Ely Dry – Essex Wet: the Great Ouse Cut Off Channel

LogosIf you are regularly driving down the A10 between Ely and King’s Lynn, you may well have noticed, between Hilgay and Denver, a large sign next to a stream notifying that you are crossing the Cut Off Channel.

Have you ever wondered, like me, what’s the story of this relatively wide piece of water? Well, search no more, because here we will be lifting some of the mysteries.

Sign along A10, just north of Hilgay, when crossing the cut-off channel. Source: Google maps.

Sign along A10, just north of Hilgay, when crossing the Cut Off Channel. Source: Google maps.

In fact, the below information has been kindly supplied by Chris Holley, a Stretham-based local historian, who for many years has been researching engineering and other fascinating features in the Fen landscape. A few years back he wrote a substantial report just about the Cut Off Channel, from which the below information has been obtained. He provided me with a copy earlier this year, which has helped me to understand the history and functions of this intriguing canal.

Aftermath of the 1947 floods

A detailed study of drainage problems and ongoing flooding incidents in the Fens was carried out after a series of bad floods in 1936, 1937 and again in 1939, the Sir Murdoch MacDonald Report on Flood Protection published in 1940. Investment in flood prevention was, however, delayed by the Second World War. Following the very bad floods of March 1947 the MacDonald report was reactivated.

Vermuyden’s unbuilt solution

Cornelius Vermuyden, portrait, photo credit Valence House Museum. Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/sir-cornelius-vermuyden-15951677-133559

Cornelius Vermuyden, portrait, photo credit Valence House Museum. Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/sir-cornelius-vermuyden-15951677-133559

Despite Vermuyden’s 17th century large-scale drainage works, the Fens failed to remain dry, with bad flooding episodes happening regularly. This was not Vermuyden’s fault, since one of his proposals had simply never been built.  His drainage map, published in 1642, clearly shows a planned catchwater channel to collect flood waters from three rivers to the east of the Fens (the then-called Mildenhall, Brandon and Stoke Rivers) and divert them via a relief channel to north of his planned Denver Sluice.

The 1940 MacDonald report recommended building just such a cut off channel, collecting water from the same three rivers, now named the Lark, Little Ouse and Wissey.

A map from Cornelius Vermuyden, from his 1642 'Discourse Touching the Drayning of the Great Fennes'; Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC. Source: http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_low001200301_01/_low001200301_01_0016.php

A map from Cornelius Vermuyden, from his 1642 ‘Discourse Touching the Drayning of the Great Fennes’; Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC. Source: http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_low001200301_01/_low001200301_01_0016.php. The red arrow indicated Vermuyden’s proposed ‘cut off channel’. Note that north is to the right on this map.

In addition, this report also recommended building a new Relief Channel to take their surplus flood water away from the Fens and up to Kings Lynn, as well as improving the existing Ten Mile and Ely Great Ouse rivers from Denver to south of Ely.  Work on all three flood defence elements started in 1954 and finished ten years later, in 1964.

The Cut Off Channel’s functions

In short, the Cut-off channel was built to serve two functions:

  1. To relieve the River Great Ouse from the threat of rising floodwater
  2. To deliver excess water to reservoirs in Essex
Taken together, the two different uses of the Cut Off Channel serve to both keep Ely dry in winter and keep Essex wet in summer. Water flows northwards to prevent flooding during winter times, and flows southwards in summer times to deliver water in Essex.
Some amazing engineering has gone into ensuring that both functions can be carried out. The channel runs across 35 miles of fenland from Downham Market to Mildenhall, with numerous sluices along the way. The southern part also goes largely underground before arriving in Essex.

Great Ouse Cut Off Channel: northwards flow for Ouse flood protection

Since it is estimated that 40% of flood waters in the Fens come from the three eastern rivers (the Lark, Little Ouse and Wissey), the importance of the cut off channel for flood prevention becomes clear.

map showing cut off channel

Map showing the Cut Off Channel, in relation to the Great Ouse and its tributaries, the Lark, Little Ouse and Wissey. Source: report Chris Holley, 2005.

When the Great Ouse Cut Off Channel is flowing northwards for Ouse Flood Protection, the water flows starts at the Lark Head Sluice on the River Lark at Barton Mills, when the sluice is opened.  There are four weirs to control the water levels during the considerable fall between the Lark at Barton Mills and the Little Ouse at Hockwold.

River Wissey

At Stoke Ferry, the River Wissey flows in an aqueduct over the Cut Off Channel. Image by Chris Holley.

The Cut Off Channel then flows northwards and intersects the River Little Ouse at the Hockwold Sluice at Hockwold, and then intersects the River Wissey at the Wissey Sluice at Stoke Ferry, and thence to Denver Sluice.

Cut off Channel seen from A10, flowing west towards the Denver Sluice. Photo by Chris Holley

Cut off Channel seen from A10, flowing west towards the Denver Sluice. Photo by Chris Holley

At each of these intersections, the Cut Off Channel goes underneath the Little Ouse and Wissey rivers in a siphon or U-tube, and can draw water from the two rivers when the appropriate sluice gates are opened and closed.

The Relief Channel starts at Denver and takes water from the Cut Off Channel through the Impounding Sluice, and/or from the Ely Ouse through the A G Wright Sluice, down to the Tail Sluice at Saddle Bow near Kings Lynn.  The Relief Channel acts as an
additional flood water storage reservoir, which can be evacuated out to sea at
low tide.

Cut Off Channel

Section of the OS map showing where the Cut Off Channel joins other waterways at the Denver Sluice complex. Source: report by Chris Holley.

Denver Complex 2

Close-up of Denver Sluice complex, showing the various waterways coming together at this important node. Source: report by Chris Holley.

Great Ouse Cut Off channel: southwards flow for Ouse-to-Essex water transfer

Essex regularly suffers from droughts in summer. In 1964 it was realised there was insufficient water to support expansion, development and growing consumer demand in south Essex.  In 1968 it was proposed to reverse the flow and use part of the Cut Off Channel to take surplus fresh water southwards from the Great Ouse at Denver Sluice and  deliver it down to existing reservoirs in Essex.

The Ely Ouse To Essex Water Transfer Scheme was completed in 1971, taking water down to Abberton Reservoir 87 miles south, and to Hanningfield Reservoir 90 miles south.  Although existing watercourses are utilised for about two-thirds of the distance, a new tunnel and new pipelines and storage tanks all had to be built.

When the flow of the Cut Off Channel is reversed southwards for Ouse To Essex Water Transfer, water is diverted through the Diversion Sluice at Denver and flows up the Cut Off Channel, through the siphon under the River Wissey at Stoke Ferry, to Blackdyke Intake at Feltwell, between Stoke Ferry and Hockwold.

Black Dyke intake

Representation showing the physical layout of the shaft at Blackdyke Intake, the tunnel, and the uptake shaft at Kennett Pumping Station. Source: report by Chris Holley.

Water is extracted from the Cut Off Channel at Blackdyke Intake, where it plunges 90 feet down a huge shaft into a long tunnel under the hills and under the A11 near Newmarket, to Kennett Pumping Station.  At Kennett, water is pumped 280 feet up to the surface again, then by pipeline under the hills by the A14 to Kirtling Green Outfall and Kirtling Brook, where it joins the River Stour to Wixoe Pumping Station near Haverhill. From Wixoe Pumping Station, water flows by various means to three Essex reservoirs.

Want to know more?

If you would like to know more about the history of and engineering works along the Cut Off Channel, Chris Holley has produced a richly illustrated and detailed 92-page report, titled ‘Ely Dry – Essex Wet: the Great Ouse Cut Off Channel’. You can contact him for more information, or to purchase a copy through chrishcs@btinternet.com

A synopsis of Chris’ report can also be downloaded here: Cut Off Channel Synopsis 2

Interpretation board at the Denver Sluice, explaining the origin and function of the Cut off channel

Interpretation board at the Denver Sluice, explaining the origin and function of the Cut off channel. Image by Chris Holley.

True Landscape Landmark


In the mostly flat landscape of the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership (OWLP) area the local churches really stand out. There are nevertheless also numerous churches and chapels in the landscape which go largely unnoticed, but which have their own, unique and fascinating story to tell.

Here, we pick out one of these, St. Mark’s in Ten Mile Bank, near the top end of the OWLP area, now a Grade II listed church. The research for this blog post was carried out as part of the research for the partnership’s stage 2 submission and was kindly provided by a former colleague here at Cambridgeshire ACRE, Scilla Latham, who worked here until very recently as Church Buildings Support Officer.


Church as seen from across the River Ouse. Source: http://www.tenmilebank.com/page_6.html

St Mark’s church stands on the west bank of the River Great Ouse, a short distance north of the Hilgay Bridge. Built between 1846 and 47, with a burial ground of half and acre, it served as a chapel of ease within the parish of Hilgay and was consecrated in 1852.

The Rev. W Joseph Parkes MA who was the rector of All Saints church Hilgay was described as the “munificent contributor” to the total cost of £1,000. The architect is unknown.

old postcard

Old postcard of St Mark’s, from Norfolk record Office. Source: Stephen Heywood, Statement of Significance 2006, http://hbsmrgateway2.esdm.co.uk/norfolk/DataFiles/Docs/AssocDoc1387.pdf

A Nonconformist church

The church, which seats 150 people, is built of Gault brick with a slate roof on a simple rectangular plan with two entrance doors on the south side – one at the west end of the nave, the priest’s door to the chancel at the east end. In style it is influenced by the Early English Gothic with triple lancet windows at the east and west ends, and simple lancets on each of the side walls. Its extreme simplicity indicates the influence of the Tractarian principles of the Oxford Movement in the mid 19th century.



The original furnishings remain: of note are the fine poppyhead pew ends and the 17th century balustraded communion rails – possibly re-located from Hilgay church. The luxuriant foliage and grand design of the font which was installed when the church was consecrated in 1852 is strangely at odds with the simplicity of the rest of the building.

Big changes in the middle of the 19th century

St Mark’s was built to serve the needs of the growing population of Ten Mile Bank which is two miles from the medieval parish church in the village of Hilgay. It may also have been built to counteract the ascendancy of the two Methodist chapels already open  close by – the Wesleyan chapel in Ten Mile Bank opposite the river crossing and a Primitive Methodist chapel on the east bank.

The first steam engine drainage pump constructed at Ten Mile Bank in 1819/20, followed by a larger engine in 1842 led to the land being easier to cultivate and a consequent arrival of more farm labourers. The 1842 Ten Mile Bank drainage engine was constructed for the Littleport and Downham drainage commissioners and worked in conjunction with “one 9 miles distant, in the Isle of Ely”: between them they drained 30,000 acres. The Ten Mile Bank engine emptied about 130 tons of water a minute into the River Ouse.

The church’s construction coincided with the opening of Hilgay Fen station on 25th October 1847 which was a mile from the church and provided easy access to King’s Lynn and Cambridge.

From Yorkshire to Ten Mile Bank to Sydney to Wales

White’s directory of 1854, records the Curate of St Marks as the Rev Wesley Farrer, MA.  Born in Yorkshire in 1823. He went to Oxford University and then took Holy Orders – and by March 1851 he was curate of Lanchester in Durham and married (to Elizabeth who was born in Liverpool  in 1827) with a two month old son, John.

Ten years later he was Curate of Holy Trinity church, Sheffield Brightside and the father of six children. During the intervening years he had spent at least two years as curate at Ten Mile Bank but more interestingly his two youngest children were born in Sydney, New South Wales in 1858 and 1860.  It seems likely he went there as a missionary but this story is yet to be researched.

The next two Censuses find him settled as Vicar of Castleside, Durham and then in 1891 he living in Rhys in Flintshire, North Wales with his wife and youngest daughter Harriet. Wesley Farrer died aged 76 in 1898. His wife, Elizabeth had died two years earlier: her burial being recorded at St  Pancras in London.

Subsidence and restoration

An awareness of the difficulty of building on water-logged ground is demonstrated by the use of a suspended floor with rose-shaped cast iron vents to provide under-floor ventilation. However, the fact that the whole building was later underpinned with brickwork suggests an ongoing struggle with subsidence caused by the water-logged conditions.

Old image of church_displayed in church_cropped

Old image of St. Mark’s, as displayed in the church

Significant alterations carried out in 1934 were aimed at strengthen the  building to alleviate subsidence to the west end of the church. At this time the south west door was moved eastwards, reusing the existing stonework, to the original position of the western-most window on this side, almost certainly to strengthen the south west corner. Additionally, two of the lancets in the west window were blocked and the bellcote reduced in height at this time.

In 2002 the condition of the church was so serious that without the intervention of the local community it would have been closed. Its architectural heritage was recognised by English Heritage registering it and the War Memorial as Grade II on account of their significance as a rural group. Local fundraising achieved £36,000 and English Heritage awarded £245,000 towards the restoration of the building. The National Churches Trust provided a grant of £6,500.  The church was re-dedicated by Bishop Anthony on St Mark’s day, 25th April 2009.

Interesting War Memorial

The War Memorial (Grade II listed) erected after the 1st World War commemorates 22 men killed in that war and a further 7 killed during the 2nd World War.  It is made of rough hewn granite.

On the north side are the names of two men killed on active service with the British Army in less well remember conflicts, which were added in November 2001.  The first killed in Malaya in 1946, fighting Communist guerrillas, and the second during the Korean War in 1952.

war memorial

The war memorial at St. Mark’s, Ten Mile Bank

Related posts:

Summer events

Heritage Lottery FundIt is summer time, so many places in and around the Ouse Washes area have organised an events programme.

With the kids off school, a lot of venues are organising family friendly activities. Just a short selection of what’s going on:

Wildlife Reserves:


New Fen book:

Cllr Mike Rouse will be in Burrows Bookshop, this Thursday, August 1st (11AM – 12:30 PM_ to sign his latest book, ‘The Ghosts of Fens End’.  See also this news article

Downham Market Water Festival: 11 August, http://www.downhamweb.co.uk/water-festival/

Hilgay Vintage Countryshow, 10-11 August: http://www.fensvintage.co.uk/shows/hilgay/Archaeology:


An exciting tour is given this Wednesday (31 July; 7PM) at Earith Bulwark, the best preserved Civil War fort in the country. A unique change to see the earthworks up close (is on privately owned land, so access is not granted very often). See also Cambridgeshire County Council’s Archaeology Public Events Programme 2013

Events in the future

As part of our delivery phase (starting April 2014), we will have a dedicated Ouse Washes website. On this, we intend to have a comprehensive list of events in the area, providing people with a one-stop-shop to what’s on?

My question to you is: what kind of events are you after? Do let me know (click on the comments ‘balloon’ at the top, or send me an email). We will take your wishes on board when designing our website.