the river junction and at Ely and elsewhere along the stream.

The river passes through the cathedral city of Ely; from its banks the hill on which the city is built rises sharply, topped by the magnificent Ely Cathedral, "the ship of the Fens"; all this land was once wet fenland and the hill an island. From Ely the Great Ouse flows north past the village of Queen Adelaide and on to Littleport, and later takes the waters of the Little Ouse, which mark the Norfolk boundary.


Soon after entering Norfolk, the Ouse reaches the Denver Sluice, where it is rejoined by the drainage water from the Old and New Bedford Rivers. Below this point the river is tidal. Soon the river passes Downham Market and flows through a series of pretty fenland farming villages to King's Lynn, where it is a working river, serving the fishmen of the town. Below King's Lynn, the Ouse enters The Wash.

Drainage and diversion

The Ouse in Flood near Over

Its course has been modified several times; the first is recorded in 1236, as a result of flooding. During the 1600s, the Old Bedford and New Bedford Rivers were built as part of the scheme for draining the Great Fen, to provide a quicker route for the water to reach the sea. In the 20th century, construction of the Cut-Off Channel and the Great Ouse Relief Channel have further altered water flows in the region, and helped to reduce flooding.

Improvements to assist navigation began in 1618, with the construction of sluices and locks. Bedford could be reached by river from 1689. A major feature was the sluice at Denver, which failed in 1713, but was rebuilt by 1750 after the problem of flooding returned. Kings Lynn, at the mouth of the river, developed as a port, with civil engineering input from many of the great engineers of the time. With the coming of the railways, the state of the river declined, so that is was unsuitable either for navigation or for drainage. The navigation was declared to be derelict in the 1870s.

A repeated problem was the number of authorities responsible for different aspects of the river. The Drainage Board created in 1918 had no powers to address navigation issues, and there were six bodies responsible for the river below Denver in 1913. When the Great Ouse Catchment Board was created under the powers of the Land Drainage Act in 1930, effective action could at last be taken. There was significant sugar beet traffic on the river between 1925 and 1959, with the last known commercial traffic occurring in 1974. Leisure boating had been popular since 1904, and the post-war period saw the creation of the Great Ouse Restoration Society in 1951, who campaigned for complete renovation of the river. It was re-opened to Bedford in 1978, and is now managed by the Environment Agency.


The river has been important both for drainage and for navigation for centuries, and these dual roles have not always been complementary. The course of the river has changed significantly, and does not follow its ancient route from Cawdle Fen near Ely to Kings Lynn. Originally, it turned to the west at Littleport, between its present junctions with the Little Ouse and the River Lark, and made its way by way of Welney, Upwell and Outwell, to flow into the Wash near Wisbech. At that time it was known as the Wellstream or Old Wellenhee, and parts of that course are marked by the Old Croft River and the border between Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. The Great Ouse was initially diverted to join the River Nar after flooding at Littleport in 1236, and so joined the Wash at King's Lynn. Parts of this course were later used for the River Lark, which flows in the reverse direction along the section below Prickwillow, after the main river was moved further to the west.[6]

An Act of Parliament was passed in 1600 which allowed Adventurers, who paid for drainage schemes with their own money, to be repaid in land which they had drained. The Act covered large tracts of England, but no improvements were made to the region through which the Great Ouse flowed until 1618, Arnold Spencer and Thomas Girton started to improve the river between St Ives and St Neots. Six sluices were constructed, and Spencer attempted to obtain permission to improve the river to Bedford, but the Act was defeated, despite support from the Bedford Corporation. Some dredging was done, and Great Barford became an inland port, but he lost a lot of money on the scheme, and the condition of the river worsened.[7]

Below Earith, thirteen Adventurers working with the Earl of Bedford formed a Corporation to drain the Bedford Levels. Cornelius Vermuyden was the engineer, and a major part of the scheme was the Old Bedford River, a straight cut to carry water from Earith to a new sluice near Salters Lode, which was completed in 1637. The sluice was not popular with those who used the river for navigation, and there were some attempts to destroy the new works during the turmoil of the civil war. A second drainage Act was obtained in 1649, and Vermuyden oversaw the construction of the New Bedford River, parallel to the Old Bedford River, which was completed in 1652. There was strong opposition from the ports and towns on the river, which increased as the old channel by way of Ely gradually silted up. Above Earith, Samuel Jemmatt took control of the river, and navigation was extended to Bedford in 1689 by the construction of new staunches and sluices.[8]

Between St Ives and Bedford, there were ten sluices, which were pound locks constructed at locations where mill weirs would have prevented navigation. There were also five staunches, which were flash locks constructed near to fords and shallows. Operation of the beam and paddle provided an extra volume of water to carry the boats over such obstructions. On the lower river, a combination of high spring tides and large volumes of floodwater resulted in the complete failure of Denver sluice in 1713. While there were celebrations among the navigators, the problem of flooding returned, and the channel below Denver deteriorated. Charles Labelye therefore designed a new sluice for the Bedford Level Corporation, which was constructed between 1748 and 1750 and included a navigation lock.[8] No tolls were charged on the river below St Ives or on the New Bedford, and those responsible for drainage complained about damage to the sluices and to banks by the horses used for towing boats. An Act of Parliament to regulate the situation was defeated in 1777 after fierce opposition, and it was not until 1789 that a Haling Act was passed, which ensured that tolls were charged and landowners were repaid for damage to the banks caused by horses. These measures were a success, as there were few complaints once the new system was in place.[9]

Port of King's Lynn

After the river had been diverted to King's Lynn, the town developed as a port. Evidence for this can still be seen, as two warehouses built in the 15th century for trade with the Hanseatic League have survived. However, the harbour and the river below Denver sluice were affected by silting, and the problem was perceived to be the effects of the sluice. Sand from The Wash was deposited by the incoming tide, and the outgoing tide did not carry it away again. Colonel John Armstrong was asked to survey the river in 1724, and suggested returning it to how it was prior to the construction of the drainage works. John Smeaton rejected this idea in 1766, suggesting that the banks should be moved inwards to create a narrower, faster-flowing channel. William Elstobb and others had suggested that the great bend in the river above King's Lynn should be removed by creating a cut, but it took 50 years of arguing before the Eau Brink Act was obtained in 1795 to authorise the new cut, and another 26 years until the cut was finally opened in 1821. During this time, most of the major civil engineers of the time had contributed their opinions.[10] The original project head and chief engineer was Sir Thomas Hyde Page.

The work was overseen by John Rennie and Thomas Telford and construction took four years. It proved to be too narrow, resulting in further silting of the harbour, and was widened at an additional cost of £33,000 on Telford's advice. The total cost for the 2½ miles cut was nearly £½ million, and although the navigators, who had opposed the scheme, benefitted most from it, there were new problems for drainage, with the surrounding land levels dropping as the peaty soil dried out. The Eau Brink Act created Drainage Commissioners and Navigation Commissioners, who had powers over the river to St Ives, but both bodies were subject to the Bedford Levels Corporation. Although often in opposition, the two parties worked together on the construction of a new lock and staunch at Brownhill, to improve navigation above Earith.[10]

In 1835, the King (William IV) brought a case against the Ouse Bank Commissioners regarding a mandamus writ issued in 1834 about the Eau Brink Cut and possible damage it caused to the King's Lynn harbour.[11]

The Railway Age

Denver sluice was reconstructed in 1834, after the Eau Brink Cut had been completed. Sir John Rennie designed the new structure, which incorporated a tidal lock with four sets of gates, enabling it to be used at most states of the tide. Sir Thomas Cullam, who had inherited a part share of the upper river, invested large amounts of his own money in rebuilding the locks, sluices and staunches in the 1830s and 1840s. The South Level Drainage and Navigation Act of 1827 created Commissioners who dredged the river from Hermitage Lock to Littleport bridge, and also dredged several of its tributaries. They constructed a new cut near Ely to bypass a long meander near Padnall Fen and Burnt Fen, but although the works cost £70,000, there were too late to return the navigation to prosperity. Railways arrived in the area rapidly after 1845, reaching Cambridge, Ely, Huntingdon, King's Lynn, St Ives, St Neots and Tempsford by 1850. The river below King's Lynn was improved by the construction of the 2 miles Marsh Cut and the building of training walls beyond that to constrain the channel, but the railways were welcomed by the Bedford Levels Corporation, for whom navigation interfered with drainage, and by King's Lynn Corporation, who did not want to be superseded by other towns with railway interchange facilities.[12]

A large interchange dock was built at Ely, to facilitate the distribution of agricultural produce from the local region to wider markets. In addition, coal for several isolated pumping stations was transferred to boats for the final part of the journey, rather than it coming all the way from King's Lynn. Decline on most of the river was rapid, with tolls halving between 1855 and 1862. Flooding in 1875 was blamed on the poor state of the navigation, and it was recommended that it should be abandoned, but there was no funds to obtain an Act of Parliament to create a Drainage Authority. The navigation was declared to be derelict by three County Councils soon afterwards. It was then bought by the Ouse River Canal and Steam Navigation Ltd, who wanted to link Bedford to the Grand Junction Canal, but they failed to obtain their Act of Parliament. A stockbroker called L T Simpson bought the navigation in 1893, and spent some £21,000 over the next four years in restoring it. He created the Ouse Transport Company, running a fleet of tugs and lighters, and then attempted to get approval for new tolls, but was opposed by Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire County Councils. Protracted legal battles followed, with Simpson nailing the lock gates together, and the County Councils declaring that the river was a public highway. The case eventually reached the House of Lords in 1904, who allowed Simpson to close the locks.[13]

The Leisure Age

The Great Ouse at King's Lynn

Simpson's victory in 1904 coincided with an increased use of the river for leisure. As he could not charge these boats for use of the locks, the situation was resolved for a time in 1906 by the formation of the River Ouse Locks Committee, who rented the locks between Great Barford and Bedford. Over 2000 boats were recorded using Bedford Lock in a three-month period soon afterwards. Despite pressure from local authorities and navigation companies, the upper river was closed for trade, and a Royal Commission reported in 1909 on the poor state of the lower river, the lack of any consistent authority to manage it, and the unusual practice of towing horses’ having to jump over fences because there were no gates where they crossed the towing path. The Ouse Drainage Board was formed in 1918, but had no powers to deal with navigation issues, and it was not until the powers of the Land Drainage Act (1930) were used to create the Great Ouse Catchment Board that effective action could be taken.[14]

The Catchment Board bought the navigation rights from Simpson's estate, and began to dredge the river and rebuild the locks. There was an upturn in commercial traffic from 1925, when the sugar beet factory at Queen Adelaide near Ely was opened. They operated six or seven tugs and a fleet of over 100 barges, and three tugs and 24 barges from the Wissington sugar beet factory on the River Wissey also operated on the river. Local commercial traffic continued around Ely until after the Second World War. The sugar beet traffic ceased in 1959, and the last commercial boat on the upper river was "Shellfen", a Dutch barge converted to carry 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel, which supplied the remote pumping stations until 1974, when the last ones were converted to electricity.[15]

Below Denver, the situation was complicated by the fact that there were six bodies with responsibility for the river in 1913. No dredging took place, as there was no overall authority. The training walls were repaired in 1930 by the King's Lynn Conservancy Board, and the Great Ouse Catchment Board reconstructed and extended them in 1937. After major flooding in 1937 and 1947, and the North Sea flood of 1953, flood control issues became more important, and the Cut-Off Channel was completed in 1964, to carry the headwaters of the River Wissey, River Lark and River Little Ouse to join the river near Denver sluice.[16] The Great Ouse Relief Channel, which runs parallel to the main river for 6.5 miles from here to Wiggenhall bridge, was constructed at the same time. It joins the river at a sluice above King's Lynn, and was made navigable in 2001, when the Environment Agency constructed a lock at Denver to provide access.[17]

The reconstruction by the Catchment Board had reopened the locks to Godmanchester and then to Eaton Socon by the onset of the Second World War. To continue the progess, the Great Ouse Restoration Society was formed in 1951, and successfully campaigned for and assisted with the restoration.[18]

The Restoration Society campaign included the establishment of the Bedford to St. Neots Canoe Race in 1952 which helped publicise the case for navigational restoration. The race continues to this day as the Bedford Kayak Marathon, and is the longest established canoe race in the UK. In 1961 organisers of the 'Bedford Race' agreed to formalise canoeing activities and founded Bedford's Viking Kayak Club.

Since 1963, the river has been the responsibility of the Environment Agency, who issue navigation licences.[19] The upper river was reopened to Bedford in 1978.[18]


The Great Ouse at St Neots

The non-tidal reaches of the river are used for leisure boating, but remain largely separated from the rest of the British inland waterway system. Several of its tributaries are navigable, including the River Cam, the River Lark, the River Little Ouse and the River Wissey. Close to Denver sluice, Salters Lode lock gives access to the Middle Level Navigations,[20] but the intervening section is tidal, and deters many boaters. Access to the Middle Level Navigations is also possible by way of the Old Bedford River and Welches Dam lock, but this route is only open for a few weekends each year, and was heavily silted in 2009.[21] The proposed Fens Waterways Link, which aims to improve navigation from Lincoln to Cambridge may result in this section being upgraded, or a non-tidal link being created at Denver.[22]

There are two more proposed schemes to improve connections to the river. The first is for a Bedford to Milton Keynes link, to connect the river to the Grand Union Canal. This was first suggested in 1812, when John Rennie costed a 15 miles canal to join the canal, then called the Grand Junction Canal at Fenny Stratford. His estimate of £180,807 scared investors, and no progress was made.[12] In 1838, there was a proposal to link the river to the Newport Pagnall Canal,[23] and again in the 1880s, the Ouse River Canal and Steam Navigation Ltd bought the river with the aim of creating the link. An enabling Act of Parliament was defeated, although Major Marindin, acting for the Board of Trade, was optimistic about the likely benefits.[12] The idea was revived in 1994, by the Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway Trust, who have formed a partnership with 25 bodies, including local councils, British Waterways and various government agencies. A feasibility study was carried out in 2001, which looked at nine possible routes, and by 2006, the cost of the preferred route was between £100 and £200 million.[23]

The second scheme is for an extension of the Great Ouse Relief Channel to link it to the River Nar, and provide a non-tidal link to King's Lynn. The project would include a large marina, and would be part of a much larger regeneration project for the south side of the town.[22] Two locks would be required to raise boats from the Relief Channel to the River Nar.[24]


The Cam joins the Great Ouse

The main tributaries of the Great Ouse (running downstream from the source, with the county of the confluence) are:

Water Sports

In 1944 the annual boat race between the Oxford and Cambridge universities took place on this river, between Littleport and Queen Adelaide; the only time that it has not been held on the Thames; it was won by Oxford.[25] The Great Ouse is used by three clubs from Cambridge University for the training of rowers, with the Boat Club (CUBC), [26] the Women's Boat Club (CUWBC) [27] and the Lightweight Rowing Club (CULRC), all using facilities at Ely. Rowing is popular in several of the towns on the Ouse, especially Bedford, which is one of the most active rowing centres in the UK.

The Great Ouse is a very popular river for canoeing and kayaking, particularly at Bedford which is a regional centre for the sport. Viking Kayak Club organise the Bedford Kayak Marathon with canoe racing held along the Embankment on Bedford's riverside and dates back to the original Bedford to St Neots race in 1952, believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

Raft race at the Bedford River Festival

Bedford also benefits from the presence of weirs and sluices, creating white water opportunities. Viking organise national ranking Canoe Slalom events at the Cardington Artificial Slalom Course (CASC), which was the first artificial whitewater course in the UK, opened in 1982 adjacent to Cardington Lock, in a partnership with the Environment Agency who use it as a flood relief channel. CASC is also the venue each year for the UK's National Inter Clubs Slalom Finals, the largest canoe slalom event by participation in the UK.

Since 1978, the Bedford River Festival has been held every two years, to celebrate the link between Bedford and the coast.[28] In addition to craft often seen on the river, the 2008 festival featured a reconstruction of a first-century currach, consisting of a wicker framework covered in cow hide, and capable of carrying ten people.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Great Ouse)


  • Adolphus, John Leycester; Ellis, Thomas Flower (1837). Reports of cases argued and determined in the Court of King's Bench, (Volume 3, Cases from 1835, Great Britain. Court of King's Bench). London: Saunders and Benning. 
  • Blair, Andrew Hunter (2006). The River Great Ouse and tributaries. Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-0-85288-943-5. 
  • Boyes, John; Russell, Ronald (1977). The Canals of Eastern England. David and Charles. ISBN 978-0-7153-7415-3. 
  • Cumberlidge, Jane (2009). Inland Waterways of Great Britain, 8th Ed. Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-1-84623-010-3. 
  • Owen, Sue et. al. (2005). Rivers and the British Landscape. Carnegie Publishing. ISBN 978-1-85936-120-7. 


  1. Owen 2005, pp. 230–232
  2. Blair 2006, p. 7
  3. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Ouse Washes
  4. Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch:entry 9
  5. William Cobbett Rural Rides "Huntingdon, Tuesday morning, 22nd Jan., 1822"
  6. Blair 2006, p. 14
  7. Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 134–137
  8. 8.0 8.1 Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 137–141
  9. Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 143–144
  10. 10.0 10.1 Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 144–146
  11. Adolphus & Ellis 1837, pp. 544–550
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 146–149
  13. Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 149–151
  14. Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 151–153
  15. Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 153–154
  16. Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 154–156
  17. Jim Shead's Canal pages. "Great Ouse Relief Channel". 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Cumberlidge 2009, p. 232
  19. Cumberlidge 2009, p. 233
  20. Cumberlidge 2009, pp. 228–229
  21. Cumberlidge 2009, p. 235
  22. 22.0 22.1 Cumberlidge 2009, pp. 7–8
  23. 23.0 23.1 Cumberlidge 2009, pp. 5–6
  24. Inland Waterways Association: Kings Lynn to the Great Ouse Flood Relief Channel Link, accessed 2009-10-10
  25. "Celebrate the 1944 University Boat Race!". BBC. February 2004. 
  26. "CUBC: Facilities". Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  27. "CUWBC: Facilities". Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  28. "Visit Shefford, Bedford Embankment". Retrieved 2010-11-01.