1755 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.
1756 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.
1757 On May 17th Parliament granted an Act to make the River Ivel navigable. Work began straight away with Langley Edwards and Thomas Yeoman employed as “surveyors” – the term “Engineer” had not yet been born. The navigation’s 4 locks were built by a bricklayer, Uriah Clearson, and a carpenter, William Wooton, at Tempsford, Blunham, South Mills and Sandy. They were all very large pound locks, 110 feet long but only 12 feet wide. They were much like the pound locks which became common on canals, with V-shaped wooden gates. However, they had no beams or traditional paddle gear, the gates and paddles were all opened by use of chains. 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.
1758 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.
1785 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.
1807 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 confidence!
1812 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.
1817 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 dropped.
1819 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 proposals.
1821 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 years.
1823 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 himself!
1850 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.
1857 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.
1870 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.
1876 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 road.
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 Shefford.
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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