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River Ancholme
The old River Ancholme in Brigg
Physical characteristics
Main source Bishopbridge, Lincolnshire
River mouth South Ferriby, Lincolnshire (The Humber, North Sea)
Length 17 mi (27 km) (navigable)

The River Ancholme is a river in Lincolnshire, England, and a tributary of the Humber. It rises at Ancholme Head, a spring just north of the village of Ingham (SK 96675 85014) and immediately west of the Roman Road, Ermine Street. It flows east and then north to Bishopbridge (west of Market Rasen) (TF 03163 91070), where it is joined by the Rase. North of Bishopbridge it flows through the market town of Brigg before draining into the Humber at South Ferriby. It drains a significant part of northern Lincolnshire between the Trent and the North Sea.

The river has been used by humans since at least 800 BC, confirmed by the excavation of a planked boat at Brigg, and patents covering improvements to the river are known from 1287 onwards. Major change occurred in 1635, when a new straight channel was constructed from Bishopbridge to Ferriby. The new channel carries most of the water and is known as the New River Ancholme, whereas the Old River Ancholme maintains its natural course, meandering from side to side. The old course is mostly reduced to a drain, except around the town of Brigg where the two rivers create an island in the centre of Brigg known as 'Island Carr'. Further improvements were started by John Rennie (the Elder) in the early 1800s and completed by his son in the 1820s, with the reconstruction of Ferriby Sluice taking place around 1841.

From that time onwards the river was reasonably profitable, and although receipts were reduced when railways arrived in the area, trade picked up in the 1890s, and was boosted by cargoes of sugar beet in the 1930s. All commercial carrying had ceased above Brigg by the 1970s, and stopped altogether in the 1980s. The upper section was almost derelict by then, but was restored and dredged in 2004. The river is an important drainage channel for north Lincolnshire, but is also used for leisure, with boating, rowing, canoeing and fishing taking place. Responsibility for the river changed six times between 1930 and 1996, but it is now managed by the Environment Agency.

The Ancholme Internal Drainage Board maintains twelve pumping stations on the banks of the river, which pump water from the surrounding low-lying land to prevent flooding. The river also supplies large volumes of water to the Scunthorpe Steelworks, and to Anglian Water, who use it to provide a public water supply to the South Humber bank industrial area. In order to maintain this volume of abstraction during the summer months, and other dry periods, water is transferred from Barlings Eau, near the River Witham, by the Trent Witham Ancholme transfer scheme, commissioned in 1974.

Few of the bridges which cross the river form part of a public road, and so they have not been replaced to cope with increased traffic. A number of them are listed structures, while Ferriby Lock is a scheduled ancient monument. The river is also home to two historic boats owned by the Humber Keel & Sloop Preservation Society.


In its natural post-glacial state, the river's valley was flat-bottomed: it had formed the bed of the glacial Lake Ancholme, on an outwash delta, as the ice retreated, and consequently was fenny. There is evidence that boats have used the river from early times, for there have been three significant archaeological finds of ancient boats. Logboats have been found at Brigg and Appleby, and a planked boat was found at Brigg in 1888. Professor McGrail conducted a re-excavation of the site in 1974, to discover the bottom of a flat-bottomed boat, made from oak planks, sewn together and caulked with moss. The boat was thus similar in construction to the Ferriby Boats found on the northern shore of the Humber, but was some 500 years younger, being carbon-dated to around 800 BC.

Further evidence of the local importance of the river in prehistory is evidenced by other finds or archaeology close to the river's course. As an example, in the parish of Bishop Norton, which is situated just over 1 km north of Bishopbridge. In this parish the Lincolnshire Historical Environment Record (HER) records just under 90 sites, from different historic periods. The majority of the prehistorical sites, including settlements, are close to the Ancholme. Most of these range from the Neolithic (4000 BCE to 2351 BCE), through the Bronze Age to the Romano-British period. The oldest find in the parish was a Paleolithic handaxe discovered close to the site of the Harlam Hill Lock on a hummock of river gravels. This find dates anywhere from 500,000 BCE to 150,001 BCE. This axe, along with several Neolithic axes are now in Lincoln Museum.

The course of the old river acts as a boundary for Bishop Norton and all the other parishes that abut it. This being the eastern boundary; the western boundary is Ermine Street. The fact that the majority of archaeology in the parish, as recorded in the HER that dates from after the construction of the Roman Road, tends to the western end of the parish close to the Roman road, and that from earlier periods tends to be closer to the river is suggestive that the River was a primary communications route as well as the provider of physical and economic need which was supplanted by the new road.

Despite suffering from silting as a result of water from the Humber entering it, and passing through land which was often waterlogged on both sides, the Ancholme offered a route into the communities of northern Lincolnshire. Cargo was carried on it from an early date: in 1287 a patent was granted to allow improvements to be made from Bishopbridge to Ferriby, so that boats could more easily carry grain and other commodities on the river "as they had done formerly". However, the major concern of the local landowners seems to have been that it should act as an effective drainage channel to prevent inundation of their lands, and between 1289 and 1418 the river was mentioned in the Patent Rolls thirteen times. The need to keep the channel scoured was always mentioned, but often, navigation was not.

The river was subject to a repeated cycle of concerns being raised, improvements being made, euphoria at the result, and decline through neglect. However, in 1635 Owersby-based local landowner Sir John Monson was granted powers to construct a new river for drainage purposes. He removed most of the meanders, to create a new straight channel from Bishopbridge to Ferriby. The patent under which the work was carried out was again chiefly concerned with drainage, although there was a requirement to make sure that any new works did not make the river less useful for the passage of boats than it had been for the previous seven years. At Ferriby, where there had been a bridge since 1312, a sluice was constructed, to control the deposition of silt from the Humber. It had three arches and 24 doors, but there is no mention of how boats could pass through it.

At Brigg, the new channel bypassed the town, but the old channel was also retained, which made the town less vulnerable to flooding. The draining of the Ancholme Level was a lesser project among the fenland "improvements" undertaken under contracts to patentees by the government of Charles I in the 1630s. It was somewhat less brutal than many such projects, for Kennedy states that "... with the possible exception of the Ancholme Level the draining of the fens was executed and defended by a continuous and unscrupulous use of the power and authority of the royal government to manipulate local institutions and to overawe the local populace."

The antiquarian William Stukeley visited the river and in 1724 published a report in which he lamented the fact that the sluices below the stately bridge were "broken down and lying in dismal ruins by the negligence of the undertakers." Conditions continued to deteriorate, so that in 1766, landowners in the Ancholme floodplain contracted Thomas Yeoman to survey the river. He pointed to the decay of Ferriby Sluice, which had resulted in silting of the navigation as far as Glanford, some 8.7 miles (14.0 km) above Ferriby. In places the width had been reduced from 40 feet (12 m) to 15 or 16 ft (about 4.8 m), which significantly reduced its capacity to cope with flood waters. Above Glanford, lugworm beds, weeds and sandbanks impeded progress, and the final 5 miles (8 km) to Bishopbridge was completely silted up. Yeoman produced his report on 17 September 1766, and an Act of Parliament to authorise improvements to both navigation and drainage was granted on 20 May 1767.


Harlam Hill Lock - - 782634
The Environment Agency were undertaking renovation work at Harlam Hill lock in 2008.

The navigation became an important route for transporting cargo from the rural communities to the towns of Beverley and Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire. William Colton had run a packet boat between Brigg and Hull since 1793, and in 1823 he began operating a steam packet boat. It left Brigg at 7 am each day, arriving in Hull 10:30. The return journey left Hull at 3 pm, and was timetabled to connect with a coach service from Brigg to Lincoln. From October 1856 the service was run by the Hull, Ferriby Sluice and Brigg Steam Packet Company, formed by a group of farmers who lived between Brigg and Ferriby Sluice.

For many years, the tolls on the navigation were leased, and the value of the lease steadily increased, from £402 in the 1780s to £950 in 1828, and had reached £1,857 per year for the period from 1843 to 1845. For the following three years it was £3,020, but it then declined, as railways arrived in the area. Brigg railway station opened on 1 November 1848, and the line from there to Gainsborough Central followed on 2 April 1849. Tolls reduced, falling to £949 in 1850, and to £700 by the late 1850s. After thirty years, trade revived a little, with the tolls reaching £1,000 in the 1890s. It was further boosted by the development of the sugar beet industry in the 1930s, with tolls averaging £1,294 in the late 1930s. Bishopbridge, where there was a basin, two corn mills and warehousing, acted as a distribution and collection centre for the farms and villages of that part of Lincolnshire, but by the 1970s commercial traffic had ceased except between Ferriby and Brigg, where there were factories along the river bank. All commercial traffic had ceased by the 1980s.

Some development continued, with Snitterby bridge reconstructed in 1872, Hibaldstow in 1889 and Cadney in 1892. In 1977, Ian Horsley formed the Rase-Ancholme Navigation Trust, and in 1978 proposed upgrading of the upper section to Bishopbridge. His grand plans included the construction of three new locks on the River Rase, to link to Middle Rasen and Market Rasen. By the early 1980s, the scheme had grown to include further links to Horncastle and the Foss Dyke, thus creating a northern Lincolnshire waterways network, but the area was too sparsely populated for such ambitious plans to succeed. The Trust was registered in 1979, and ceased to exist in 2009.

By the 1980s, the section above Harlam Hill lock was almost derelict. Rennie's original lock had been reconstructed with a top guillotine gate at some point, and repairs to the lock were attempted in 1993. Although they were not successful, the Inland Waterways Association continued to campaign for the restoration of Harlam Hill lock, raising funds to assist this, and the Environment Agency completed dredging and restoration of the upper section in 2004. The restoration was funded by a grant of £100,000, the first successful bid for funds by the Lincolnshire Waterways Partnership. The work included the provision of new 48-hour visitor moorings at Bishopbridge, with portage points for canoeists nearby and at Harlam Hill lock.

The top gate of Harlam Hill lock was subsequently replaced by conventional mitre gates in 2010. Despite this successful restoration, the lock was again closed in 2012 by the Environment Agency on safety grounds, thus preventing access to the first two miles of the waterway. As of 2017 there are no plans for its reopening.

The lock at South Ferriby, which allows boats to leave the river and enter the Humber, is a tide lock, with four sets of gates, two for use when the tidal Humber is at a higher level than the river, and two for when it is lower. From the Humber, a vessel can access many other major waterways leading to the larger towns of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, as well as to the North Sea. Because the river acts as a drainage channel for the Ancholme Level, water levels and flow rates are subject to rapid change, and all navigation can be suspended after heavy rain, when the sluices are opened to prevent flooding.


Redbourne Hayes pumping station - - 1688988
Redbourne Hayes is one of 12 pumping stations run by the Ancholme IDB which discharge into the river.

Responsibility for the river and the flood defences of the surrounding countryside changed several times during the 20th century. Under the Land Drainage Act 1930, 47 catchment areas were defined, covering many of the river systems of England and Wales, including the Ancholme and Winterton Beck Catchment Area. A catchment board had been set up to manage the area by November 1931. The catchment board was replaced by the Lincolnshire River Board following the passing of the River Boards Act 1948, and the new board also had responsibility for the River Welland, the River Witham and the Steeping River. Land drainage functions became the responsibility of the Ancholme Internal Drainage Board from 1951. This was formed under the terms of the Land Drainage Act 1930, and manages an area of 68.77 square miles (178.1 km2) containing 119 miles (192 km) of maintained watercourses. Around half of the water falling on this area has to be pumped into the River Ancholme, because the land is too low-lying to allow gravity drainage. The IDB maintains 12 pumping stations on the banks of the river.

Responsibility for the river changed again with the passing of the Water Resources Act 1963: the river board was replaced by the Lincolnshire River Authority, although the geographical area which it managed was similar. This in turn became part of Anglian Water following the passing of the Water Act 1973. When the regional water authorities were privatised under the terms of the Water Act 1989, management of rivers, including the Ancholme, passed to the National Rivers Authority (NRA). Finally, the NRA was subsumed into the Environment Agency in 1996.


In addition to its function as a land drainage channel and for water supply, the river is also used for recreation. The waterway is managed by the Environment Agency, which requires all vessels to be registered and in possession of an up-to-date licence. There are over 200 boats registered, and there are moorings at Ferriby, Brigg, Brandy Wharf and Bishopbridge. Access to and from the Humber is restricted by extensive mud banks to the north of Ferriby Sluice, which are exposed at low tide. Passage through South Ferriby lock is therefore limited to three hours either side of high tide. The river is large enough to support small barges and medium-sized cabin cruisers. South Ferriby lock is 68 by 18 feet (20.7 by 5.5 m) with a draught of 4 feet 11 inches (1.50 m). Harlam Hill lock is smaller, at 60 by 16 feet (18.3 by 4.9 m) but the effective maximum length of boats is 40 feet (12 m), as there is nowhere above the lock to turn a longer boat. Small boats can be launched from a slipway at Brandy Wharf Leisure Park, on the western bank of the river.

The river is a popular venue for rowing, kayaking and canoeing. The Ancholme Rowing Club is based in Brigg, and caters for rowers of all abilities. It encourages junior membership, offers tuition, and organises two major events each year. The Ancholme Head race covers a 2,750-metre (3,010 yd) course, with open, women's, juniors, mixed and masters categories, and is affiliated to British Rowing. The Scrumpy Row has a more social orientation, and covers 6 miles (9.7 km) from Brigg to Brandy Wharf. The Environment Agency work with the club to support competitive and recreational rowing. The Agency also have an agreement with the British Canoe Union, allowing their members to use the river. There are a number of small sailing yachts on the river, and the slipway at Brandy Wharf has encouraged this kind of use.

The river is well stocked with fish, and provides high class coarse fishing. There are organised competitions each year, including winter match angling, which attract anglers from Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire and other local counties. The river is also popular with walkers, having a towpath along its entire length, and there are a number of rights of way associated with the river. The Ancholme has a marina at Brigg and another at South Ferriby, which has a chandlery and boat building facilities. Around three-quarters of the boats that use the river are sea-going vessels, as it provides easy access to the North Sea via the Humber.

Water supply

The New River Ancholme - - 310291
The Anglian Water intake at Cadney can abstract up to 31,000 Ml per year from the river.

During the late 1960s, there was increasing demand for water, particularly within the South Humber bank industrial area. Extractions from the underlying chalk aquifer could not be increased, and so the demand was met by building the Trent Witham Ancholme Transfer Scheme (TWA), which was commissioned in 1974. A pumping station at Short Ferry on Barlings Eau, near its junction with the River Witham, pumps water through 10.6 miles (17 km) of pipeline to a reservoir at Toft Newton, which covers an area of 41 acres (16.5 ha). During the summer months and other dry periods, water is released from the reservoir into the Ancholme to augment its flow and maintain its level. In the event of failure of the pumps at Short Ferry, the reservoir has enough capacity to maintain flows in the Ancholme for up to seven days. There is another pumping station at Torksey, on the River Trent, and in the event of low flows on the Witham, water is pumped from the Trent into the Foss Dyke, from where it flows eastwards to Lincoln and the River Witham system.

In 1996, removal of some 37,698 megalitres (8,292×10^6 imp gal) per year from the river was covered by abstraction licences. Major holders of licences included British Steel plc, Centrica and Anglian Water. British Steel take water for the Scunthorpe Steelworks from a pumping station immediately to the north of Worlaby railway bridge. Centrica run the Glanford Brigg Power Station, located on the west bank of the river near Brigg. It is a gas-fired generating station, capable of producing 240 MW from six turbines. Water is taken from the river to supplement cooling water lost by evaporation, and some of the cooling water is discharged to the river to prevent a build up of suspended and dissolved solids. Water is also processed by a treatment plant, where it is filtered and ion-exchanged, to provide a clean supply for the boilers, which will not cause scaling or corrosion. Like the cooling water, the boiler feed water is also purged regularly, to prevent dissolved solids building up.

The largest abstractor is Anglian Water, who maintain a pumping station on the east bank of the river by Cadney bridge. They were licensed to remove 31,000 megalitres (6,800×10^6 imp gal) per year in 1996, which is about 82 per cent of the total abstraction. After initial grit removal and chlorination, water is pumped for 1.2 miles (1.9 km) through twin 5.9-foot (1.8 m) diameter concrete pipelines to Cadney reservoir, which can hold 900 megalitres (200×10^6 imp gal), covers 35 acres (14 ha), and has a maximum depth of 36 feet (11 m). After further chlorination, the water is pumped for another 6.2 miles (10 km) through a 4.0-foot (1.22 m) diameter steel pipeline to Elsham Water Treatment Works, which produces up to 30 megalitres (6.6×10^6 imp gal) per day of potable water for public water supply.

In addition to supporting these abstractions, the use of water from the TWA scheme has other benefits. Because the flow is maintained even in dry weather, eutrophication, which is caused by a build up of nutrients in the water, is reduced, and the flow through Ferriby sluice also helps to prevent the ingress of salt water from the Humber into the river. The volume of water transferred via the TWA scheme depends on the weather conditions. In 1987 it was 2,425 megalitres (533×10^6 imp gal), while in 1979 it was 17,425 megalitres (3,833×10^6 imp gal).


The Ancholme rises near Top Farm, West Firsby, close to the 40-metre (130 ft) contour, from where it flows eastwards, gradually turning towards the north east. It passes through the site of the West Firsby deserted medieval village, which is a scheduled ancient monument, and then under Owmby Road, a minor road which connects the villages of Saxby and Spridlington. It soon drops below the 10-metre (33 ft) contour and turns to the north as is flows past Toft Newton reservoir, which is used to augment the flow of the river, and is supplied with water by the Trent Witham Ancholme transfer scheme. The reservoir is a popular site for stillwater trout fishing, and in 1996 was stocked with rainbow trout and brown trout twice weekly. Contributions from a number of organisations and individuals resulted in the purchase of a "wheelyboat", a flat-bottomed boat which allows wheelchair users to access the water. Passing under Pilford Bridge, near Toft next Newton, the river reaches Bishopbridge, where it is crossed by the A631 road.

The River Rase runs under an adjacent bridge, and the two rivers run parallel for the next 2.5 miles (4 km). On the Ancholme, there is a sloping weir, which forms the head of navigation, beyond which is a large four-storey building which was formerly a warehouse for the navigation. The towpath starts on the western bank soon after the wharf area, and Harlam Hill lock is reached after 2.5 miles (4.0 km). The bypass channel passes over a weir, and the water flows into the River Rase, which joins the Ancholme at Atterby weir, a little further below the lock. Rather than heavy wooden balance beams, the lock gates have slender metal poles to open them. Snitterby bridge, which is also known as Browns Bridge, is just below Atterby weir, and like most of the bridges over the river, is not part of a public roadway, so it is maintained by the Environment Agency, rather than the Highways Authority. Brandy Wharf bridge, at 4 miles (6.4 km) from the head of navigation, is one of the two bridges on a public road. Next to it is a brown-brick warehouse with three storeys and a slate hipped roof, which is a Grade II listed structure.

The River Ancholme at Brigg, looking towards the A18 bridge

The towpath crosses from the west bank to the east bank at the bridge. A little further to the east is the Old Tollgate Bridge, a red brick single span with ashlar dressing dating from the late 1700s, which crosses the Old River Ancholme. Continuing northwards, the towpath crosses the entrance to the Caistor Canal, disused since 1877. A 20th century steel span is supported by stone abutments, built around 1785, when the canal opened. The bridge is Grade II listed as is the adjacent first lock, one of five that remain on the Caistor Canal. Hibaldstow Bridge was rebuilt in 1889 to a design by Alfred Atkinson, and the wrought-iron span, which rests on brick piers, was supplied by a company of ironfounders called Messrs Porter and Co of Lincoln. It replaced an earlier wooden swing bridge, dating from Rennie's reconstruction, and the piers from that bridge were probably reused. Atkinson was also responsible for Cadney Bridge, rebuilt in 1882, for which the wrought iron span was supplied by Messrs Goodwin, Jardine and Co of Glasgow. Again, the piers from an earlier bridge were probably reused.

The Anglian Water pumping station, immediately to the north of the bridge, has an unusual wooden roof. Beyond, and slightly set back from the river, Newstead Priory Farm stands on slightly higher land. The house is Grade I listed, and incorporates parts of a 12th-century Gilbertine Priory. Kettleby Beck joins the river from the east, through a set of sluice gates, just before the channel splits in two, with the old river passing through the centre of Brigg and the new one bypassing it to the west, before rejoining to the north of Brigg. They form an island, which is known as Island Carr. There is a marina on the old branch, and the former Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway main line from Gainsborough to Grimsby, now part of the Sheffield to Lincoln Line, crosses both branches. The A18 road also crosses both branches. The bridge over the new branch was designed by John Rennie and built in 1827, with brick flanks and ashlar masonry. The bridge was widened in the 20th century, with the south face being reused once the widening had taken place. The road formerly crossed the old branch at County Bridge, a single span rusticated stone arch erected in 1828. The handrails were replaced in 1951, and the A18 was diverted over a new bridge to the north.

Broughton Bridge - - 338400
Broughton Bridge is an inverted suspension bridge

Below the point where the two branches rejoin, a new bridge carries the M180 motorway over the channel. Next come Castlethorpe bridge and Broughton bridge, both maintained by the Environment Agency. Broughton is an inverted suspension bridge, which replaced an earlier bridge in the mid- to late 19th century, but this reused the earlier abutments. The single span is supported by two wrought iron arched ribs, with vertical and diagonal suspension rods, supporting timber decking. Another railway bridge follows, this time linking Scunthorpe to Grimsby, and now carrying trains run by South TransPennine. The intake formerly owned by British Steel plc is on the west bank by the bridge, supplying water to the steel industry in Scunthorpe.

Saxby Bridge is a wrought iron single span with timber decking, dating from the mid-19th century, which is virtually unaltered, apart from minor repairs to the decking. Horkstow Bridge is John Rennie's only known suspension bridge, and is one of the earliest unaltered suspension bridges in Britain. It is Grade II* listed. As the river nears the Humber, a high-level conveyor belt carries material from South Ferriby quarry to the cement works at Ferriby Sluice. The conveyor is 1.25 miles (2.0 km) long, and is used to transfer around 3000 tonnes of crushed chalk and 1,000 tonnes of clay per day. This stretch of the river has numerous moorings, and the Humber Keel & Sloop Preservation Society usually moor their keel Comrade and their sloop Amy Houson just above the final lock. The lock at Ferriby Sluice has two sets of gates: a low level set pointing upstream, and a set of much taller gates pointing downstream which prevent the river being inundated by tides, and allow vessels to leave when the Humber is at a higher level than the Ancholme. In order to minimise the ingress of brackish water into the Ancholme when the tide gates are used, the water is culverted into the West Drain when the lock is being emptied. The sluice consists of three sets of pointed doors, and two electrically-operated vertical guillotine gates. Salinity in the river is further controlled by two bubble curtains, and is continuously measured at Saxby, with the information used to decide whether the flow should be supplemented by water from the Trent Witham Ancholme Transfer Scheme.

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