After a week of blistering sunshine, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed as I arrived at The Dirty Duck car park, Woolsthorpe-by-Belvoir, ahead of my long-awaited boat cruise, on what was possibly the coldest day of the week.
But as soon as I saw the 35ft narrowboat, my spirits lifted.
Dubbed ‘The Three Shires’ the boat was purpose-built for the Grantham Canal Society in 2010, as a way to bring in a regular source of income to help support the ongoing restoration and maintenance of the canal.
It is now the society’s single biggest fund-raiser. Catering for groups of up to 10 people, it runs cruises ranging from two to four hours and is a great way to celebrate an anniversary, birthday or if you just fancy a family outing with a difference.
As well as getting the opportunity to take a boat ride, you’ll also be helping play a part in history as you will be supporting the ongoing restoration and maintenance of the canal. The team are currently restoring locks 14 and 15 near Woolsthorpe as part of a five-year project dubbed the ‘Woolsthorpe Flight,’ largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. And volunteers are always needed to help with the work.
Chief executive officer David Lyneham-Brown, who welcomed me on board along with four volunteer crew members, said: “One of our biggest challenges is that it is a rural canal in an affluent area, so we are not entitled to any grants.”
In order to help spread the world and get more people to join them on board, the society invited a few media representatives along to to get a glimpse of what a cruise entails.
Hopping on board at lock 18 moorings, we learn that it is one of six locks that have been restored along the canal’s 33 miles, with lock 15 further down the flight, soon to be added to this list of fully restored locks. These moorings were installed specifically for use by The Three Shires.
We are on the summit level and in the working days of the canal, for the boatmen and women, with their horse-drawn boats, it would have been plain sailing into Grantham. Having already toiled through 18 locks and raised the canal 140 feet from the River Trent at Nottingham, they would have been feeling relieved to have reached Grantham Canal.
Immediately to my right is where cattle drink from the canal – a stipulation in the 1936 Closure Act, was that two feet of water would be maintained in the canal for agricultural purposes. It also provides a handy turning point for The Three Shires.
The adjacent fields once accommodated the brickworks, where bricks for locks, bridges and lockkeepers’ cottages were made by hand. This work was often carried out by women and children. During the restoration of lock 15, small finger marks have been discovered in the bricks.
On a clear day, it is possible to see the towers of Lincoln Cathedral, almost 25 miles away. But with the cloud (and a hedge) obscuring our view, we turned our attentions to the other side where we saw a good example of a ridge and furrow, an archaeological pattern of ridges and troughs created by a system of ploughing. With the enclosure act in the late 18th century, around the time the canal was being built, this farming practice was in decline.
We reach bridge 62 first. It carries the ancient Sewstern Lane over the canal and was used as a drove road. Drovers, sometimes from as far away as Scotland, drove their herds to the lucrative London markets. In more recent years, the bridge has been restored to include 300 reinforcing rods. The underside needed to be rendered due to erosion of the brickwork and now contains lots of slots for bats to roost in.
A little way on soon brings us to the Bridle Bridge. Originally this was a narrow brick humpback, later replaced by a flat concrete slab, making navigation impossible. It was the first bridge to be raised as part of the restoration movement and is often dubbed the ‘Monet Bridge’ due to its similarities to the bridge in his painting, ‘Water Lily Pond’.
As we emerge from the cutting, our view opens out again and we are soon passing under Casthorpe Bridge, the very first road bridge to be raised. Driven by the Grantham Canal Society with funding from Lincolnshire County Council, South Kesteven District Council and a derelict land grant, the bridge you see today replaces the low level concrete structure, which prevented navigation.
The canal is well stocked with most freshwater fish species by Grantham Angling Association. Birds to look out for include the kingfisher, heron, mute swans, mallard ducks, moorhens, coots and the occasional visit from an osprey. Bullfinches and goldfinches can often be seen along the hedgerows. I spot a family of swans with their cygnets on the embankment.
With views ahead, Harlaxton Clays Wood lies on the hillside and we soon reach Denton Wharf and an original brick bridge. The wharf was restored by the society to include a slipway for boats to access the canal. It is also a popular picnic spot.
While passing under this bridge, we spot the grooves in the stonework on the towpath side, where the towlines of horse-drawn boats have left their mark.
Although out of sight, Denton Reservoir is located just on our right. This feeds the canal with water.
We have now reached Denton Winding Hole – our final destination. A winding hole (as in gale force) is where full length boats of approximately 70 feet in length can turn around. Boatmen, with their horse-drawn boats would use the power of the wind in assisting the boat to turn. This operation was and still is known by the term ‘winding’. With 17 winding holes along the length of the canal, there is only one on this four-and-a-half mile navigable section which is why The Three Shires is only 35ft long – any longer, and the boat would not be able to turn around at the A1 embankment on longer trips.
This is where our journey ends today but you can get select two- three- or four-hour trips. They are also hosting two days of 30-minute trips on 30 July and 24 September.
For more information, visit www.granthamcanal.org or call 07486 955775.