River Nene

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The Nene from Wansford Bridge

The River Nene rises from three sources in the county of Northampton and flows 100 miles to the Wash. The tidal river forms the border between Cambridgeshire and Norfolk for about 3¾ miles. At 100 miles from source to sea, it is the tenth longest river in the United Kingdom, and is navigable for a remarkable 88 miles from Northampton to The Wash.

The river's name is pronounced Nenn, except in Peterborough, where it is more frequently said Neen; probably because the latter city's population is mostly of incomers unfamiliar with local usages.


The River Nene is the tenth-longest river in the United Kingdom. From its source at Arbury Hill to Northampton the river falls a total of 300 feet in 17 miles. For the remainder of its course, the Nene falls less than 200 feet. It has a catchment area of 631 square miles and a mean flow of 328 cubic feet per second.[1] The final 88 miles from Northampton to the Wash are navigable.[2]

The river's most westerly source can be found near the village of Badby near Daventry. On the eastern slope of Arbury Hill and in pools between Arbury Hill and Sharmans Hill there are three tributaries that converge at Dodford mill to form the upper reaches of the Daventry Nene. The two northern streams flow through the villages of Badby and Newnham to the convergence, whilst the southerly stream runs through Fawsley Park and through the village of Everdon before the convergence. From Dodford the river passes through the village of Weedon where it flows under the main west coast railway line and also under the Grand Union Canal. A little west of Weedon the river converges with its tributary source from Yelvertoft from the north. This tributary, the Yelvertoft Nene, is formed from a great many streams. The river now flows towards Northampton, passing through Flore and Nether Heyford, where it is joined by small streams on either bank. A little past Bugbrooke Mill the Nene passes under the M1 motorway and falls over a weir towards Kislingbury.

M1 Motorway viaduct over the Nene

Another tributary merges from the south at Kislingbury. The Nene's course is closely followed by the Grand Union Canal's Northampton arm at Upton Mill.


South Bridge over the Nene, Northampton

At Upton Mill, another tributary, called Wooton Brook, joins the river from the south.

The River Nene approaches Northampton town from the west. The Nene's third northern source water, the Naseby Source or Brampton Nene, converges at the Carlsberg Brewery, having swallowed other streams in the town. At Cotton End, the Nene passes under South Bridge, through Beckett's Park and then with Midsummer Meadow on the north banks.

The Nene Valley

From Northampton, the river flows along a broad valley, formed by the enormous amount of water released by the melting ice during the Ice Age,[3] towards the east coast. The Nene now meanders through this wide, flat valley with flood plains, lakes, pools and mature gravel pits on either bank. At Great Billing is Billing Aquadrome, a popular caravan and camping park with leisure facilities and a funfair, which is based around the river and various mature gravel pits.[4] The park is popular with fishermen and water skiers alike. The river's landscape is now dominated by mature gravel pit lakes. Some gravel extraction still takes place along the valley's basin. At Cogenhoe (pronounced 'cook-no' locally[5]) the river passes through a watermill. The mill is a red brick building built in the late nineteenth century, with a slate roof, from which all the machinery has been removed. Adjacent is a Mill House, built of coursed limestone rubble, and dated 1725.[6]

At Earls Barton the river again passes an area of mature gravel pit lakes and lock gates. Hardwater Watermill is on a mill site mentioned in the Domesday Book, so flour has been ground here for almost 1,000 years, though the present buildings date from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, used the mill as a hiding place after escaping from Northampton Castle in 1164 and fleeing down the Nene to be sheltered by the miller before fleeing to France. The watermill ceased grinding flour after the Second World War, and its buildings have been converted into dwellings.[7]


The river's course turns north-easterly, passing the town of Wellingborough on its north bank and the village of Little Irchester to the south. At Wellingborough the river passes through Victoria Mills, founded in 1886 and still grinding. On the opposite bank are the remains of the Roman town of Irchester.

Past Irthlingborough on its north-western bank, the river is characterised by large curving meanders, passing the villages of Little Addington, Great Addington and Denford.


The Nine Arched Bridge at Thrapston

At Denford the river divides into two channels, one of which is used for navigation. The channels approach the town of Thrapston, passing under two adjacent viaducts. One carries the busy A14 trunk road; the other carries the disused railway track bed. Between the town of Thrapston and the village of Islip, the Nene is spanned by a low nine-arched bridge. Just north of Thrapston the river forms part of the 180 acres of Titchmarsh Nature Reserve.[8]

At Aldwincle another tributary, called Harpers Brook, joins the Nene from the north-west. Harpers Brook flows between gravel pit lagoons before converging with the river. The river flows south of Oundle passing Barnwell Country Park and Oundle Marina, under a bridge of the A605 road. At TL116976, the Romans bridged the river to carry Ermine Street over it in the first century.


The Nene under Peterborough's Town Bridge
The Nene from Frank Perkins Parkway, Peterborough

Having passed among the gentle hills of Northamptonshire the river becomes the county border between Northamptonshire to the north and Huntingdonshire for the south, greeting the latter county at the edge of Elton Park, near Elton. The river begins a great loop around the northernmost stretch of Huntingdonshire, soon dividing it from the Soke of Peterborough, Northamptonshire's north-easterly part. The Nene Valley Railway crosses the river at Sibson, Huntingdonshire and through the Nene Valley Country Park. Half a mile upstream of the city centre is Woodston Wharf—the site of the old sea lock—originally the extent of the tidal River Nene until the Dog in a Doublet lock at Whittlesey was opened in 1937. Below Peterborough, the river forms the border between Cambridgeshire and Norfolk for about 3¾ miles.

Continuing downstream leads to the impressive 'Embankment' area and after the cathedral city itself, the river is diverted from its ancient course and canalised. It flows through Benwick the landscape changes to the Nene Washes in The Fens and their vast horizons. Beyond Flag Fen, the river flows through Wisbech, then Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, and it finally enters The Wash between two towers known as "the lighthouses".

The Nene links the Grand Union Canal to the River Great Ouse, by way of the Middle Level Navigations. Much of its route has been upgraded to a wide canal with locks at regular intervals. Some sections where artificial cuts run adjacent to the course of the river are known as the "Nene Navigation".

Origins of the Name

There is no certain origin for the name "Nene". It has been suggested that it is Celtic:[9] certainly many major rivers in England show pre-Anglo-Saxon origins, such as the Ouse and River Avon; the same name appears in the 'Neen', the former name of the river Rea in Shropshire, which is retained in the hamlet of Neen Savage. A D Mills however considers the name 'obscure' and suggests that it may even be pre-Celtic.[10]


The Nene is navigable from just above its junction with the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union Canal to the sea. Most leisure use is between Northampton and Peterborough, where it makes a junction with the Middle Level Navigations at Stanground Sluice, which gives access to the Bedfordshire River Ouse. There is no longer any significant commercial traffic.[11]

Above Peterborough

The first recorded attempts to improve the upper river for navigation occurred in 1567 and 1606, when the people of Northampton commissioned surveys. In 1653, a printed pamphlet suggested that 33 locks to bypass the mills could be built for £8,000, to make the river navigable. Eventually, an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1713, which appointed large numbers of Commissioners, but stated that work could only proceed if any nine of them could find someone to make the entire river navigable. No-one was prepared to take on the task, although it appears from the Act that the river was navigable from Peterborough to Alwalton at the time. A new Act in 1724 allowed the river to be improved in stages, the work to be carried out at the contractor's expense, with the cost to be recouped from tolls. Robert Wright and Thomas Squire agreed to these terms for the section from Peterborough to the bridge at Oundle North in September 1726, and completed the work by 1730. Squire then agreed to the same terms for the next section to Thrapston in 1736, and completed it by late 1737. This part of the river was then designated as the Eastern Division.[12]

A failure to find anyone prepared to work on the Western Division from Thrapston to Northampton resulted in a third Act in 1756, which allowed the Commissioners to borrow money to finance the work. Lenders would become Proprietors of the Navigation, and the work was to begin at Thrapston and extend the navigable section towards Northampton. It took the Commissioners two years to agree who should carry out the work, but on 22 June 1758, John Smith jnr from Attercliffe, Yorkshire was contracted to construct 20 pound locks, 20 horse haling bridges and various other works at a cost of £14,070. The river opened to navigation in stages over the next three years, with a great celebration being held at Northampton on 7 August 1761 when the work was completed.[13]

There was little traffic and income from tolls was low, at just £488 per year between 1801 and 1804. The Commissioners were also keen to see a link constructed from Northampton to the Grand Junction Canal, but the canal company argued that there was an insufficient supply of water. It was agreed that a link would be built in two halves, but that there would be a mile of railway in the middle. When built, the canal company constructed the entire link as a railway, which opened in 1805. In a bid to get a navigable link, the Commissioners opposed the bill to build a link between the Grand Junction Canal and the Old Union Canal, but relented when they had a firm agreement that a navigable link to Northampton would be built. The link cost £35,000, was supervised by Benjamin Bevan, and was built between 1812 and 1815. It was nearly five miles long, and dropped 107 feet through 17 locks.[14]

Tolls rose to a little over £1,000 a year, but the Commissioners decided that the canal boats damaged the locks, and all traffic had to be transferred to river barges. This order was withdrawn in 1827, but the condition of the river gradually deteriorated, and the arrival of the Blisworth to Peterborough Railway in 1845 further reduced profitability. Flooding was also a problem, but the Commissioners had no powers to act as Commissioners of Sewers, to address the problems of drainage. With serious flooding in December 1848, a public meeting was held, and a committee was elected to consider Nene drainage. The main problem was a restriction at Wisbech, and the engineer James Rendel estimated that £120,000 was required to reconstruct the river below Peterborough. The Nene Valley Drainage and Improvement Act was obtained in 1852, to allow this work to be completed.[15]

Below Peterborough

Below Peterborough, the river meandered to Tydd Gote, where it shared an outfall to the Wash with the Great Ouse. Once the latter was diverted to King's Lynn in 1236, the Nene outfall deteriorated. Navigation was improved in the 1470s when Morton's Leam, a straight channel between Peterborough and Wisbech, was constructed by Bishop Morton. It was improved in 1570 and 1631, and was largely superseded by Smith's Leam, a straight cut from Peterborough to Guyhirne made by the Bedford Level Corporation in 1728. In order to improve the mouth of the river, which followed a tortuous route through salt marshes, the construction of a new channel was proposed by Nathaniel Kinderley, and work started on it in 1721. It was nearly completed when Wisbech Corporation's support turned to opposition, and they destroyed the work. The cut was eventually completed in 1773, but was not long enough to be a complete success.[16]

Various proposals for improvements near Wisbech were made, notably in 1814 by John Rennie the Younger and again in 1821 by Thomas Telford, but all were opposed by Wisbech Corporation, until an Act of Parliament in 1827 decided the matter. Once the old channel was dammed up, the tidal scour in the new channel was sufficient to remove silt deposits, and large volumes of stone were needed to stabilise the banks. The effects on the port of Wisbech were immediate, with tonnage rising from 63,180 tons in 1830 to 159,678 tons in 1845.[17]

The 1852 Drainage and Improvement Act gave the Commissioners wide powers to manage the river, but created an administrative structure that was too complex to be workable. With the river in a poor state, James Rendel was appointed as engineer, and began dredging the channel and raising the banks, which cost £124,000. Another Act of Parliament was obtained in 1854, to allow the Commissioners to borrow £325,000 to pay for the work. A new iron swing bridge was built in Wisbech, to replace a narrow stone bridge which restricted the flow of the river, and although it was tested on installation, it was not operated subsequently. Dams across the river were built at Waldersea and Guyhirne, and an underwater weir was constructed below the bridge at Wisbech. Wisbech Corporation took the Commissioners to court in 1859 for obstructing the river, and when an initial judgement was made in their favour, gangs of men destroyed most of the Waldersea dam overnight. An appeal to the Court of Chancery by the Commissioners also failed, and the dams were removed, as was the Wisbech weir, after an accident involving a train of lighters.[18]

Navigation was always hampered by the Northey Gravel shoal near Dog-in-a-Doublet. Together with a sluice, this prevented salt water from entering the Thorney River, and the Duke of Bedford had obtained an injunction in 1865 to prevent interference with it. An appeal to have the injunction removed in 1880 failed. A dock covering 13 acres was built at Sutton Bridge at this time, but the outer wall collapsed on 9 June 1881, a few days before it was officially opened, and the estimated repair costs of £160,000 resulted in the project failing. Sporadic traffic managed to use the river, but its condition continued to deteriorate.[19]


By the time the Nene Catchment Board took control of the river, as a result of the passing of the Land Drainage Act (1930), the river was "in unparalleled decay and dilapidation". The Board rebuilt all of the locks, and replaced the remaining staunches with locks. A new lock and sluice were built at Dog-in-a-Doublet, to prevent salt water passing up the river, and to maintain water levels to Peterborough. The Thorney River was closed for navigation, arrangements were made for the supply of fresh water to the Thorney Estate, and the Northey Gravel shoal was blown up with dynamite. The banks of the river at Wisbech were protected with piling for a distance of two miles, and a new quay was built. The benefits of the new works were proved in the floods of 1947, when land bordering the Nene was not inundated.[20]

The new locks resulted in some commercial traffic returning to the river.[20] The port of Wisbech can handle ships up to 260 by 40 feet long and with a draught of 17 feet,[21] and remains a commercial port in 2009. It also caters for smaller boats, with a major expansion of the facilities at the yacht harbour completed in May 2000.[22]


There are canal locks at fairly regular intervals which will accommodate boats up to 78 by 13 feet, with a draught of 4 feet, although most of the boats on the upper river are canal-type narrowboats and river cruisers. Below Peterborough, boats are restricted by the size of Dog in a Doublet lock, which is 130 by 20 feet with 6 foot 9 inches draught, while below Wisbech, small ships can be accommodated. All but a handful of the locks have conventional mitre gates at the upstream end and a single vertically lifting guillotine gate at the downstream end. This arrangement permits the use of the locks as additional weirs in time of flood, when the mitre gates are chained open and the guillotines lifted to allow the water to flow straight through. This precludes navigation at these times.[21]

Traditionally the guillotines were manually operated by turning a large wheel some 150 times to raise or lower the gate; since the locks have to be left empty this operation will always have to be done twice to pass through. In recent years the Environment Agency, who are the navigation authority for the river, have been installing electric operation of the guillotines[21] and in some cases replacing them altogether with mitre gates.

Outside links


  1. Owen (2005), p.230
  2. Smith (2006), p.3
  3. Smith (2006), p.10
  4. Smith (2006), p.19
  5. Butler, M. and Eaton, C. (1998) Learn Yersalf Northamptonshire Dialect. Dereham, Norfolk: Nostalgia Publications.
  6. National Heritage List 1189993: - Mill House Cogenhoe
  7. National Heritage List 1189935: Hardwater Mill, Gt Doddington
  8. Titchmarsh Nature Reserve
  9. Ekwall (1960), p.337 s.v. Neen Savage
  10. Mills (1998), p.251
  11. Smith (2006), pp.3-5
  12. Boyes and Russell (1977), pp.196-198
  13. Boyes and Russell (1977), pp.198-201
  14. Boyes and Russell (1977), pp.202-207
  15. Boyes and Russell (1977), pp.207-210
  16. Boyes and Russell (1977), pp.211-212
  17. Boyes and Russell (1977), pp.212-215
  18. Boyes and Russell (1977), pp.215-218
  19. Boyes and Russell (1977), pp.218-220
  20. 20.0 20.1 Boyes and Russell (1977), pp.220-222
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Smith (2006), pp.4-6
  22. "Ports and Harbours of the UK: Wisbech". http://www.ports.org.uk/port.asp?id=57. Retrieved 2009-10-31. 


  • John Boyes and Ronald Russell (1977). The Canals of Eastern England. David and Charles. ISBN 978-0-7153-7415-3. 
  • Eilert Ekwall (1960). Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names (4th ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-869103-7. 
  • A. D. Mills (1998) (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280074-9. 
  • {{cite book

|title=Rivers and the British Landscape |year=2005 |author=Sue Owen et al. |publisher=Carnegie Publishing |isbn=978-1-959361-20-7

  • Iain Smith (2006). The River Nene. Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-0-85288-944-2.