The first proposal to make the River Ivel navigable was put forward. The cost was estimated at a little over
£19,000 and the proposed route was to include 20 locks, 16 staunches and a number of straight-line cuts. In
return, it was expected that the cost of coal in Hitchin would be cut by half.
The River Ivel would be made navigable from its confluence with the River Great Ouse in
Bedfordshire near Tempsford, through Sandy and Biggleswade, and on to Henlow. The River Hiz would then take the
route to Hitchin in Hertfordshire - a total distance of about 18 miles. There would also be numerous arms
leading to local towns and villages.
A revised - and less ambitious - proposal was put forward which would make the River Ivel navigable from
Tempsford to Biggleswade - a distance of around 8 miles. This would need just 4 locks (costing £360 each) and 4
staunches (£140 each). The estimate for this route was put at just £4,000. The promoters tried to get local
support but found very little. Instead, they found plenty of objections to the scheme from the people of
Hitchin who wanted the navigation to reach them.Nevertheless, the promoters went ahead and sponsored a survey
which was made by Langley Edwards. Later they sent their application to Parliament.
The walls of the lock chambers were built "arched" (similar to those built later on the
Louth Canal). A fifth lock (Biggleswade North) was added to the route though this one had turf walls and was
160 feet by 50 feet.
Costs had overrun the original estimate by £2,000 by the time the navigation was fully opened from Tempsford to
Biggleswade (a distance of around 8 miles). The route was not a roaring success at first and it took 22 years
for the company to reach a position where they could begin to pay off their debts. Needless to say, coal was
the main cargo on the navigation, mostly coming from King's Lynn on the River Great Ouse having travelled down
the coast from the north east.
Canal mania was on its way and a proposal was made to link the River Ivel to the River Lee in Hertford. Such a
route would have linked the South Levels to the main canal network via London but the plan was heavily
criticised by the promoters of a different canal which was planned to run from London to Norwich and King's
Lynn. This seems to have been enough to put off the promoters of an Ivel to Lee scheme.
The navigation's income was now improving year after year and the commissioners felt confident enough to employ
Benjamin Bevan (who later engineered the Leicester line of the Grand Junction Canal) to make a survey of the
upper reaches of the River Ivel and its tributaries. He reported that the navigation could be extended by about
5 miles to Shefford on a small western tributary.
It would need 8 new locks and he estimated a cost of £8,000 - the commissioners lost their
The people involved in the Lee & Stort navigation (which ran from the Thames to Hertford) proposed a canal
from their navigation to the South Level Navigations which would include a branch line (surveyed by Francis
Giles) to the River Ivel Navigation. Their first Bill failed in Parliament and although a second one succeeded,
the canal was never built.
One of the River Ivel commissioners, William Wilshere, surveyed the state of local trade with a view (once
again) to extending the route to Shefford via the river's western tributary. His report claimed that trade to
Shefford would not be enough to make an extension worthwhile. The committee agreed and the idea was
Sir John Jackson employed Francis Giles to make an independent survey of the river. Jackson presented his
report to the commissioners with an estimate of £11,000 for an extension of about 3 miles from Biggleswade to
Langford. Giles also submitted an estimate of £32,000 for an extension to Hitchin on the River Hiz and £36,000
for an extension to Baldock on the upper reaches of the River Ivel. The commissioners decided to consider the
Two years later, while the commissioners were still considering, Giles produced another survey. This time the
estimate was £14,000 for an extension to Shefford. Wilshere, who had reported in 1817 that this route (along
the western tributary) was not worth the bother, attempted to stop a decision being made on Giles' latest
proposal but the committee agreed to go ahead with this plan immediately. Giles, who had previously worked with
John Rennie, was not liked by all of the commissioners and an underestimation of costs by £1,400 only added to
their dislike of him. All the same, he did his job well enough despite numerous problems - such as landowners
who would not give up their land to allow the route to be extended - and the work was completed in just 2
The new extension opened from Biggleswade to Shefford.The first 2 miles to Langford were merely an extension of
the river navigation but the final 3 miles were canalised using the line of the river's western tributary. The
new route had 5 locks - Biggleswade and Holme locks were built on the river while Stanford, Clifton and
Shefford locks were built on the canalised branch.
Later in the same year a meeting was held in Hitchin where it was recommended that a route
from Langford to Hitchin should be constructed. It was also decided that the company should extend the Shefford
line west to meet the Grand Junction Canal. It was acknowledged that this would be a very lucrative stretch of
water as it would create a link from the main inland waterways system to Bedford, Ely, Cambridge and King's
Lynn on the River Great Ouse network.
Although the link to the "outside world" was never made and the extension to Hitchin was put
off once again, the navigation's income grew steadily for a number of years and it became popular for reasons
other than just carrying cargo. The navigation greatly improved the safety against floods though there was one
bad flood in Shefford during 1841.
The navigation also became famous for its Eels which were caught in traps at the staunches.
They became a local delicacy but for one lock keep, Thomas Thomas, they only brought trouble. This was because
he refused to allow John Harvey's servants to set their eel-pots on the river while illegally fishing for eels
The railways arrived in the area with no opposition - not even from the River Ivel commissioners. It was the
Great Northern Railway's main line which was built first, running within a mile of the navigation near Sandy,
Biggleswade and Langford.
Midland Railway came next, they drove the Bedford & Hitchin line straight through Sandy. During this time -
and for a few more years - the navigation suffered a steady decline with falling receipts and crumbling locks,
there simply wasn't the cash, or the will, to improve matters.
Trade ceased completely throughout the whole route after just 2 decades of railway competition - though the
navigation's commissioners had done nothing to prevent the decline.
On July 13th the commissioners received royal assent having applied for abandonment earlier in the year - there
was no opposition to the closure. The business was closed down with locks and sluices being sold to local mills
to pay off the company's final debts.
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The River Ivel Navigation is fairly straight forward to follow and is clearly visible on any
road map. It begins at a junction on the River Great Ouse at Tempsford, about 10 miles east of Bedford. There
appears to be no road access to the junction though there is a lock on the River Great Ouse immediately
upstream of the junction. The A1 dual-carriage passes close to the east but there is no access off this busy
The navigation meanders south for 4 miles, past Blunham to Sandy.
Through Sandy it heads east and is crossed by the A1 dual-carriageway.Leaving Sandy the
river heads south again and travels for about 4 miles to Biggleswade which was the head of navigation for many
years. There were 5 locks on this original section of the navigation, these were at Tempsford, Blunham
(possibly near the bridge carrying the minor road from the A1 to Blunham), South Mills, Sandy and Biggleswade -
the latter being turf-sided.
The A6001 (old A1) runs very close to the navigation in the centre of Biggleswade and the
new A1 crosses over again to the south of the town. Almost 2 miles south of Biggleswade is Langford where the
River Ivel Navigation splits from the River Ivels' natural course. The latter heads south towards Henlow while
the former follows a tributary to the south west. This 3 mile canalised section of a small stream ends at
Only 2 minor roads cross the route between Biggleswade and Shefford though there are 5 locks
on this "newer" section. The first is at Biggleswade, the second is Holme Lock which is almost certainly beside
the bridge carrying the minor road to Broom. The third is Stanford Lock though my guess is that the lock is not
accessible from Stanford but from a track on the south east side of the navigation. The fourth is Clifton Lock
which could well be alongside the bridge carrying the minor road from Clifton to Stanford. The final lock is in
Shefford near to the end of the route.
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