Locking up

Back in 1974 a group of us hired a narrow boat for a holiday. It was the first time we did this although some of us had canal experience already.

Canals, of course, are man-made waterways and need to conserve water. So all sections of a canal are dead level; and if hills are encountered, steps are constructed and have to be negotiated. These steps are called locks and they are containers of water with gates at each end to keep the water where it is wanted and sluice gates (often called paddles) to let water in and out. Water is heavy stuff and you can only open gates if the water level on each side actually is the same.

There’s plenty of scope for making a hash of things so it’s best to be careful and thoughtful, particularly when you start. So rather than using the motor to power us into a lock, here we are using human power.


The boat (don’t call it a barge) is a snug fit in the lock but actually they are usually easy to steer and you soon get used to motoring in.

Once in, the bottom gates will be closed (hence a person on each side and then the top paddles will be opened to admit water. Once the boat has floated up to the higher level the top gate can be opened and the paddles closed. The boat can then leave, but the rule on canals is that you leave things shut so somebody has to close the top gate behind the boat. This was quite a shallow lock. The driver’s eye view can look quite intimidating.


The brick sides seem like cliffs and the space seems narrow. In days of yore, of course, all boats were horse drawn and that footbridge across the lock has a gap in the middle for the rope to pass through – so much easier than unhitching the horse! Sam the dog, one of our fellow travellers, has a commanding view!

Within the next dozen years I probably worked through at least 500 locks. They are all different and should never be rushed. Well, the fact of the matter is you can’t rush them so as locks fill or empty just relax!



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