Witham Navigable Drains

Witham Navigable Drains History

The drainage dykes (or dikes) of Lincolnshire go back a long way into history and were (of course) built purely to keep the low lying land around them free from flooding. There were (and still are) dozens and dozens of tiny narrow dykes all over Lincolnshire but there are also numerous larger cuts which were often built much wider even than the traditional narrow canals which came along in the late 1700's.Therefore, it was an obvious decision to make some of these drains navigable with the first known use of the drains by boats was in the 1500's.

Two of the drainage dykes to the north of Boston on the East and West fens were made navigable. These were the West Fen Catchwater Drain which ran for 6½ miles between Northlands and Revesby Bridge and the East Fen Catchwater Drain which ran for 4½ miles between Northlands and Stickford Bridge.

It is not known when (or if) an Act of Parliament was authorised and it would appear that although they were connected to each other, they were probably not connected to any other navigable waterway at this time.

Thirty Four years later two more drains were made navigable. These were Maud Foster Drain and Cowbridge Drain.

Maud Foster Drain ran from the River Witham (in Boston) to the small village of Cowbridge (a distance of 2½ miles). Cowbridge Drain left Maud Foster Drain at Cowbridge and travelled east for nearly 3 miles.Although these two new navigations did not connect with the first two, they did connect with the "outside world", via the River Witham, and to the town of Boston.

The first proposal to make the drains accessible via a lock from the non-tidal River Witham was put to the River Witham commissioners. Unfortunately the River Witham was perpetually struggling for cash and the commissioners decided they simply could not afford to connect the drains at this time.

Four years later the River Witham commissioners decided the drains could be made accessible by installing "land doors" (flood barriers) rather than a normal (and more expensive) traditional lock.The doors were installed at the point now known as Anton's Gowt, allowing boats to move off the river onto Frith Bank Drain which ran east for 2 miles to Cowbridge where Maud Foster Drain and Cowbridge Drain could be reached. Frith Bank Drain is not quite like the other dykes in this area as it was originally opened (for drainage purposes) much earlier than the others (around 1216). Unlike virtually all the others (which run absolutely dead straight) it curves slightly throughout its 2 miles.

With the flood doors now allowing access to the dykes on the East and West fens, a number of Acts were authorised to make other drainage dykes navigable. These were Hobhole Drain which runs almost dead straight for 13¾ miles in a northerly direction from the Haven Tidal Doors in the Witham Estuary (very near to the coast) to nowhere in particular, a few miles north of Midville. Midway along this dyke was a junction with the Cowbridge Drain. Stonebridge Drain was the all important link which connected the isolated East and West Catchwater drains to the other navigable dykes. It ran north for 4 miles from Cowbridge to Northlands. Finally, West Fen Drain was opened to navigation heading north west for 8 miles from Cowbridge to Hough Bridge. In the following years, 4 locks were built on the navigable drains.These were at Cowbridge (2), Lade Bank on the Hobhole Drain and Hagnaby on the West Fen Catchwater Drain.

A conventional lock was erected at Anton's Gowt, by the River Witham commissioners, to replace the land doors which had been used for the past 30 years. The lock connected the River Witham to Frith Bank Drain and Newham Drain which now connected Frith Bank Drain to West Fen Drain. In fact, the navigable drains were becoming rather confusing as they tangled their way across the East and West fens. For instance, Castle Dike was navigable from Newham Drain to Houghbridge Drain which in turn connected to West Fen Drain. Meanwhile, Medlam Drain had been made navigable from West Fen Drain to West Fen Catchwater Drain!

All of these drains predominantly carried agricultural produce from the various farms and villages to Boston. At present I have no specific details of how busy the drains were or when they ceased to carry commercial traffic though many of them are still open to pleasure craft today and all have continued as crucial drainage channels.

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Witham Navigable Drains Route

The numerous different drainage dykes present a maze of long, straight, blue lines all over the map of east Lincolnshire. The only way in and out of the Witham Navigable Drains is via Anton's Gowt, on the River Witham, about 2¾ miles north west of Boston. At Anton's Gowt there is a lock which gives access to two of the drains, one heading east and the other heading north west. We shall go east first.

Frith Bank Drain

This is the oldest of the drainage dykes (though not the first to be made navigable). It leaves Anton's Gowt (and the Malcolm Arms pub) and heads south of east for about ¾ of a mile. After this point it curves eastwards for another 1¼ miles to Cowbridge Junction. On route it passes just one settlement, that of Frith Bank. A minor road follows the dyke on the north bank throughout the route and there is just one road crossing, at the one mile mark.

Cowbridge Junction

Waterways head off in at least 5 different directions from this junction.These are Frith Bank Drain (west to Anton's Gowt); Maud Foster Drain (south to Boston); Cowbridge Drain (south east to Hobhole Drain); Stonebridge Drain (north east to Northlands); and West Fen Drain (north to Frithville and beyond).

Maud Foster Drain

This dyke heads south from Cowbridge Junction (see above), for nearly 3 miles, into Boston town centre. It used to connect with the River Witham below Boston Sluice but this channel no longer exists. The route now terminates at a dead end in the town. The drain is followed closely on the west bank by the B1183 all the way from Cowbridge Junction into Boston. A minor road also clings to the east bank for much of the route. One minor road and the Boston to Skegness railway cross the route after about ¾ of a mile. There are numerous crossings within Boston. It is a very wide "drain", wider than most navigations.As it enters Boston it passes the impressive Maud Foster Windmill. I can highly recommend taking a look at this area whether on a boat or travelling by car.

Cowbridge Drain

This drain is not suitable for navigation by large pleasure craft as it is now very narrow. It heads south east for about 2½ miles from Cowbridge Junction to a T-junction with the Hobhole Drain. After ½ a mile Cowbridge Drain is crossed by the Boston to Skegness railway and at one mile it is crossed by the A16 at Kelsey Bridge. The village of Cowbridge is about ¼ of a mile north of this bridge. There are 3 more bridges crossing the drain, the first is a minor road, the second is a track and the third is another minor road which is reached just before the junction onto the Hobhole Drain (see below) near Haltoft.

Hobhole Drain

This is one of the longest (and straightest) of the Witham Navigable Drains. It begins on the Witham Estuary at the Haven Flood Doors, some 3 miles south east of Boston and about 2 miles from the coast. The drain heads north for one mile to Nunn's Bridge where a minor road crosses the route. Two more minor roads cross the drain, coming at one mile intervals, and then the A52 crosses the route near Haltoft. About ¾ of a mile further north is the junction with the Cowbridge Drain (see above) which heads off towards the north west. The next stretch of Hobhole Drain lasts for 3 miles and is dead straight in a slightly east of north direction. Two minor roads cross over during this section, one immediately after the junction with the Cowbridge Drain and the other after about 1½ miles. Another minor road clings to the eastern bank throughout the whole stretch. When the route meets the B1184 it does not immediately pass under the road, instead it turns very sharp left and then curves back around to the right with the B-road clinging to its right hand side. After 200 yards the B-road crosses the route on Bennington Bridge. The next stretch lasts almost 3 miles and is once again dead straight in a slightly east of north direction. There are no road bridges on this section though the minor road continues to cling to the eastern bank. About ½ way along this section, the Boston to Skegness railway crosses over and then Simmon House is past on the west bank. At the end of the stretch is a lock (something quite rare on these navigable drains). This is Lade Bank Lock which is immediately followed by Lade Bank Bridge carrying a minor road. For the next 1½ miles, into Midville, the route is flanked on both sides by equally straight minor roads. An unnamed (and unnavigable) drain heads off to the west about ½ way to Midville. Past the small settlement, the route continues straight on for another ¾ of a mile with a minor road on the east bank. Just before another minor road crosses over the route there is something of a drainage "crossroads" because passing straight over the Hobhole Drain is Bell Water Drain (see below). The final 2¼ mile stretch is flanked by minor roads on each side and the Hobhole Drain comes to a dead end in the middle of nowhere (though there are yet more minor roads at the head of the route). Just a few hundred yards further north (near Toynton Fen Side) is an extension of the East Fen Catchwater Drain (see below) though there is no evidence of a connection (past or present).

Stonebridge Drain

This drain leaves Cowbridge Junction in a north easterly direction.After one mile it is crossed by a minor road and then flanked by another for the next 1¾ miles, past the settlement of High Ferry, to the B1184. One hundred yards or so to the east of here is Sibsey Trader Windmill and the small town of Sibsey is about ¾ of a mile to the east, along the B-road. The next section is about 1½ miles long, into Northlands, with minor roads on both banks and the village of Sibsey Fen Side ½ way along. The final stretch begins with a minor road crossing at Northlands and ends just ¼ of a mile further north at the junction of the East Fen Catchwater Drain and the West Fen Catchwater Drain (see below).

East Fen Catchwater Drain

This drain (along with the West Fen Catchwater Drain) was the first to become navigable. It begins about 400 yards north of Northlands, 2 tracks head south from its junction into the village and there is a bridge over the entrance of the route (though there is no road on the north side of the bridge). The route leaves its junction with the Stonebridge Drain (see above) and West Fen Catchwater Drain (see below) and begins by heading north east for ¾ of a mile. Just before the end of this stretch, the A16 crosses the route and then the drain turns north to run parallel to the east side of the road. Being one of the oldest drains it is not straight and curves gently left and right as it heads north. A minor road crosses over after another 2 miles and a junction is reached a further mile north. Heading off to the east is Bell Water Drain (see below) which connects with Hobhole Drain (see above). Immediately after the junction, the East Fen Catchwater Drain bends north east. It is flanked by a minor road for a few hundred yards though the road then crosses the drain and heads off to the west. However, there appears to be tracks on both sides of the route throughout this 1¾ mile section into Stickford. Half way there the route turns slightly left to head north again. In the village there is a minor road bridge and then the route comes very close to the eastern side of the A16. Within ½ a mile Stickford Lodge is past on the east bank and then Stickford Bridge, near Keal Cotes, marks the end of the official route. However, the drain actually continues on for a further 4 miles to Fen Bridge at Halton Fenside.

Bell Water Drain

This drain does not get a mention in the reference books but it is marked on the map as clearly as all the others. It has a junction with the East Fen Catchwater Drain (see above) about 1½ miles south of Stickford. It heads east for a total of 7 miles and apparently connects with 2 other waterways. A minor road clings to its northern bank for the first 2½ miles with one other road crossing the route about ½ way along this section, close to Mexican Farm. At the 2½ mile mark the route comes to a drainage crossroads as the Hobhole Drain (see above) passes straight across heading north and south. A minor road crosses the route at the junction while another continues to flank the northern bank for the next 1½ miles. At this point another minor road crosses over but beyond the bridge only a track follows the route (on the southern side). After one mile the track crosses the route and then the Boston to Skegness railway does the same. For the final 3½ miles the drain is almost completely isolated with no roads alongside and just one track crossing about ½ way along. The end of the line arrives near the village of Thorpe Culvert at a junction with the Steeping River, also called Wainfleet Haven (see below).

Steeping River (Wainfleet Haven)

This waterway may well have never been navigable but as it appears to be quite substantial on my map, and it connects to the Witham Navigable Drains, I will describe its route. It enters the sea on the Lincolnshire coast some 4 miles south of Skegness. It zig-zags north westerly for about 4 miles to the town of Wainfleet All Saints where it is crossed by the B1195. North west of the town the river takes on the appearance of a typically dead straight drain, heading north west for about 4 miles to Little Steeping, with a minor road flanking it most of the way and a small number of other road bridges crossing over. Just one mile north west of Wainfleet All Saints is a junction with the Bell Water Drain (see above) which heads west towards the main parts of the navigable drains. Beyond Little Steeping the river meanders north westerly for about 2 miles to Halton Holegate where it is crossed by the B1195 for a second time. On the north side of the bridge the river is little more than a stream and is clearly not navigable.

West Fen Catchwater Drain

This was one of the two earliest navigable drains. It begins at Northlands at a junction with the East Fen Catchwater Drain (see above) which heads off north eastwards. Also joining these two early navigations is a much later one, the Stonebridge Drain (see above), which heads south. West Fen Catchwater Drain begins by heading north for around 2 miles to Stickney. Unlike the later drains this one is not dead straight though the slight curves are very gentle. There is a minor road from Northlands running along the west bank for the first ½ mile and a track continues when the road moves away. At Stickney a minor road, which links the A16 to the B1183, crosses the drain and then the waterway continues north for another 2 miles, across West Fen, with no accompaniment other than flat fields. At the end of this 2 miles is one of only 4 locks on the Witham Navigable Drains. This is Hagnaby Lock which has a minor road bridge alongside and (according to my road map) marks the end of the wide stretches of this route. Beyond here the channel appears to be much narrower and probably much more difficult to navigate. For the final 2 miles of this part of the route the drain curves left to move right around the northern edge of West Fen, eventually ending in a westerly direction at Revesby Bridge.Although this is where the navigable route ends, there is actually a continuation of the drain beyond Revesby Bridge which is called simply Catchwater Drain. This continues to curve left until it heads south west and reaches Reedham (after about 4 miles). Back at the head of navigation at Revesby Bridge there is a connecting navigation, Medlam Drain (see below), which heads south to Frithville.

West Fen Drain

This route begins at Cowbridge junction where it heads north through Cowbridge Lock with the B1183 right alongside on the west side. After a few hundred yards the B-road crosses the drain at right angles and continues to cling to the east side while a minor road sandwiches the drain by running along the west side. The very straight northerly stretch from Cowbridge to Frithville is 2 miles long, at Frithville the West Fen Drain turns left to head north west but as it does so it meets Medlam Drain (see below) which continues straight on, heading north. In Frithville, shortly after the left turn, the B1183 moves away to the north while the B1184 crosses over. The next stretch of the route is 4 miles long and is dead straight in a north westerly direction. A minor road clings to the north bank the whole way and a couple of other minor roads cross over. Half way along this 4 mile stretch is a junction with the Newham Drain (see below) which heads south towards Anton's Gowt. At the end of the 4 mile stretch the drain turns left to head due west for ¾ of a mile to Hough Bridge (which carries the B1192) just south of New York. The final mile of the route has no roads alongside and, in fact, is known as Houghbridge Drain rather than West Fen Drain. The head of navigation is at Bettinson's Bridge though there is further access for boats, via a sharp left turn, onto Castle Dike (see below) which heads south east back towards Anton's Gowt.

Medlam Drain

This navigable dyke begins at Frithville where it leaves the West Fen Drain (see above) in a northerly direction. The first (and widest) stretch is about 3¾ miles long to a point near the village of Medlam.This route is not quite as straight as most of the others but it is straight enough! There are no roads alongside the route but one minor road does cross this stretch after 1¾ miles. At the end of this first stretch is a second minor road crossing but beyond the bridge the drain appears to much narrower. Somewhere, not far north of this bridge, is a junction with another drain which is actually thought to be a canal built sometime in the 1800's, by John Parkinson, to serve the village of New Bolingbroke. There is no sign at all of this waterway on my road map though it obviously ran for about ½ a mile from Medlam Drain to the B1183 in New Bolingbroke. Past the junction the Medlam Drain heads north westerly for less than 2 miles to its terminus at Revesby Bridge. A sharp turn right, heading east, takes boats onto West Fen Catchwater Drain (see above).

Newham Drain

This is one of the shortest and straightest of all the Witham Navigable Drains but it provides an excellent short-cut. It starts at Anton's Gowt where it leaves the River Witham Navigation and Frith Bank Drain (see above). Castle Dike (see below) leaves Newham Drain about 300 yards north of Anton's Gowt. For the first ¼ of a mile Newham Drain heads directly north but it then turns slightly north west and heads dead straight for 3 miles. There are no roads alongside this drain though the B1184 crosses it about ½ way along. The village of Newham is on this road about one mile to the west. At the end of the 3 miles the route ends at a junction with the West Fen Drain (see above) which heads north west and south east.

Castle Dike

Castle Dike begins at a junction on Newham Drain (see above) about 300 yards north of Anton's Gowt. The dike heads north west for 1¾ miles to the village of Gipsey Bridge. About ½ a mile into this section a minor road crosses the dike and then clings to the northern bank, passing Castle Dyke House on route. At Gipsey Bridge the B1184 crosses and beyond here the dike continues north westerly for another 1¾ (isolated) miles. Suddenly there is a left turn taking the route westerly for ¾ of a mile to the B1192 bridge which crosses the dike near Wildmore Fen. On the west side of the bridge the dike begins a rare curve lasting 1½ miles which eventually takes it north westerly to Haven Bank. A minor road crosses the route here while another has clung to the dike on the south side of the long curve. The same road continues to run along the west bank for the final mile to the head of navigation at Bettinson's Bridge. A sharp right turn here takes boats onto Houghbridge Drain which is actually the last mile of West Fen Drain (see above).

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