The River Nene rises from three sources in Northamptonshire and is about 100 miles (160 km) long. It is the tenth-longest river in the United Kingdom, and is navigable for 88 miles (142 km), from Northampton to The Wash.
The origin of the name is not fully known, but is believed to be pre-English, possibly pre-Celtic. It is pronounced differently depending upon whether you live above (west) or below (east) Thrapston.
Through the area around Great Addington the river flows along a broad valley, formed by the enormous amount of water released by the melting ice during the Ice Age, towards the east coast. The Nene now meanders through this wide, flat valley with flood plains, lakes, pools and mature gravel pits on either bank, a byproduct of the large glacial deposits in the valley. The river is characterised by large curving meanders as it passes the villages of Little Addington, Great Addington, Woodford and Denford
As detailed in the sections on Iron Age & Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxons the river Nene was a hugely important natural transportation route for thousands of years. Before the Iron Age, the Bronze and even earlier Stone Age peoples would have used the river as the mean method of movement, especially as the uplands were covered in thick forest. It is known that the river was used as means of transportation not only through the area, but also linking it to the continent at least as far back as 800BC and no doubt earlier. For centuries the the river was a major navigable thoroughfare transporting materials such as iron and wheat, as well as invaders and colonisers. It is recorded that there was a working port at Northampton during the 8th century.
Before the Roman occupation of Britain, the Nene formed a natural border between two Iron Age tribes, the Coritani (sometimes also referred to as Corieltauvi) to the north of the river and the to the south, the Catuvellauni. A series of Iron Age hill forts were built along the Nene valley between Hunsbury Hill (Northampton) and Thrapston giving control over the river. The earliest name for Raunds, located just across the valley from the Addingtons, means "border".
Though the Romans are famed for their road building, we have to consider that heavy goods such as wood and iron, or large volumes of wheat or grain would have been moved wherever possible by river. To supply the legions stationed in the north of England, bulk items would have been sent to river to the sea and then up the east coast to York and Newcastle. We also have to recall that sea levels were different then than they are now and Water Newton (Roman Durobrivae), west of modern day Peterborough was where Ermine Street (the modern A1), the main Roman road north from London, crossed the Nene and was the most easterly point before the sea, the wash at this time and into the early Medieval period coming far further inland than today and was a significant fortress and industrial areas at Water Newton.
The river was not only used for transportation, it was also a major source of food and materials. Fish and eels were trapped, reeds harvested. The 9th century land grant of the village to the Abbey of Croyland mentions "a fishery" at Great Addington. The river was always a source of moving wealth and power, but it was itself a source of that power and wealth with the watermills gradually replacing the earlier donkey mills. By 1086 there are over 6,000 mills recorded in the Norman Domesday book. Nearly every village along the Nene seems to have had at least one mill - it is estimated that there were some 140 mills on the Nene - and where there was a watermill there was quite often eel traps which could net hundreds of eels a day, Eels were an important food source of food during the medieval period. There are 3 mills listed in Great & Little Addington in the Domesday book. The Domesday book section provides more detail but it is clear that mills, eels and associated water meadows were valuable assets. The three mills were owned by different land (manor) holders:
"There is a mill rendering 12d and 200 eels, and 8 acres of meadow. It was worth 10s; now 40s....There are 6 acres of meadow, and a mill rendering 13s4d. It was worth 15s; now 40s....There is a mill rendering 16d and 4 acres of meadow. It was worth 10s; now 40s."
Some of the mills would have been located in tributaries such as the one that used to stand on the edge of Great Addington village near Lower street, but other would have been on the main river itself. Gradually dams and sluices were added to help the mills, but this would have had a detrimental affect upon the use of the river for transport. In some places the damming of the river by mill owners became so bad boats had to be unloaded and moved around the mill and then reloaded.
The mills at Great Addington - Woodford (Willywats), Rinsgtead, and Great Addington gradually started to decline during the later part of the 19th century with only Willywats and Great Addington continuing in use until the 1930's.
During the Medieval period the outfall of the Nene gradually moved eastwards as sea level fell and the coast live moved correspondingly further east. By the 16th century the river had become so difficult for navigation that it was effectively unuseable for trade between Northampton and Peterborough.
Below Peterborough, the river meandered to where it shared an outfall to the Wash with the River Great Ouse. Once the Ouse was diverted to Bishop's Lynn in 1236, the Nene outfall deteriorated. Navigation was improved in the 1470s when Morton's Leam, a straight channel between Peterborough and Wisbech, was constructed by Bishop Morton. It was improved in 1570 and 1631. In 1631 a sluice was built at Wisbech by Vermuyden.
The first recorded attempts to improve the upper river (Peterborough to Northampton) for navigation occurred in 1567 and then again in 1606, when the people of Northampton commissioned surveys. In 1653, a printed pamphlet was circulated that suggested that 33 locks should be built to bypass the mills for a costs of £8,000, to make the river navigable again. Eventually, an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1713, which appointed large numbers of Commissioners, and stated that work could proceed if any nine of them could find someone to make the entire river navigable. No-one was prepared to take on the task, although it appears from the Act that the river was navigable from Peterborough to Alwalton at the time. The Act was superseded by a second one obtained in 1724, which allowed the river to be improved in stages, the work to be carried out at the contractor's expense, with the cost to be recouped from tolls. Robert Wright and Thomas Squire agreed to these terms for the section from Peterborough to the bridge at Oundle North in September 1726, and completed the work by 1730. Squire then agreed to the same terms for the next section to Thrapston in 1736, and completed it by late 1737. This part of the river was then designated as the Eastern Division.
A failure to find anyone prepared to work on the Western Division from Thrapston to Northampton resulted in a third Act being obtained in 1756, which allowed the Commissioners to borrow money to finance the work. Lenders would become Proprietors of the Navigation, and the work was to begin at Thrapston and extend the navigable section towards Northampton. It took the Commissioners two years to agree who should carry out the work, but on 22 June 1758, John Smith junior from Attercliffe, Yorkshire was contracted to construct 20 pound locks, 20 horse haling bridges and various other works at a cost of £14,070. The river opened to navigation in stages over the next three years, with a great celebration being held at Northampton on 7 August 1761 when the work was completed.
The proprietors had the right to use tolls as they saw fit, and the Commissioners found that they had no powers to ensure the navigation was maintained in good order. They obtained another Act of Parliament in 1794, which aimed to rectify the situation, but it was not until 1801 that Thomas Wright replied to their requests, and some repairs were made. There was little traffic and income from tolls was low, at just £488 per year between 1801 and 1804. The Commissioners were also keen to see a link constructed from Northampton to the Grand Junction Canal, but the canal company argued that there was an insufficient supply of water. It was agreed that a link would be built in two halves, but that there would be 1 mile (1.6 km) of railway in the middle. However when the link was built the canal company constructed the entire link as a railway, which opened in 1805. In a bid to get a navigable link, the Commissioners opposed the bill to build a link between the Grand Junction Canal and the Old Union Canal, but relented when they had a firm agreement that a navigable link to Northampton would be built. The link cost £35,000, was supervised by Benjamin Bevan, and was built between 1812 and 1815. It was nearly 5 miles (8.0 km) long, and dropped 107 feet (33 m) through 17 locks.
Tolls rose to a little over £1,000 per year, but the Commissioners decided that the canal boats damaged the locks, and all traffic had to be transferred to river barges. This order was withdrawn in 1827, but the condition of the river gradually deteriorated, and the arrival of the Northampton (Blisworth) to Peterborough Railway in 1845 further reduced profitability. Flooding was also a problem, but the Commissioners had no powers to act to address the problems of drainage. With serious flooding in December 1848, a public meeting was held, and a committee was elected to consider Nene drainage. The main problem was a restriction at Wisbech, and the engineer James Rendel estimated that £120,000 was required to reconstruct the river below Peterborough. The Nene Valley Drainage and Improvement Act was obtained in 1852, to allow this work to be completed.
In the lower river (Peterborough to the coast) Morton's Leam was largely superseded by Smith's Leam, a straight cut from Peterborough to Guyhirn made by the Bedford Level Corporation in 1728. In order to improve the mouth of the river, which followed a tortuous route through salt marshes, the construction of a new channel was proposed by Nathaniel Kinderley, and work started on it in 1721. It was nearly completed when Wisbech Corporation's support turned to opposition, and they destroyed the work. The cut was eventually completed in 1773, but was not long enough to be a complete success. The Wisbech Canal, opened in 1797, joined the river at Wisbech, the canal was filled in during the 1960s.
Various proposals for improvements near Wisbech were made, notably in 1814 by John Rennie and again in 1821 by Thomas Telford, but all were opposed by Wisbech Corporation. An Act of Parliament was obtained in 1827 to enable the works and Wisbech contributed £30,000 to the project. The contractors for the new cut below Wisbech were Jolliffe and Banks, who charged £149,259 for the channel. Once the old channel was dammed up, the tidal scour in the new channel was sufficient to remove silt deposits, and large volumes of stone were needed to stabilise the banks. The effects on the port of Wisbech were immediate, with tonnage rising from 63,180 long tons (64,190 t) in 1830 to 159,678 long tons (162,240 t) in 1845.
However continued lack of investment, the failure of a number of improvement schemes, and the collapse in commercial traffic meant that by the time the Nene Catchment Board took control of the river in 1930 the river was "in unparalleled decay and dilapidation" and looked nothing like it does today.
The Nene Catchment Board rebuilt all of the locks, and replaced the remaining staunches with locks. A new lock and sluice were built at Dog-in-a-Doublet, to prevent salt water passing up the river, and to maintain water levels to Peterborough. There are a total of 38 locks which maintain water levels for navigation and also discharge floodwater in times of high flow. For this reason, most of the Nene locks have upstream pointing doors and substantial guillotine gates. This unique design is an important heritage aspect of the navigable river. The Environment Agency has been the navigation authority for the River Nene since 1996. The Nene forms an important link between the main waterways network of the Midlands and the South via the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union Canal through to the Fens waterways using the Nene-Great Ouse Navigation Link.
Traditionally the guillotines gates were manually operated by turning a large wheel some 150 times to raise or lower the gate. In recent years the Environment Agency, have been installing electric operation of the guillotines and in some cases replacing them altogether with mitre gates.
The river is now used for leisure boating, fishing and as an important natural "green space" for the county.