Written by Gary, photos Yafei and Gary
The canal system in England was developed as a navigation way for the transportation of goods in the Industrial Revolution that took place in England in the eighteen hundreds. Narrowboats, up to seventy-five feet in length, were pulled by horse teams walking along a towpath. The goods carried included coal, textiles, food – in fact, everything that was required to ‘fuel’ a rapidly growing nation. Restricting their width to a maximum of 7ft (hence the word narrowboat) ensured these vessels could navigate the entire length of the man-made waterways that crisscrossed the English countryside.
While the canals, like the railways, were routed to follow as flat as path as possible, it was impossible to avoid some elevation change when you’re trying to connect towns and cities hundreds of miles apart. And this is where locks come into play - they are used for raising and lowering the canal boats between stretches of water of different levels. The lock is a wonderfully simple invention and is usually found in one and two’s. However, near Devizes on the Kennet and Avon Canal, a staggering twenty-nine locks allow boats to ascend or descend the 237ft of Caen Hill in a little over two miles. In the center of this massive flight of locks is a contiguous section of sixteen that must be traversed in one go as there’s no place to tie-up. A marvel of the Industrial Revolution, and now a bucket-list item if you’re traveling the canals in this part of the country.
Caen Hill Locks
As we approached the center sixteen-lock section, a vacation charter was heading into the second of the locks. We shouted ‘hello’ and immediately heard a familiar twang – these folks were from California! I offered to help them with the lock operation; Rick was at the helm and his wife, Kathy, was manually operating the locks - she looked please for the offer.
Rick and Kathy (on the Towpath), On Vacation from Irvine, California
At every lock, the four lock gates (each weighing approx. 7000lbs) must be opened and closed to let the narrowboat in and out. Also, the sluice-gates or paddles are raised and lowered with a windlass to fill or empty the lock of water, thus raising or lowering the narrowboat between the two waterways. And, all this must be done in a specific order. It’s hard manual work, and if you have just two people on a boat you’re looking at around five hours to make it down the sixteen locks in this contiguous section.
Finding My Rhythm Operating the Locks
With my first lock complete, we started on the second. This turned into the third, and before we knew it, Kathy and I were into a good rhythm, and the boat was making rapid progress. An afternoon stroll turned into an adventure of conquering the main flight of Caen Hill locks. Yafei and Xaria joined Rick on the boat, while Kathy and I wrestled with the heavy machinery at one lock before moving onto the next.
Clearing Another Lock on the Caen Hill Main Flight
Xaria Enjoying Her Day Afloat
Xaria Rushing to Help Out on Another Lock
One Day Xaria Will Make a Good Boat Skipper
Just under three hours later, several layers of clothes lighter, and with my baseball cap soaked in sweat, we finally cleared the last lock just short of Marsh Road bridge. This was where Rick and Kathy were planning to overnight before heading through the final six locks and completing the relatively straightforward journey back to their drop-off point in Bradford-on-Avon. I had not expected to be doing this on this sunny afternoon but what fun, and it’s always great to make new friends.
Having Conquered Caen Hill Locks
Rick, Kathy and their Daughter Karina (who had been down below resting after a late night in Devizes!)
The cold beer on the boat after we moored when down very well. Looking back up the flight it made me think how impressive it would have been in the Industrial Revolution seeing multiple narrowboats making their way up and down, ladened with goods, with teams of horses off to the side.
A Canal Trust Worker Prepares the Locks for the Next Morning
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