The River Nene is an important regional navigation, rising at sources near Bradby, Naseby and Yelvertoft, and becomes navigable at Northampton where these tributaries combine.
The tidal section of the River Nene downstream of Peterborough was an important trade route, with improvements for both navigation and drainage being made from at least the 15th century. This section of the river gradually fell into poor condition and repairs were eventually made as a result of the 1930 Land Drainage Act with a new lock and sluice being constructed by the Dog in a Doublet pub. Opened in 1937, this maintained water levels to Peterborough and prevented tidal waters from entering the city. Commercial traffic returned to the lower river and the port of Wisbech was improved to allow access to larger sea-going vessels.
Attempts began in the 16th century to improve the upper non-tidal section of the river for navigation. The river was improved in stages following a series of Acts of Parliament throughout the 18th century, with the navigation being completed to Northampton in 1761. The link to the Grand Junction Canal and the wider canal system was completed in 1815 via lock 17 of the Northampton Arm. However, the conditions of the navigation was not maintained and the coming of the railway to Northampton in 1845 reduced the navigation‘s profitability, which led to further deterioration of the river’s infrastructure.
The Nene Catchment Board took control of the river as result of the Land Drainage Act of 1930. The board rebuilt all the locks and replaced remaining staunches with sluice gates. 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. This leaves the main Nene navigation channel at Stanground Lock on the South Eastern edge of Peterborough and follows the old course of the Nene on the Middle Level Navigations.
As profits dwindled on canals, companies were bought up. The Grand Junction Canal merged with other canals in 1929 to become the Grand Union Canal (as it is known today). By 1970, there was no long-distance transport on the canal.
The Nene Valley has a number of cultural features and exports for which it can be justly proud. One of the more local curiosities though, is the often-debated issue of how one pronounces ‘Nene’, a hotly contested issue along the valley. Those to the western side, from Thrapston to Northampton and beyond, pronounce it as ‘Nen’. Those to the east, from Oundle to Peterborough and on to the sea say it should be said as ‘Neen’. Quite where the boundary is between the two, and which is correct has yet to be resolved!
Seven major rivers and their tributaries criss-cross Northamptonshire and Peterborough. The more notable ones include Cherwell, Great Ouse, Ise, Tove, Welland and the Nene. Beside these waterways some 141 watermills existed and of that total, only a handful remain today. Most are in private ownership and not one is open to the public as a mill (this echoes the plight of the county’s windmills, which once again none are preserved).
The Nene Valley has provided inspiration for many poets, authors and artists who have sought inspiration from the diverse nature, wildlife, people, personalities, rural and industrial landscape, as well as the villages and towns that form the valley.