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The Rivers Ouse; five distinct rivers.

March 19th, 2013 in News by admin

The Ouse. (The Yorkshire Ouse)

The Upper and Lower Ends of the Yorkshire Ouse, (Yorks. Evening Post 1891)

Three rivers in England share the name Ouse, one a fenland draining river, much engineered; a faster flowing Yorkshire river that has been engineered along much of its length for navigation. The third passes from West Sussex to the south coast in East Sussex; again this waterway has seen engineering works along its length to aid both drainage and navigation. The last; the Ouseburn is a small, once heavily polluted industrial tributary of the Tyne that joins the river in the heart of the recently redeveloped Newcastle river front.

One of the four Royal Rivers of England, the least well-known and least described of the group. The title was bestowed by Edward the Confessor in 1064/5 to protect the people who laboured on and along side the rivers from themselves and each other. The Ouse is only one of the four rivers that functions as a truly commercial waterway today, still managing to compete against the railways transporting low value aggregates in conjunction with the Aire and Calder Navigation’s canalised waterway system.

The river, not unlike the Trent which it joins to form the Humber Estuary at Trent Falls is a powerhouse river; it has for nearly one hundred years given up a great deal of its flow volume to cooling the Turbines of the great power generating stations of South Yorkshire including Eggborough and Drax.

Drax Power Station Cooling Towers.

It is not a river with a secure point of rising out of the soils of either the Yorkshire Dales or Moors, though it drains a great proportion of both through its several major tributaries; the Nidd, Swale, Wharf, Don, Derwent and Ure. It is created at the confluence of the Ure and Swale. A stream called the Ousebeck does flow into the Ure upstream of the confluence with the Swale but it is not the river. The river once formed flowing in a southerly direction through York and on to the port of Goole.


Goole was the major Yorkshire port of lading, upstream to the tributary feeders to Sheffield, Leeds and all other towns lying inland or shipping out their wares of manufacture to the world. The port today is far smaller and depends on coastal traffic today moving grain and other agricultural materials, coal and aggregates. The city of Leeds still receives aggregates via barge shipment from the Trent valley, little river traffic is left on the river except pleasure craft, of which there are ever increasing numbers. A few locks at judicious points protect the depth of water to all its major offshoot rivers which in their turn were navigable for long distances; the Ure as far as Ripon.

The Ouse is a muddy river, though before the construction of its locks was tidal for its near total length. Today the silts are carried down from its faster flowing tributaries to meet its slower flow allowing the water to begin to loose the load of sediments that it holds in suspension, from below the last lock and weir the tides mix up the silts further and with them spread across a broad channel forces of tide and flow churn the Ouse into a truly turbid channel.

The Ouse in Flood.

Because of locks and other obstructions not just in the main river but its tributaries salmon have had difficulty returning to the river system once the pollutions that the major towns and cities of these waterways fouled them with, metals, sewage and heat. The river has seen the industrial discharges lesson due to industrial closure and treatment of waste bringing waters to a good standard. Fish generally had disappeared from many reaches of the more industrialised rivers with in the Ouse catchment such as the Don over the middle years of the Twentieth Century, with the great industrial closures of the 1970s and 1980s water quality started improving, this escalated in the 1990s with improvements to the sewage treatment works along its length. Now with increasingly better quality water across the catchment and fish passes being placed at obstructions, coupled with changes in operating cooling water management at the sites of power stations and the closure of the majority of the southern and western Yorkshire coal mines the river is returning to the fishery that it once was. The Environment Agency now report increasing salmon numbers in the headwaters of the Ure with good stocks developing of fry and parr. The coarse fishery has returned to what is was in the Nineteenth Century though the fishing is now in most areas controlled where then it was along much of its length open to all.

The treatment of a number of historic abandoned minewater pollutions within the river’s catchment has gone someway further to returning some of the worst polluted streams to fresher water. There are though other concerns; pollution loadings from road drainage and urban runoff are constant issues; these diffuse adulterations are compounded by high nutrient loads from agricultural practises. Much is yet to be done, though much has been achieved.

The Great Ouse.

The Great Ouse rises out of the chalk that makes up the Chiltern Hills and flows in a northerly direction towards Ely, Kings Lynn and onto to enter the Wash. It is a big river, broad and draining a large portion of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire Cambridgeshire, West Norfolk as well as portions of Lincolnshire and Suffolk. It is one of the most altered rivers in Europe, the middle and seaward stretches are engineered as drains, remarkable channels that take water away from the land to allow the intensive agricultural production of the fens to be carried out. Since the Roman occupation drainage works were undertaken to allow the use of some of the highly fertile land that was marsh. This carried on slowly around monastic establishments after the Norman’s conquest of England. It was small scale clawing land from the mire until the Seventeenth Century when the major landowner of the time, the Duke of Bedford decided that there was a need to maximise his land values and simultaneously improve the lives of the population on his lands. The Netherlander Cornelius Vermuyden who was draining the moors at the seaward end of the River Trent for King Charles I was brought to bear his skills on the lands and river. This he certainly did, the river ceased to bend and meander it took on the character it maintains today, though then in a more rudimentary form; the present waterway pattern is the product of the ongoing reactions to events, particularly extreme weather and flood.

The Source of the Great Ouse.

The most notable stretches of strait waterways in England are where the river splits at Earith in Cambridgeshire into the Old and New Bedford Levels or Rivers where the channels are strait for six miles or more without any deviation. The Old Level being the original Vermuyden drainage channel.

The Old Bedford River was the location of experiments carried out in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to try and prove the world was flat; these used the waterways unparalleled geometry to visually track a sailing boat rowed over a given course and establish its masts place on the horizon.

By the Victorian period across the fen waterways that made up the drainage system that fed water to the river were pumped at different levels by steam driven engines, the fen was marked across the flat landscape by the tall chimneys of the pumping stations.

The Old Bedford River or Level.

The Great Ouse has had watermills dotted along nearly its whole length to grinding the cereals grown in the localities along its banks for over one thousand years. The Doomsday Book (1086) recorded two watermills at Great Barford, in Bedfordshire, one worth 22s and the other 7s and 80 eels, the currency of the fens. Today a gas powered power station is located just south of Kings Lynn at Saddlebow; built in the 1990s and mothballed in 2012: a waste to power generating scheme exists close by that also uses the rivers supply of water for cooling.

The waters of this great water system have been the scene of many of the largest fishing matches in England with many thousands of anglers lining its banks for mile upon mile, the catches have always been seasonally affected by not just the temperature of the water but the levels of flow which can be varied dramatically at will. Towards the top end of the river at Denver a great set of sluice gates are used to control the threats of sea inundation or flood from upstream. The Great Ouse is a good example of river management on a daily basis, but it has always managed to do the unexpected and rise or fall without warning coursing catastrophic floods and at time near dearth of water within its banks.

Denver Sluice.

South of Kings Lynn, the Gas Powered Electricity Power Station From the West Bank.

The other working element of the Great Ouse and its tributaries such as the River Cam and the Little Ouse was as navigations, as far inland as Bedford and beyond coal was transported by barges to the wharfs along the bank sides. Large sailing barges also carried grain from the farming communities inland to the port of Lynn. Iron and steel were shipped up river to the towns to supply the agricultural foundries that developed in the Eighteenth Century. The use of the navigation died out by the 1950s when road transport alongside rail finally made its use too costly and by the 1970s the navigation locks had nearly all fallen into disrepair; that though has changed and navigation, recreational in the most part is again possible from Bedford

Some commercial navigation is returning to the river; the transportation of clay from quarries along its banks to supply the brickworks at Bedford, the industry used the river to both transport its raw materials, also the finished brick and tile products to London which was easily managed via the access points or junctions the river has to the Grand Union Canal.

A Fenland Clay Pit.

The river water has over the years varied in quality, and as the settlements along its banks developed into towns and villages the quality suffered, though never so grossly polluted as many of the English industrial rivers of the Midlands and North. Today the problem of nutrification is the main concern along side that of urban drainage and food processing facility effluents. In many instances major food processors have abused the river with major volumes of discharge waters that polluted the river with starch from potatoes and rotting green wastes that developed as mats of stinking algae that starved the water of oxygen at certain times of the agricultural cycle. This is changing, large waste treatment works have been and are being built; they are similar in capacity to those of quite sizeable towns, but to treat the waste from chip factories and pea mushing plants.

The McCain’s Chip Factory; the largest in Europe.

The Great Ouse has a tributary the Little Ouse which is of a dissimilar geomorphic nature to that of the other fen rivers; the Nene, Welland and Witham

The Little Ouse

This river is a tributary but is of a strikingly different source and forms in part the border between the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk. It rises within a stones throw of that of the Waveney, close to the village of Thelnetham, which flows to the east. The Little Ouse flows to the west.

At the Headwaters of the Little Ouse River.

The river is a product of the Breckland, a mainly dry sandy waste that overlies chalk. In its upper stretches the lack of intensive agriculture allows its root geology to appear at the surface, the signs of the last ice age permafrost and circular dissolution holes marked on the sand surface of the chalk below.

The river is a shallow but broad stream through Thetford and deepens at Brandon where the water quality begins to show signs of agricultural pollution and nutrient enrichment.  Thick with weed at the bridge that divides the two counties but still a good stock of trout can be seen. The large American Air Force Station at Lakenheath discharges its waste waters into the flow before the river drops out of the Breck and down into the proper fen.

The Little Ouse was navigable for many centuries till the Second World War up to Thetford, today the river can take small craft through a new lock adjacent to the bridge at Brandon but little further due to waste rock on the riverbed. The power of the river has been traditionally important to the region, milling wheat and oils, at Thetford there was a mill specifically used to grind coffee beans, this is still the upstream monitoring point used by the Environment Agency for sampling and recording river flow levels.

Shield Beetle by the Little Ouse.

It is a slow moving river but can rise rapidly in response to heavy rain. An average depth of 65 centimetres can be normal in February and March, but a rise peaking at over three metres of extra flow can be recorded in two days (March 2013) before rapidly; within hours returning to it normal shallow depth. Such flashing is exceptional but reflects the changing weather patterns of the age.

The Sussex Ouse

The Ouse is an engineered waterway for a large part of its length that in past centuries served its hinterland as the main transportation corridor. It has several claims to fame including that of Virginia Woolf’s suicide; she drowned herself in the river in March 1941 near Rodmell.

Virginia Woolf

The Sussex Ouse rises in the clays of the Upper Weald near Little Bedding and like many of the small Wealden rivers that rise in the area almost equidistantly from each other they flow south finding gaps through the chalk Downs, in this instance at Lewes to reach the English Channel. The Ouse enters the sea at the port of Newhaven, though originally at Seaford a little further to the east.

The Ouse near its start, a typical forest stream of the Weald

The river was a navigable channel with more than 19 locks in operation during the 18th and 19th centuries that allowed vessels to pass from the sea to near Ardingley, to the north of Haywards Heath. This waterway was never a very profitable navigation as its main goods of lading were agricultural needs such as lime and chalk to improve the soils of the land abutting the river, manure was a major cargo, coal both for domestic use and for slaking the limestone in kilns was another important item of freight. Today this engineered river still demonstrates its past historic use by its canalised appearance for much of its length.

The Canalised River.

The Ouse is a river that has no heavy industrial pollution problems, though in the past sewage and nitrification has been major issues to be contended with. Several urban waste water works discharge into its waters and a large number of isolated communities also drain towards it. The ever growing issues of diffuse pollutions are a constant concern. The river water quality has high levels of ammonia, phosphate and nitrates, it oxygen levels are good mainly due to the aeration of the water by the small weirs that mark the remains of lock sites along its length.

The river is an important sea trout spawning ground though there are problems on several of the catchment headwaters where gravel beds are compacted or silts have made the gravels unsuitable for egg placement.

The river has been the source of power for many watermills over the years; some such as at Barcombe Mills were for oil extraction and for the forming and polishing of buttons as well as the milling of cereals.

The politics of river use are plain on the Ouse; there is a wish to develop the navigation again above Lewis for leisure use, whilst the fishing community would like no such development. In many such cases on rivers in the past these arguments have been won by those who have the deeper pocket and able to manage their point of view most effectively through enquiries and to ministers of the Crown.

The stream bed of the river in many parts is formed in clay both naturally and where navigation has coursed the flow to be artificially channelled it is lined by the navigators’ actions to waterproof the bed. This sealed surface allows the river to flash dramatically and makes it prone to flooding

It may be a small river but it has the ability to demonstrate as a microcosm many of the ills befall rivers across Britain today.

The Ouseburn; Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Ouseburn is a small tributary of the Tyne with which it converges on the now fashionable Newcastle riverside, once a dirty and polluted tidal docks and riverscape. Today the rivers are cleaner, they have their fair share of floating and unseen waste present but tourists and local people have reclaimed the river environment; both bank side and the river surface for play and relaxation.

Today the Tyne Barrage holds water back in the main river at low tie which hides the fetid mud along the bank sides and had acted as a cosmetic rejuvenation of the Ouseburn; the banks of which were once slime covered waste strewn, smelly and unattractive to many. Today along its Tyne Side stretch is one of the most popular areas to tie up a boat and valuable office buildings and restaurants vie for space overlooking it.

Two contrasting views of the Ouseburn at Biker on the edge of Newcastle.

Though much has been done for the relief of this small river there is yet more to be achieved. The old factories no longer pollute the people who live and work along the bank in design studios and shops have taken some control with the City Council and those mooring house boats and mooring pleasure boats that mean the river is being engaged with; the first time in several hundred years.

The river rises close to Newcastle Airport at Callerton and passes through Jesmond Dene; all of this with in the modern city boundary.

The River Passing Through Jesmond Dene 1900.

The river has had all manner of pollution enter its waters, traces of which are left in the sediments at its confluence with the Tyne. The short length of the river has had any number of discharges, minewater from the surrounding collieries long since closed, tanneries and dye works: the river though still has problems of urban runoff and sewage pollution from non point sources.


The rivers Ouse of the country have much in common though totally dissimilar in geographical settings, geology and hydrology. The Clean Rivers Trust is planning to publish descriptions of many of the UK’s rivers over the coming months: some European rivers will also be described as well as others if and when they a brought to notice.

The descriptions my seam brief or certainly not encyclopaedic but hopefully they will wet the appetite to go further into the details that might be omitted and may be found elsewhere.

The water is the essence of a river.

Author: admin

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