Walking along the Water Railway from Lincoln to Boston

Bank Holidays are perfect for spending time doing what you love. With both the Lyke Wake Walk and my Bucket List in mind, I decided to use mine to walk along the Water Railway route from Lincoln to Boston.

The dismantled Water Railway path from Lincoln to Boston follows the River Witham from Lincoln to Boston. The mostly traffic free off-road route is advertised as ideal for cycling and walking. The full route is 33 miles (54km) long and pretty flat. It passes through the Lincolnshire villages of Bardney, Woodhall Spa (actually Kirkstead Bridge), Tattershall Bridge, Chapel Hill, Langrick Bridge (and lots more villages besides) on the way into Boston.

The Water Railway is part of National Cycle Network Route 1, and there are lots of places to stop and rest on the way.

The path that connects these two important Lincolnshire settlements would see boats loaded with grain and wool, as well as local people travelling on packet boats. The railway opened in 1848 as a much faster replacement to slow river travel, until 1981 when the last goods train served the sugar beet factory in Bardney.

Being a flat river route in Lincolnshire you are almost always surrounded by vast open fenland landscapes, with long views and expansive skies. There are also a number of sculptures to keep things interesting along the way – commissioned artwork depicting Lincolnshire’s assets and inspired by the words of Lincolnshire’s own Lord Alfred Tennyson.

When I was getting my OS maps ready (with string and little post it notes, of course) and realised I would need three of them my heart sank. Eek! Actually I had to walk from my own front door (there are no buses before 9.30am on a Bank Holiday Monday in Lincoln), so was going to walk five miles before I got to the start of the path. Taking that into account the full hike would be around 37 miles to get all the way into Boston town centre. My goal was still 30 miles – a handful more than I had ever walked in one go before, but I was hopeful I would be able to do the whole thing.

The route follows the River Witham and as such provides lots of opportunity to see flora and fauna associated with life by the water.

Kit wise I carried all the usual day-hike paraphernalia along with some cash to buy a cup of tea somewhere along the way. The main difference to this and a normal day hike was my choice of footwear – I donned my trusty old trainers with their nice wide toe box, as the route was mainly on tarmac footpath and I decided that the light and cushioned sole of a trainer would be more appropriate than a stiff boot. This decision was to prove my downfall, though, as you will realise later.

Lincoln to Bardney

The day started in quite an eerie fashion as Lincoln was dowsed in a light fog. I didn’t see anyone at all until I reached the city centre, which added to the creepy feeling I had that made me walk quite fast! By 9am the sun started to burn through the fog and started to notice lots of other people enjoying the river and path, which was really great to see – rowers and kayakers, walkers with their dogs and children, runners chatting away to each other as they jogged along, leisure cyclists out for a nice ride and really serious cyclists getting some miles in, and some horse riders too. What a nice place to be on a Monday morning – enjoying one of my favourite pastimes while other people were in the same place enjoying theirs. I wondered how many people were going all the way to Boston, or what they’d be doing for the rest of the day.

St Marks in Lincoln in the foggy morning sun.

The start of the Water Railway path in the fog. 

One of many sculptures inspired by words by Tennyson.

Enjoying the river.

I made great progress into Lincoln and was in Bardney (14 miles in) in what felt like no time at all. I hadn’t rushed (at least not once the sun started shining); I had stopped to look at some of the artwork and had taken a fair few photographs (all on my iPhone, I don’t carry a DSLR when hiking). Bardney was a welcome sight as I knew that I was very nearly half way to my goal of 30 miles, I had found a stride that worked, was happy with my kit, and at this point looking forward to the rest of the day.

Bardney to Kirkstead Bridge

I had hoped to make a stop for a cup of tea (and the toilet, always important when out all day) at the Heritage Centre in Bardney, but unfortunately when I got there it was not open. I was just a bit early, but rather than wait I decided to press on to Woodhall Spa where I knew there would be somewhere for a cup of tea.

The marked path takes a slight deviation from the River Witham at Bardney as there is a rather large Sugar Factory in the way, and there are two choices depending on the weather – the summer route takes a farm track/bridleway towards the bottom corner of Southrey Wood before heading back to the river bank once clear of the factory, and the winter route takes the road around the top of the woodland, joining up with the river path at Southrey itself. I looked at the track and decided it was worth a go, which was a sound decision as apart from some very easily avoided puddles the path was lovely and provided some different views and something different underfoot for a couple of miles.

The “summer route” around Bardney.

Once back next to the River Witham, the familiar information boards returned and there were a few more sculptures. A large group of cyclists overtook me – a family outing – and a little later on I caught up with one of them walking back towards me. Her chain had got stuck so I gave her a hand to sort that out. She thought I was bonkers walking all the way to Boston; they were going to Woodhall Spa for a pub lunch which by now sounded like a rather nice idea. I thought that if the pub at Kirkstead Bridge looked ok I would be tempted to go inside and have a sit down for a bit, but by the time I got there the feeling for hot food had passed and I tucked into more of the food I’d been carrying in my pack and continued on my way.

Some of the stations are marked with original ironwork.

Lincolnshire Longwool sheep by Sally Matthews.

Kirkstead Bridge to Chapel Hill

Unfortunately the Water Railway itself between Kirkstead Bridge and Tattershall Bridge is now a general use country lane rather than a dedicated footpath and cycle way. I walked along the lane for those few miles, following the cycle route signposts. The lane was quiet and still followed the River Witham closely, meandering along without much traffic at all. I started to notice a fair few boats on the river, which was lovely – narrow boats and other pleasure boats; on a day trip to Lincoln perhaps.

The view of the River Witham from Kirkstead Bridge. At this point the path crossed the river and followed country road for the next 13 miles.

The sun was out but it was still quite cool; my new Odlo base layer t-shirt and midlayer fleece were doing their job perfectly (more about those another time), and I alternated between having my waterproof jacket done up and undone. I wasn’t the only person walking along this lane, I came across a number of people walking in both directions – it would be lovely if a path could be created somehow along that stretch.

Of course because there was no path, there were also no information boards giving me snippets of information to keep my mind busy. By now I had done over 20 miles and my legs were starting to ache, I could have really done with something other than the walking to keep my mind occupied.

River Witham.

Once over the main road at Tattershall Bridge, it was more of the same along this stretch of the route, but with the country lane being a bit busier and to be honest really not great for walking. The road still hugged the river and I walked passed a number of farms where men and women were working hard to make a living – farmers don’t stop for Bank Holiday after all.

Chapel Hill to Langrick Bridge

Because of how busy that little stretch of road had been from Tattershall Bridge to Dogdye, and knowing that there was at least six miles of it to go before the lovely traffic free footpath returned, I decided to deviate from the marked route slightly and stick to a marked footpath along the river bank to Langrick Bridge. This would have been an excellent decision; the route was much safer, provided yet more river and farmland views, and was softer underfoot than the tarmac and concrete I’d been walking along all day.

The first stretch of footpath I chose to take instead of the country lane. This bit was lovely!

It was all good for a mile or so, until the well-trodden footpath became an incredibly uneven route littered with mole hills and cow pats and everything else you normally get on riverside paths. You’ll remember I’d decided to wear trainers, something that was an absolutely perfect choice until this point – having already walked the equivalent of a marathon I was now getting slightly damp feet, and was finding the terrain a little difficult without any ankle support. Then I unintentionally kicked a mole hill because I didn’t lift my foot high enough and my trainer filled with horrible dusty dirt. Yuk.

I still believe that I was right not to follow the sign-posted route along the national speed limit road. That road is long and straight and cars drive down it at speed – I would not have felt safe at all along there. I also still believe that trainers were the best choice as having a lighter and well cushioned pair of shoes on meant my feet had the best chance. But a combination of the uneven ground, mole hills, damp grass and tired legs meant the six miles along that footpath were very difficult for me.

I wandered lonely as a cloud…

Once I could see Langrick Bridge a couple of miles in the distance, knowing that my feet were quite wet and my legs now hurting, and having checked that I’d walked over 30 miles already, I decided to call it a day. Those five miles I’d walked before the Water Railway route started would have to make up for the five miles left between Langrick Bridge and Boston. I’ll have to go back and walk that section another day.

Possibly the tallest style in the world. Not what you want to see after 30 miles of walking. At least the gate offered additional places to put my weary feet.

Back Home

I did the 32.5 miles from my front door to Langrick Bridge in 10 hours, almost to the second. That’s an average of 18:30 minutes per mile, although I know I started off a bit quicker than that and finished much slower. It was a good day out – a long day but a good one, enjoying the Lincolnshire countryside in all its glory – big skies and endless fields with all kinds of animals and birds.

I wouldn’t call the day a total success. I certainly didn’t fail, but in my mind to have been completely successful I needed to also do the last five miles from Langrick Bridge into Boston town centre. But I didn’t. I was done. I walked over 30 miles, and for 10 hours, and that was enough. I shall go back and do that last five miles another time, when my feet aren’t wet, and when I haven’t already done 30 miles to get to that point.

Sculpture along the path from Lincoln to Bardney.

I would definitely recommend the Lincoln to Bardney and Bardney to Woodhall Spa (Kirkstead Bridge) parts of this walk to anyone – everyone. The Water Railway route is a well-kept and well used path along the River Witham with various features and sculptures to keep things interesting; if you live close by I hope you make use of it regularly.

As for walking the whole thing? With the long stretch (13 miles) of country road splitting up the traffic-free sections I personally won’t bother again – if you’re on a bike, perfect, but not as great for the walker as I had hoped. I would really love to see the rest of the dismantled Water Railway developed to make the rest of the route as nice as those first 14 miles.

Have you cycled or walked (or rowed, etc) from Lincoln to Boston along this route? Feel free to add your thoughts below.

The River Witham in Lincoln.

For more information about the Water Railway route I recommend you start on the Visit Lincoln site.


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