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By Alan Faulkner - adapted from an article written in April 1995.

Recently there has been renewed interest in the Ivel, a little-known river that rises near Baldock in Hertfordshire and flows down through Stotfold, Henlow, Langford, Biggleswade, Sandy and Blunham to join the Great Ouse at Tempsford. It has two important tributaries - the river Hiz which rises south of Hitchin, has two tributaries of its own - the Oughton and the Purwell - and which joins the Ivel at Henlow; and the river Flit which rises in the grounds of Woburn Abbey and flows eastwards some sixteen miles through Flitwick, Clophill and Shefford to join the Ivel at Langford.

The Ivel was made navigable for some seven miles from Tempsford to Biggleswade in 1758 following the course of the river but with artificial cuts round the mill sites. An earlier plan to extend up to Baldock and Hitchin had met with little support but in 1823 a five-mile extension was opened from Biggleswade to Shefford, with much of the three-mile river Flit section being made up of long cuts; this section becoming known as the Shefford Canal.

The navigation was only moderately successful and soon succumbed to railway competition with the last barges finishing in1876.

Little happened over the next 100 years but in 1962 Michael Ewens, then a pupil at Bedford School and an enthusiastic member of the Great Ouse Restoration Society researched the history of the Ivel and his findings were published in the Society's journal - The Lock Gate. Subsequently Nicholas Hammond, a member of the Cambridge Branch of the Inland Waterways Association, revived interest in the river and Alan Faulkner, of the East Anglian Waterways Association, constructed a Distance Table, which is largely based on Michael Ewens work, and visited all the main sites on the former navigation.

The river is in surprisingly good condition with a fair flow of water. Tempsford Lock is reasonably well preserved with a guillotine flood gate installed at the upstream end holding the water up to its former navigation level. In contrast the next lock at Blunham is in a ruinous state and no level of water is held. The third lock at South Mills, Blunham, has been demolished but sluices still hold up the water level.

Sandy Lock has been converted into a spillway and a full head of water is held but Biggleswade North Lock has disappeared completely and no level is maintained. Biggleswade Lock has been converted into a sluice but a full head is maintained whilst Holme lock is probably the best preserved on the whole navigation with a guillotine gate installed at its head to hold up the water level. This lock is possibly unique as a pedestal bearing a weather-worn head stands beside the chamber; it is believed to have been put there by Italians prisoners of war.

On the Shefford Canal there is a mixture with the canal being filled-in in some places and the river in others. At Stanford the course of the river and the mill has largely disappeared and the water flows through Stanford Lock which is overgrown and in poor condition. At Clifton the canal has been filled in and the lock is on the dry section and is crumbling away. Likewise at Shefford where the canal is now largely dry and the site of the lock obliterated.
All in all an interesting mixture but the bridges over the river by and large all seem to retain their former navigational headroom. Is there a demand to see this attractive river restored?


Location Ordnance Survey RefMiles & Furlongs
Tempsford, junction with the River Great Ouse161535 0   0
Footbridge161533 0   1
Site of Tempsford Little Staunch 161533 0   1
Tempsford Lock No 1 (Tempsford Mill left at 158530) 157531 0   2
High Bamper Bridge (roving bridge)155526 1   0
Blunham Bridge (Tempsford to Blunham road) 156519 1   3
Blunham Lock No 2 (Blunham Mill right at 156518) 157518 1   4
Footbridge 153509 2   0
Former railway bridge (Bedford to Sandy line) 154505 2   3
Site of South Mills Lock No 3 (South Mills right at 154504) 155504 2   4
Accommodation bridge 160497 3   0
GIrtford Bridge (Bedford to Sandy road A 603) 163490 3   4
Great North Road Bridge, Sandy (A 1) 166488 3   6
Sandy Lock No 4 (Sandy Mill left at 170488) 174486 4   2
Beeston Bridge (Sandy to Beeston road) 176483 4   4
Accommodation bridge 183472 5   2
Site of Beeston Staunch 183471 5   2
Site of Biggleswade North Lock No 5 186455 6   1
Biggleswade Bridge (A 6001 road into the town) 186453 6   4
Accommodation bridge 188444 7   0
Biggleswade Lock No 6 (Biggleswade Mill left at 188444) 188444 7   0
Biggleswade Bypass Bridge (A 1) 185438 7   4
Holme Bridge (Broom to Biggleswade road B. 658) 184430 8   0
Holme Lock No 7 (Holme Mill left at 185430) 184430 8   0
Langford, junction of the River Flit with the River Ivel from Baldock 182416 9   0
Stanford accommodation bridge 172408 9   6
Stanford Lock No 8 (Stanford Mill right at 171409) 172708 9   6
Clifton Lock No 10 (on dry section) 165399 10   4
Clifton Bridge (Stanford to Clifton road) 163397 10   4
Accommodation bridge 154395 11   1
Site of Shefford Lock No 10 (Shefford Mill right at 147395) 150394 11   4
Junction with South and North Bridge arms 14539211   7
Head of navigation at South Bridge, Shefford 143393 12   0
Head of navigation at North Bridge, Shefford 145391 12 0

Alan Faulkner, 4 November 2009

The Shefford Canal

River Ivel Navigation