CRUISE THE OUSE: A NORTHERN DIMENSION
"Captains Dream" Alongside Kings Staithe, York
"Captains Dream" alongside York Marina moorings at Bishopthorpe
Not so very long ago, there was a very public exhortation to "USE THE OUSE" painted up on a warehouse in the middle of York. Sadly, this seems to have been something of a forlorn hope, and the river's commercial advantages have gone into decline. Nonetheless, for leisure purposes at least, the Yorkshire Ouse is still very much "open for business".
I suppose my love affair with boats began some forty years ago in an eight foot pram dinghy on a reedy pound of the Kennet and Avon Canal at Sulhamstead, long before "restoration" had robbed it of its essentially lonely, landlocked appeal. Then it was a red-sailed Mirror on a West Highland sea loch, braving fickle tides, katabatic winds and even killer whales! Later, I fell out of a GP 14, tacking through the treacherous shoals around Gun Hill and Scolt Head off Norfolk. By the mid-eighties I'd gone transatlantic, crewing a square rigger from Tenerife to the Virgins, and on through Panama into the Pacific ... where we got lost looking for Hawaii ... fetching up in the Galapagpos Islands instead.
Then, back "on the beach" so speak, I began tramping the floodbanks of the tidal Ouse around Selby (Yorkshire) in search of suitable driftwood. Soon I was piecing together a "miniature barge yacht" from the muddy planks and the sheets of mouldering ply which each tide deposited on the rank grass upstream of the B.O.C.M wharf. Moving to York, I finished Samphire in my backyard and launched her on the Foss in the spring of '91. Before long, however, I was keeping her on the bank up at Linton-on-Ouse, where a pretty little GRP Maxcraft 12 eventually caught my eye.Vermuyden, with her cramped cuddy and 2.5 outboard, served me well enough for the better part of a decade, but, as my 50th birthday approached, I confess I was growing a little tired of sleeping half-covered with my legs hanging over the side. So Captain's Dream, the smart white Callumcraft 22 with a 'For Sale' signs in her saloon windows, couldn't help but catch my attention. Needless to say, her overtly traditional lines and wooden fittings down below appealed no end.
Said notice indicated no price, and I dithered for a couple of years before biting the bullet and phoning her owner. To my astonishment, she fell within my rather limited budget and a deal was soon clinched.
I should point out at this juncture that, as a non-driver, I was more or less obliged to buy a vessel already on the water since "trailer-sailing" was clearly not an option. Some might consider this a little incautious but, since I'd had my eye on her for at least two years, what could possibly be wrong with her wetted surfaces?
Nothing at all, as it turned out, and I took command - officially - on the evening of September 23rd 2003. The Yorkshire Ouse, at this point, flows from west to east, so the sun generally sets directly upstream. Thus I was treated to a spectacular sunset. By chance, another old Callumcraft lay to her moorings immediately ahead of Captain: silhouetted coal-black against the dying embers of a memorable day. I was completely unaware, at this time, that Callumcraft are essentially Norman prototypes, and knew virtually nothing of Captain's origin. (I had already guessed she that she must have dated from around 1975, but I now realise - thanks to information posted on this excellent website - that she may even hail from the late sixties.)
So, for a year now, she has given me a great deal of pleasure. She came complete with a VHF radio and a 12 volt telly. Since these were not actually wired up to the 25 hp Mercury outboard, I took them home to preserve them for future use. There was a nice two-burner Calorgas stove fitted too, but I've disconnected this ... partly because her current boat safety certificate had expressed some concern about ventilation, and partly because heavy gas cylinders aren't the easiest of items to carry around on public transport! (Smuggling petrol up to the mooring is difficult enough!) A flatpack camping stove, however, mounted on top of the old cooker, has since met all my culinary needs, and the oven itself makes a useful locker in which to keep the much more manageable tin cartridges!)
More recently, I've sacrificed the rather rickety saloon table in favour of the "fourth" berth up for'ard. So she really is a "four berth cruiser" now, which sounds grander than she actually is (the three crew sleeping in the forepeak would really have to be very friendly!) but at least it gives me plenty of room to spread out when I'm single-handed.
The Yorkshire Ouse is a deceptive river. Superficially, its non-tidal reaches above York appear as tame as the Upper Thames where I first dipped a paddle as a toddler, but the high, embanked levees tell a rather different story. I never saw the Thames flood ... not even during the thaw after the "big freeze" of '63 ... but the Ouse seems to inundate its surroundings with alarming regularity; even in summer. I've often walked the quarter-mile from the bus stop in the village to the moorings at Linton Lock somewhat apprehensive of what I might find when I got there. Haystacks hanging in tree-tops are not uncommon. Sometimes even the lock gates and the weir itself are completely submerged, and there are some interesting "levels" inscribed on the brickwork of the old lock-keeper's cottage. So far, however, Captain and her immediate neighbours have all survived, clinging to their rising pontoons effectively enough.
I suspect that once the river overtops the levees, it can't actually get any higher because it simply expends its energy on the distant horizon!
It's a very brown river, so people tend to assume that it must be dirty. It isn't. The colour is due partly to the vast quantities of esturine mud sucked inland from the Humber on every flood tide, and also to the fact that all its headwaters rise in the peaty uplands of the Moors and Dales. Yes, it is a mature lowland river, but it somehow manages to combine the characteristics of both a highland torrent and the open sea. The wildlife reflects this. Salmon and sea trout still pound their way up the ladder by the spectacular weir, whilst oystercatchers, cormorants and even shellduck are not an uncommon sight. Sometimes it's only the electric blue of the kingfishers, darting to and fro under the overhanging clumps of willow, which serve to remind one that this is still - essentially - a freshwater navigation, and the ubiquitous herons would be as at home on any West Highland fjord I'm sure.
Some years ago, Mr Fuller, who owns and manages the moorings here, managed to take a stunning photograph of a passing osprey snatching a sea trout out of the weir pool.
Normally, I'm working single-handed, so locks are a bit of a problem. However, at the end of July, 2004, I managed to press-gang a couple of neighbours (my wife hasn't so far been bitten by the boating bug!) to help me take her through the Linton Lock and down to Bishopthorpe, towing Vermuyden, which I had arranged to take out of the water there. As it turned out, it was the only decent weekend of the summer. Even so, the Saturday night still managed to produce the worst tropical storm since my blue-water days. Unfortunately, I'd left the fore-hatch open due to the stultifying heat, and got rather wet as a result.
"Vermuyden" passing under the York bypass and at Linton Lock
(NB - plastic pole to prevent "Vermuyden" fouling prop)
During the return trip (sans Vermuyden) we tied up for a couple of hours at King's Staithe, York, where we had to scale a respectable height of vertical iron ladder in order to get at the quay and its famous pubs. Just a week later, though, the Staithe was under water and the King's Arms flooded out. This is common enough in winter and spring, but I have never before seen it in August! However, the ten mile stretch between Linton and Boroughbridge effectively provides some twenty miles of lockless cruising. What more could one possibly want?
As Assistant Secretary to the Yorkshire Dialect Society I shouldn't really say this, but I've always felt that the Vale of York owes rather more to East Anglia than it does to the North Country. It's level horizons and clamp-brick cottages, with their curvilinear Dutch gables and pantiled roofs, would be as at home in East Anglia (or at least Lincolnshire) as they are in Yorkshire. And yet the rugged hill country more usually associated with the Northern England is never so very far away. Thus, on a still, bright November Saturday, with ice crusting the shallows, I took Captain up to Aldwark for lunch at the Bay Horse. which kindly offers a pontoon for its water-borne patrons at the foot of the meadow below the village. The pub itself is sufficiently elevated to command impressive views over the upper end of the plain. Far to the north-west, the Pennines stood up like a white wall ... more than adequately dusted with the first snows of winter. When said snow melts (in February, perhaps) there's only one way it can go: out to sea via the Ouse and Humber. Once again, this languid, meandering river will become a foaming sequence cataracts - quite oblivious of intervening locks and weirs - and those of us with no choice but to let our beloved boats over winter on their pontoons, will await the new season with our hearts in our mouths.
So far, it's always been well worth the worry. Linton Lock is a quiet spot, well away from busy roads and surrounded by fields and woods as attractive as anywhere in deepest Norfolk. Even the neighbouring RAF base hardly intrudes: aircraft and boats do rather compliment each other, after all.
What could be better? In theory I can get anywhere on the linked network from here ... so long as I'm prepared to risk the notoriously tidal reaches below Naburn Lock. With a 25 hp motor that shouldn't be too much of a problem, but I'd still feel safer in the company of someone who'd done it before. I'm told that the lower Ouse rivals only the Amazon in terms of tidal ferocity: indeed, I once saw a 500 ton coaster go aground and almost roll over in Barlby Reach! I've got plans, certainly, but - in the meantime - perhaps I'll just put Ripon in my sights for next season: a modest target, I admit, but a worthy one.
After that, who knows? Goole, Keadby, Lincoln, Boston ... the world!