Waterways of the Humber

Waterways of the Humber

Friday, 18 May 2012

Chesterfield Canal - Village Signs

It used to be that awareness of the Chesterfield Canal was limited along its route.  Even in its name-town a puzzled shrug was often the response to a query about the waterway.

That's no longer the case, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Chesterfield Canal Trust all along the route.  Spin-offs take all shapes and forms, one of which is inclusion of the canal in new village signs.

The canal is included, which is what matters, but with my London roots I can only see a red tube train coming out of a tunnel at the end of a platform! 

That ages me  -  I think it's some years since red tube trains were about.

The canal actually skirts the edge of the village, but this lovely sign makes it a major feature.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Ferry at Booth

It’s quiet on the river now, but for centuries the ferry at Booth was so important it eventually gave its name to the nearby area of Boothferry.

The barrier of the Humber, and the four major rivers at its upstream end, was crossed most easily at Booth, although “easily” is a relative term.  The rivers are all tidal and the incoming flow is very fast, with the ebb slower but sometimes swollen by fresh water draining away.

Nevertheless, the ferry’s location is strategic  -  the Ouse is narrower than the Humber, it’s the first place where the Ouse is crossable, and on the south bank it gives access to a wide geographical area (including the Great North Road at Doncaster), without crossing another major river.  Hull’s nearest crossing point was Booth, so south-based traffic to and from that major port ensured a steady stream of customers, including stage-coaches during their brief thirty-year ascendancy from 1810.  The horses had to be un-hitched and the coach manhandled up and down the often slippery ramps, then fresh horses harnessed up for the next miles.  The stage-coach names evoked speed  -  the Eclipse, the True Briton, the John Bull  -  but the only thing speeding along at Booth was the River Ouse.

In May 1893 an eye-witness account tells of one ferry carrying ten calves in the body of the boat with ten men standing on the bulwarks.  The next load was fifteen sheep and lambs, five farmers, a dog and himself  -  the loading was going well until the whole flock broke loose and some of the fat farmers were nearly capsized.  The dog flew out, the drovers swore, and the onlookers smiled.  Eventually the creatures were got onboard, only for two lambs to spring overboard before being recovered.

c1910 on south bank - how long did it take to load
a car, people, and a horse and cart?
This sort of scene had gone on for more centuries than were recorded, as had the ferrymen using the boat to catch migratory salmon coming up the Ouse each year  -  getting to the fish before the pursuing porpoises and bottle-nosed whales.

The ferryboats were rowed across, usually with one large oar at the stern, and another near the bows.  In 1914 one was fitted with an engine, but spares were difficult to obtain during the war so the boatmen went back to rowing over.

OK, so who would trust their
car to this?
After the First World War the ramps were improved with smoother surfaces as more cars were using the crossing.  By the 1920s the public pressure for a bridge to be built at Booth could not be resisted.  Shipping was still using the river to access wharfs further upstream at Selby so the bridge would have to be moveable.  The first girders were lifted into place on 1 June 1927, eventually the new Boothferry Bridge would be 698ft long, with a swing-span giving a 125ft wide shipping channel.

At the closing of an era the last ferry crossed the Ouse on 17 July 1929, the day before the official opening of the bridge.

Boothferry Bridge open c1900 - a rare sight today
(that tug looks a bit off channel)
Boothferry Bridge seldom swings now, shipping going no further upstream than the nearby Howdendyke wharves.  Barges obtain various contracts to deliver further upstream but I’m not aware that they require the bridge to open.  The crossing is still busy with local traffic and that on the A614, although most volume is on the M62, the bridge of which swoops high above the Ouse a little further downstream.

There’s little to see now where Booth’s ferry was so busy, so noisy, for so long.  But on the north bank some of the buildings remain, although vastly improved and extended.  Standing on the north bank of the ferry crossing, looking downstream to Boothferry Bridge, beyond that to the M62 viaduct, and down to the swiftly flowing waters of the River Ouse  -  a reminder that crossing large rivers is never easy.

 The following pictures are dated
8 May 2012

Looking across to the north bank. The buildings are the three on the right in the picture of c1910.

The buildings on the north bank, although much altered.

On the north bank, looking across to the south bank ferry landing. Here, only a solitary piece of timber near the water's edge shows the location of the old ferry ramp.

Boothferry Bridge.

Boothferry Bridge from the area of the ferry landing.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Potatoes Ahoy

Yesterday mv Elm made her way up the Trent on a rising tide, accompanied by tug Shovette.  Her last port of call was in Spain, and now she was on her way to Grove Wharf on the Lincolnshire bank.
Some of her cargo to be discharged was sacks of potatoes, which is like the old phrase of "taking coals to Newcastle".  We often drive across the flat agricultural heartlands of Lincolnshire, and it's obvious that county knows a thing or two about growing 'tates.

Not so big?

Well, perhaps so

A Gateway and a Barrier

Being only 40 miles long the Humber has the advantage over larger estuaries of being comprehensible.  At its mouth, in most weather, it’s possible to see the other bank and get an idea of scale, whereas an observer of the estuaries of the South American rivers Plate and Amazon would find the opposite bank hidden by the curvature of the earth.

The Humber’s observable size means the large tidal range can swiftly be appreciated as the incoming tides rush towards the Trent and the Ouse, if the conditions are suitable the narrowing channel results in tidal bores known locally as aegres.  When the tides have ebbed the fresh water coming down from the rivers is that drained from almost a fifth of England’s area.  The Trent is the main river of the Midlands, whereas the Ouse drains most of Yorkshire.  Coincidentally the waters of both rivers contain that used by large brewing industries  -  at Burton-on-Trent, and a major Ouse tributary the Wharf at Tadcaster.

Humber Bridge from the south bank
Throughout the centuries the size of the Humber and its navigable tributaries have always been a gateway for ships, deep into England’s heart  -  but to those on land they have always been a formidable barrier.  Their waters were too wide to bridge at a navigable height with the technology of previous centuries, and it would take us until 1981 to create a Humber crossing by creating the world’s longest suspension bridge (at that time).

Small ferryboats crossed at various points where the geography allowed, mostly on the tributaries and the upper Humber where the channel width is less.  The term “ferry” meant a small row-boat, or at the most a flat raft capable of taking farm animals, and horses and wagons.  It was a time-consuming operation, and the ferries couldn’t operate at all when fast tides were rushing in, or when high levels of fresh water were rushing out.  Nor was it a clean process  -  forget modern quay headings, straight and level, instead think of slopes down to the water covered in the mud of a receding tide, and the deposits left by various animals.  In the early 20th century Edwardian ladies in their finery, going to the horse-racing in Doncaster, were a memorable spectacle tottering down to ferries across local rivers.

So, in the ages of no bridges and sparse, small, slow, and intermittent ferries it was very common for fording points to be used  -  wait until the water levels and flows are low and then wade across a river.  For a period the Humber waterways were the northern limit of the Romans’ occupation of England while they figured out where the soldiers of an army could cross.  They also had to bear in mind the terrain beyond the far bank where numerous rivers would have to be forded  -  but in their short tunics and sandals they had “go-anywhere” gear, like my resolute childhood heroes the Famous Five who always coped wearing jumpers, shorts and “rubber-soled” shoes.

There are differing opinions on where the Romans crossed, and in 1953, and again in 2005, intrepid fellows walked across the Humber (one did use a boat for a stretch!) to prove a point.  But that’s for a future post.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


 There's much to see

Welcome to the rivers and canals of the Humber area, and the upper reaches of the estuary itself.  These waters are varied in type, size, history, and current usage  -  but they are all linked and visiting them offers a wide diversity of scenes and subjects.
We thoroughly enjoy these waterways, and their variety never wanes.  The years of the creation of the canals covers the widest range in the UK  -  the rivers before them all differing in their geography, histories and present day use.
We hope that, via this blog, you will join us in exploring the Waterways of the Humber.
Christine and Malcolm Richardson