Drainage – more interesting than you’d think.


It’s not fancy. We know it happens, we rely on it to keep our houses dry but no-one is ever interested until it all goes horribly wrong.

Which has been a bit of a hot topic for the last few years. Whether it’s tidal surges or extreme rainfall, we are vulnerable to excess water. In this region, the people that help keep us dry are the Internal Drainage Boards. It doesn’t sound very glamorous does it? And no, maybe it’s not glamorous, but they are important. As a Councillor, I sit on three of the Boards that are part of the Downham Market Group of Internal Drainage Boards. According to their website they are a “public sector organisation responsible for flood protection and land drainage”, they are “responsible to DEFRA and work closely with local councils, the Environment Agency and other local partners.”

On Wednesday, myself and my colleague Cllr Jackie Westrop joined Gerald Allison, the General Manager and Gino, for a tour of the Stoke Ferry Internal Drainage Board. We requested the tour so we would be better placed to take part in discussions at meetings and to familiarise ourselves with the work of the drainage board.

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We started early and met at the Group Offices in Downham Market.


The first thing we were given was a map of the Stoke Ferry Drainage Board area so we knew where we were going. We decided that the area seemed to be a very odd shape and didn’t seem to have any logic to it. Apparently the boundary follows the contour lines, which on the ground makes perfect sense, it just looks a little strange on the map.

Board Area Map

Wimbotsham 1658

Upstairs is a big copy of the 1658 Map of the Middle Levels, it was fascinating to be able to see how things have changed over the years. to see how what were tiny villages are now some very big towns.

Downham Market 1658

We spent the next few hours travelling round, looking at the drains in the area, being shown the catchment areas for each drain and where all that water ends up. We all know the drains are there, but we don’t spend any time thinking about them.

Gooles Run

The Stoke Ferry Drainage Board manages 26 miles of drains, only a relatively small part of the whole 213 miles of drains within the whole Downham Group of Internal Drainage Boards.

They all have names as well. This is Gooles Run, at the far end is where it goes into the main channel.

Each drain is individually inspected every few months and maintained at least every year, more if required. Everything from clearing out rubbish, building up banks to grass cutting. Some drains are even left overgrown to prevent people from throwing rubbish in them, as rubbish can block up the drains so the water doesn’t flow away.

Private Drain



The difference between a private unmanaged drain and one the Drainage Board manages.


Water levels are also managed by a series of pumps, some are automated and some are manual. Water levels are monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by radio antenna’s that signal the Drainage Boards computers, if required the pumps can be activated remotely from anywhere in the world.

Wretton Fen Pump

This is one of the pumps at Wretton Fen Pumping Station.

One can pump 500 litres per second and the other pumps 1000 litres per second!

(No I can’t remember which one this is!)

Pump at Wretton Fen

Before the days of electric pumps and remote activation, pumps had to be operated by hand. If they got clogged up with weeds, the operator had to clear them with what looks suspiciously like a garden rake. These days most have automatic cleaners, which go by the name of “weed screen cleaners”. We’ve heard talk of these at meetings but it was nice to finally be able to see exactly what they are and how they work. We spent some time watching them after switching on the pumps, you’d be surprised how exciting councillors find switching on the pumps! (Perk of the job 😉 )

Weed Screen Cleaner at Wretton Fen
Wretton Fen



Two types of Weed Screen Cleaners


The thing that caused the most hilarity in the day was this:

Fish Pass


You see the big black pipe? It’s called a ‘Fish Pass’ and it’s a very expensive black pipe – we’re led to believe that it cost the Environment Agency some £475,000 to install.

It allows fish to pass from the Cut Off Channel to the River Wissey. It helps the River Wissey meet its Water Framework Directive Obligations. (No, I don’t know what that means either but I’m sure someone will be along to tell me in a minute)

Apparently it’s a very technologically advanced pipe as its got cameras in it, so the fish passing through it can be monitored, and counted. A grand total of 14 fish allegedly passed through the pipe in its first couple of weeks of being operational. I’ll just leave that there for you to draw your own conclusions. Hopefully fish numbers have improved since it was installed.

Finally, I’ll leave you where all that water ends up. All the little drains you see running round fields, along the edges of housing estates and alongside roads, they’re all designed to send the water here – The Cut Off Channel. Which has the added advantage of being really pretty and a nice place for a walk.

Cut Off Channel


Huge thanks to Gerald & Gino for not only taking us on a tour of the Drainage Board area, but also for explaining how drainage actually works and the challenges involved. For answering our never ending questions and above all, for coping so well with the mad councillor lady who insisted on taking photographs of absolutely everything. It was much appreciated. 🙂



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