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Rex Needle: The changing fortunes of our local river the Bourne Eau

Bourne Eau, Rex Needle EMN-150901-145041001
Bourne Eau, Rex Needle EMN-150901-145041001

Our local river, the Bourne Eau, has had a chequered history as a means of transport and trade link, the power for several water mills, as a fishing venue and as a beauty spot. But in those past times, the waterway was wide and flowing and although it may seem unbelievable today it was also used for boating trips on Sundays.

The river begins with the underground springs at St Peter’s Pool where the water can be seen gushing out at its very source, feeding it in two directions, one almost directly east towards Baldock’s Mill and the second flowing north and then east, skirting the boundary of the Wellhead Gardens before flowing south towards Baldock’s Mill where the waters combine before crossing under South Street and surfacing in Church Walk.

From here, the river is piped underneath the vicarage gardens until it reaches Coggles Causeway where it runs behind the houses on the north side and on reaching the edge of the Abbey Lawn complex, it again goes underground and surfaces in Victoria Place. After crossing the road at the Queen’s Bridge, the Eau runs parallel with Eastgate for its entire length and is joined by the Car Dyke, the old Roman waterway, near the Anchor public house. The river then crosses underneath Cherryholt Road at Mays’ Sluice and out into the South Fen, joining the River Glen at Tongue End, its entire length being just under 3½ miles.

The Domesday Book of 1086 records that Bourne had six water mills powered by the Bourne Eau of which three survived into the 20th century, the West Street (or Cliffe’s) Mill which was demolished circa 1910, Notley’s Mill in Eastgate, demolished in 1973, and Baldock’s Mill in South Street which survives as the town’s Heritage Centre after an extensive programme of restoration by the Civic Society.

The river underwent a continuous programme of improvement during the 18th century to increase its role in the fen drainage system and make it navigable for boats engaged in the corn trade, Bourne having a direct link with the North Sea via Boston with the building of the South Forty Foot Drain.

Warehouses sprang up along the river bank in Eastgate and in 1816, the Bourne Eau was capable of handling vessels with up to ten tons of cargo, grain, wool and tanning leather being among the favourite commodities for outward shipment with incoming supplies of coal, timber and other products for commercial and domestic consumption. But the river trade was not to last and had virtually disappeared by the end of the century, replaced by rail and then road transport.

As the use of the waterway declined, it soon became neglected and in 1892 there were complaints that it had become a health hazard in many places, particularly between the quay in Eastgate and Tongue End, but there was a great deal of squabbling between the various authorities over who was responsible and it was many months before work of cleaning it up finally got underway. But once the task was completed, for the first time in many years the Bourne Eau became an attractive amenity, so pleasant in fact, that when the town celebrated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in the summer of 1897, decorated gondolas took guests on pleasure trips along the river.

The waterway was also popular with anglers, the fishing rights originally being under the jurisdiction of the Manor of Bourne Abbots but during the 19th century, they were acquired by the Bourne Fishing Club and then Spalding Fishing Association. In August 1894, the rights were bought for £80 by Mr Thomas Moore Baxter, a local businessman, and the following year the Bourne Angling Association was formed at a meeting in 1895 when he gave members permission to fish his waters which extended along the Bourne Eau from St Peter’s Pool to Tongue End and along the River Glen to Guthram Gowt.

Fishing in these rivers was extremely popular when the angling association flourished and the waters were well stocked with pike, perch, roach and dace that provided excellent sport for club members. The most popular period was in the middle years of the 20th century when coaches brought in hundreds of visiting anglers from the Midlands at weekends during the season. On some Saturdays and Sundays, they were spaced out along the banks as far as the eye could see and catches were invariably good.

In 1965, an open charity match on the Bourne Eau attracted 200 entries and the river’s record was broken by P Charlton who weighed in with a catch of over 36 lb. during four hours of fishing. But several cases of severe pollution decimated fish stocks and although they are returning, especially along the upper reaches, anglers no longer find the waterway an exciting prospect.

In recent years, there have also been continual complaints about the state of the river, particularly in times of drought which lowers the water level and reveals the muddy bottom, often strewn with litter and creating an eyesore during the summer months. One of the worst such spells occurred during August and September 1991 after three dry summers in which the area lost the equivalent of one year’s rainfall and ground water levels were at their lowest ever. The river bed dried up completely and the entire stretch of the Eau along South Street was turned into a sea of mud that soon attracted litter and venture scouts were called in to clear up the mess, filling 15 bags in two hours.

Today, the Bourne Eau is largely neglected, particularly the section that runs behind Eastgate and out into the fen. Here, the river has become an eyesore through lack of maintenance, the banks choked with weeds, the water covered in algae and a target for litter. Imagine the transformation were a far-sighted developer with sufficient money and vision to take an interest because this area could then be turned into a riverside development of houses, flats and leisure amenities that could become one of the most sought after locations in Lincolnshire.

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