For centuries, their remote waters have been plied by few apart from bargees, eel fishers and more recently the occasional pleasure boat.

Now the network of man-made waterways which stretches west across the Fens from Norfolk is being opened up to paddleboarders and canoeists.

They'll be able to explore the dikes, drains and diverted rivers dug by the Dutch drainers and generations of adventurers, who drove the water from the land to farm it.

Channels which sprawl across the tract of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire named the Middle Level by the 17th century engineer Cornelius Vermuyden still preserve the low-lying Fens centuries later.

Drainage was an ongoing task, a work in progress which continues to this day as sea levels rise, requiring higher sluices and more powerful pumps to keep the sea at bay.

A new Middle Level Main Drain was completed in 1848, while Whittlesey Mere, a once great lake covering 3,000 acres when swelled by winter rains was drained around the same time.

The Middle Commissioners were set up in 1754 to oversee navigation on the network of waterways and collect tolls from commercial vessels to help pay for their upkeep.

Paths which run along the larger drains were hauling roads, used by the horses towing gangs of barges laden with coal, bricks and timber.

But the coming of the railways saw most of the trade defect from the plodding shire to the iron horse. 

And the last water-borne commercial traffic were barges delivering oil to diesel-powered pumping stations in the 1970s.

Yet unlike the canal at nearby Wisbech, which was filled in after the railway hijacked its cargo, the drains remain to this day because of their vital flood defence role.

Leave the Norfolk villages of Outwell and Upwell via the Well Creek, the original course of the River Nene and reed-fringed waterways run through stretches of remote countryside.  

The creek joins Popham's Eau, which links to the Sixteen Foot Drain, which runs south to meet the Ramsey Forty Foot, which in turn leads towards Chatteris, Benwick and Ramsey.

Stay with the creek and the Twenty Foot River it links to leads to Whittlesey and onwards towards Peterborough, while the Old Nene heads straight through the centre of March.

Now the Middle Level Commissioners have agreed an access deal with British Canoeing, an 87,000-strog paddlers' group which campaigns for access rights to waterways.

It means anyone with a £47 membership, which includes a waterways licence, will be able to paddle the area.

Ben Seal, its head of access and environment: "These waterways are a hidden gem for adventurers. 

“The thrill of navigating these historic routes will be an experience like no other. 

“Having Middle Level navigation is a great benefit for British Canoeing members and we hope they will paddle and enjoy these waterways in time.”

Paul Burrows, chief executive of the Middle Level Commissioners, said: “It will enable people of all ages and abilities to access our somewhat unique navigable waterways with a British Canoeing waterways licence. 

“We welcome responsible paddling on our network and aim that via this partnership we can improve access for paddlers over the coming years.”