(Also known as the South Level Lodes)

Firstly, what is a lode? Put simply, it is a short stretch of water, usually very straight, usually connecting a village to a major river and often described as a dyke though they were built with navigation in mind as well as drainage. Virtually all of these waterways date back to Roman times and follow much the same route as they did nearly 2,000 years ago.

Cottenham Lode

Cottenham Lode is different to those which are described below in that it does not connect to the River Cam and it is not dead straight, having said that, it could certainly not be described as “meandering” either. During the 1900’s a number of pieces of Roman pottery have been found in the lode but this is no great surprise as it was once part of the great Car Dyke, a “canal” which the Romans built to connect Cambridge to Lincoln.

Cottenham Lode heads north east for just 2 miles from the village of Cottenham to the River Great Ouse (formerly the Aldreth River and also known as the Old West River). The village of Cottenham is just to the south of the lode and the B1043 comes alongside the waterway near its head of navigation. Its junction with the River Great Ouse is also near the same B-road. Apparently, the lode is still navigable today.

Bottisham Lode

Just to confuse matters, Bottisham Lode does not run to Bottisham – it runs to the village of Lode.

Lode may have seemed a slightly silly name to those who made it navigable – but anyway – Bottisham village is just 2 miles away.

The lode is now virtually straight though it is thought that it has been straightened from its original line over the years.

It was originally used by the Romans who probably created it as an artificial navigation, connecting Lode to the River Cam, though there was probably already a stream along its line because Quy Water runs into the lode at Lode.

In 1767 Bottisham Lode came under the control of Swaffham & Bottisham Drainage Commissioners who were authorised to charge tolls and build staunches.

There is still evidence of one staunch on the route though only its 12 feet wide chamber remains intact, at Lode there is also evidence of a basin. The route was used until about 1900 though river Lighters found its 22 feet maximum width too restricting. Smaller boats were able to reach Lode however and it was mainly local agricultural produce that was carried.

Bottisham Lode begins on the River Cam a few hundred yards below Bottisham Lock, to the east of Waterbeach. It runs virtually straight in a south easterly direction for 2 & a quarter miles to the village of Lode.The minor road which runs into Lode from the B1102 appears to give access to the waterway. Although Bottisham Lode was never officially abandoned it does not appear to be navigable at present.

Swaffham Bulbeck Lode

This lode also originated in Roman times though it is unlikely to have been significantly used by boats after the Roman departure until the 1700’s. However, it must have served a purpose because a small settlement, known as Newnham, grew up around the end of the line.Later, when the lode was used by commercial traffic, the settlement became known as Commercial End- Swaffham Bulbeck is about 1 mile from the head of navigation.

The lode is mentioned throughout the 1700’s, usually because it was the subject of complaints. The Commissioners of the Bedford Levels had to dredge it and strengthen its banks several times.

At Commercial End there is a Merchant’s House which appears to have been connected with the waterway since it was built in the 1600’s. During the 1700’s a counting house was added to the building, giving evidence of increased trade.

Later, Bowyer & Barker took over the Merchant’s House, shipping grain out to King’s Lynn while products like wine and salt were brought in. In 1805, Thomas Bowyer took over the Merchant’s House and built warehouses alongside with a private wharf at the back. This was connected to the head of the lode by a short canal about 400 yards long. At the head of the navigation (north of Cow Bridge) was a public wharf. Trade continued until a decade or so after the arrival of the railways in Cambridgeshire.

Commercial End has been described as one of the most architecturally pleasing places in the Fens. It consists of just one street containing a Malthouse and other buildings as well as the Merchant’s House. The book Canals of Eastern England remarks that it is hard to remember that all these buildings developed solely because of the apparently insignificant drain heading out of the village!

Swaffham Bulbeck Lode begins on the River Cam in the middle of nowhere! Its junction is about 1 & a half miles north east of Waterbeach and there is a lock at its entrance. The entire lode is not navigable though the section around its entrance provides moorings safe from flood waters. The lode is 3 & 3 quarter miles long and is fairly straight (with slight curves), heading south easterly all the way to Commercial End. There is no official road access at the north western end though there must be some sort of vehicle access if boats are moored there. The south eastern end has access at Commercial End which is just off the B1102.

Reach Lode

Reach Lode begins at the village of Upware on the River Cam. In Roman times it formed part of a massive bank and ditch, named Devil’s Dyke, which was built for defensive purposes. The dyke, built c300ad, used to run for 3 miles from the River Cam to the village of Reach and then straight on across what is now the village Green. There is evidence of Roman Quays at Upware and Reach was a port with clunch being the main export. (Clunch is a type of chalky building material).

In medieval times there were villages on either side of the dyke, East Reach and West Reach, but by the early 1100’s a fair had been established and parts of the dyke had been flattened. This created a large piece of land where commerce grew and the dyke became an important link to the outside world.

Such was the success of Reach fair that it became one of the most important in Eastern England. Coastal vessels brought goods along the dyke to several wharves, basins and a hithe. Evidence of these areas still exists. The construction of Denver Sluice, near King’s Lynn, in the 1600’s prevented coasters from sailing to Reach though other boats still made the journey up until the late 1700’s.

In the early 1800’s there was a plan to create a canal to connect London to Cambridge and King’s Lynn. One survey (made by John Rennie) drew a line which proposed the use of Reach Lode as a connection from the River Cam to the proposed Canal. However, the canal was never built.

In 1821 a lock was built on the lode as part of the Eau Brink Act aimed at making the River Great Ouse more navigable. A few years later the lode was taken over by the South Level Commissioners who were made responsible for its upkeep. During the 1900’s, Reach Lode continued to be used to carry goods though Reach itself became less of a port while Burwell (on a “tributary” lode) became much busier due to the opening of a fertiliser factory.

The last load of clunch left Reach during the 1930’s, carried to Peterborough by Vic Jackson’s gang of Lighters. A typical journey from Peterborough would take 3 days to see a load reach Reach Lode!! Small amounts of other cargo continued to be carried after this time but WW2 saw the end of all commercial trade. However, Reach Lode has never closed and is now used by pleasure craft.

Reach Lode leaves the River Cam via its only lock, in the village of Upware close to the aptly named Five Miles From Anywhere pub. A minor road crosses the lode near the lock. The first mile is very straight in a slightly south of easterly direction.

At the end of the straight is Pout Hall with a waterways junction alongside. Straight ahead is Burwell Lode which also leads to Wicken Lode (see below) while Reach Lode turns right and continues to the south east, heading dead straight for about 2 more miles into Reach. Apart from the minor road in Upware, the only other road access is in Reach at the head of navigation.

Burwell Lode

The first mention of Burwell Lode was in 1604 though it is thought that the present line was cut around 50 years after this. Traces of the original line, now known as Old Lode, can still be seen nearby on the south side. It is thought that this old line was probably built by the Romans. The current lode is a tributary off Reach Lode (see above).

It runs from Pout Hall to the village of Burwell, a distance of 3 & a quarter miles. Unlike most of the other lodes, Burwell Lode is not absolutely straight, it is also considerably wider than most others at around 40 feet though vessels are restricted by Upware Lock on Reach Lode.

In Burwell the lode splits into two branches; the southern one was used by coastal Lighters in its early years while the northern branch was used by river Lighters and had a number of warehouses on it. There are still traces of wharves on both branches.The Lighters carried coal, stone and sugar beet (among other things) and they were also used by Burwell Brick Co.

Tolls were collected by Burwell Fen Drainage Commissioners though, in the late 1820’s, the maintenance of the lode itself became the responsibility of the South Level Commissioners. Trade on Burwell Lode was very similar to that on Reach Lode (see above) until the 1850’s when it became the busier of the two due to the opening of T.T. Ball’s chemical works. In the 1890’s the factory developed into the Colchester and Ball’s Manure Works and by the start of the 1900’s the company was running its own fleet of boats.

In 1921 the company was taken over by Prentice Brothers Ltd who continued to bring in chemicals from King’s Lynn and export fertiliser to the Fens. The Prentices already owned a boat building business in Burwell though after 1920 this was limited to repairs only. In 1936 the boat yard closed after the company sold its fleet of Lighters to A.V. Jackson.Fisons took over the fertiliser factory before WW2 but Vic Jackson continued to carry for the new owners until he retired in 1948. The only boats left after this were those carrying sugar beet, in 1963 this also came to an end.

Burwell Lode is still navigable today. It starts at a junction off Reach Lode near Pout Hall, about 1 mile east of Upware. Reach Lode turns south easterly while Burwell Lode heads to the east. After about a mile Burwell Lode reaches a junction where Wicken Lode heads off to the north east (see below).

Past the junction, Burwell Lode bends right to head south easterly for 1 & 3 quarter miles. As it enters Burwell village it takes a sudden bend and heads south for about a quarter of a mile. There used to be a similar branch to the north though this is (apparently) no longer navigable. There is really only one place to gain access by road and that is in Burwell itself, off the B1102. A minor road does run parallel to the lode though it is always a few hundred yards away. A couple of tracks appear to run to the lode from this minor road though they may be private. The official end of the navigation is called Burwell Weirs – though there is no sign of any weirs!

Wicken Lode

Wicken Lode is not marked on my road map at all though it is quite well known and does appear in all South Level Navigations guides. It is kept open by the National Trust for use as a wildlife haven. The lode runs from Burwell Lode (see above) for about 1 & a half miles across Wicken Sedge Fen to a point just less thanhalf a mile from Wicken Village. It is connected to Monk’s Lode and then to New River which are thought to have been used by boats on a small scale at one time but are not now navigable.

Wicken Lode was given its name in 1636 though it is thought to date back to Roman times. It is narrower and more shallow than any of the other navigable lodes and was probably only used by small Fen Lighters. During the 1800’s and early 1900’s the lode was used to bring peat from Burwell Fen to the local farms while sedge was cut from Wicken Fen and taken to a wharf at the head of the lode. Trade ended in the 1940’s when restrictions were put on peat digging.

Wicken Lode is still navigable throughout, it leaves Burwell Lode about 2 mile east of Upware and travels straight in a north easterly direction for 1 & a half miles. It ends about 700 yards before reaching Wicken village. There are no roads alongside the route though there must be access of some sort as navigation guides list the pub in Wicken.

Soham Lode

This lode is different from all the others. Some historians claim it is of Roman origin but – unlike all the others – there has been no evidence found to back up this theory. The lode is also many miles longer than any other and – a big let down to the Roman theory – it is nowhere near to being straight! It is thought more likely that it was created in the 1790’s to divert the waters of the River Snail away from the River Lark and was almost certainly built for drainage purposes though some of the waterway was used by boats.

The first 4 & a half miles of the waterway curve about across Soham Fen to Soham where Lighters delivered corn to a mill in the early 1800’s. Later, flour was sent out from Soham to Ely and Chatteris railway depot though it was the railway that eventually ended the usefulness of the lode as a commercial navigation. Although trains were late in arriving in this part of the Fens, when they did arrive, they ploughed straight through the village of Soham (taking boat trade with them). The railway line to Ely still exists today.

Soham Lode can be seen on road maps though most magazine articles give the impression that it is not currently navigable. It begins on the River Great Ouse (formerly the River Cam) east of Little Thetford – though there is no road access at this end. Two sluices were installed at the entrance of the lode; one was a flood gate and the other regulated the depth to allow navigation.

The lode begins by heading south east though the first ¾ of a mile constantly bend right until the route is facing south. At the tiny settlement of Barway the lode turns 90 degrees to face east for the next 2 miles.

At the end of this almost straight stretch there is a right curve and then a left curve which bring the route alongside the railway line which ended its commercial life. For about 2 miles the lode curves right until it once again faces south, the railway is virtually on top of it along this stretch. A number of lanes cross the route, each with its own level crossing on the railway line. Another 90 degree turn to the east takes the lode into Soham where navigation used to end.

Past here the lode continues on for a couple of miles to Moor Farm on Fordham Fen. Here it meets the lowest point of the small River Snail which has arrived from the south having come through Fordham and Newmarket. The river used to carry straight on past Moor Farm to the River Lark but the top end of Soham Lode was built specifically to divert the River Snail into the River Great Ouse. The only road access to the Lode is gained in Soham village.