Archive for the ‘Canal’ Category

Waterwheels in West Wiltshire and Somerset

August 2, 2016

We associate water wheels with milling but they had other uses. We are looking at two here, both between Bradford on Avon and Bath. One may have started as a corn/grist mill. The other operates a pump.

Here’s the first.


This is Avoncliff Mill – I believe called North Mill. My photo dates from 1972, I think. We can see the River Avon has a weir built across it and that provides a head of water for the wheel. This mill dates from the 1880s But earlier mills on the site were used for fulling – a process in the cloth making industry.

Recently the mill has been the subject of all sorts of arguments. A group wanted to rescue the extremely derelict building and set up a hydroelectric power station. It sounds laudable, but things seem to be stymied and I for one am not getting into any blame game.

The mill can be seen nicely from the Avoncliff Aqueduct which carries the Kennet and Avon Canal over the river.

Four or five miles of delightful downstream bring you to Claverton on the edge of Bath and the waterwheel used to power a pump which lifts water from the River Avon and into the canal.


This was back in 1974 and the fantastic reflection can tell you the pump was not in use for the waters of the Avon seem to be entirely still. The Kennet and Avon Canal is 48 feet higher, up the bank on the left and this was a last opportunity to get water into the canal before the locks that took it down to river level in Bath – and thus emptied water back into the river.

But what an ingenious solution – to use the power of moving water to raise some of that water up.

Claverton is fully restored these days and it does the job it was built for and remains a beautiful riverside structure.

Taking on water

July 20, 2016

It shocks me to realise that this photo, taken almost inevitably on my little Canon Demi, is now 42 years old. A group of us – mostly in what now might get called the ‘Dual income, no kids yet’ group had hired this narrow boat for a week. It was the week before Easter – a week chosen to keep the price down and (hopefully) make sure there was plenty of water for canals in the Midlands. The boat was hired from Penkridge in Staffordshire. I do remember it cost us £47 for the week.

By present day standards it was primitive. We could start with the loo which was just a chemical toilet which needed emptying fairly frequently at designated points along the canal. The motor control was not just the one lever pushed forwards for forwards and backwards for reverse. Instead there was a thumping great forward/reverse gear lever in the middle of the rear deck and a separate throttle. Crises, where a boat suddenly appeared in the opposite direction on a narrow stretch  could be a bit fraught. You had to throttle right back, pull that gear lever into reverse and then throttle up again – travelling forwards all the time. The heat insulation was limited – non existent really – as well. On chilly March nights condensation formed on the ceiling and top bunk dwellers could find bedding frozen to the roof! But it was all great fun.

Let’s see the scene as we moored up to fill the drinking water tank.


The real interest is the bridge. It’s a bit of a problem for all. You can’t see through it to know what might be coming the other way. That crisis might occur. Well actually, in this case one of the team would have walked up to the bridge to give an all-clear signal before we set off so that wouldn’t have been a problem. But now consider the original motive power for canal boats – the towpath based horse.

There is no towpath through the canal bridge. Instead the horse has a separate little bridge hole to go through. But it can’t haul the boat from there. So the horse has to be unhitched and the boat then has to be man powered in some way as it passes under the road. Under these circumstances, there is no real reverse gear should a crisis occur!

Three years later we had lefty the ‘DINKY’ group and canal holidays faded away. Canals are not the best place for children. Bigger boats were now needed and incomes had halved.

Chirk Aqueduct revisited

July 17, 2016

1975 was a transitional time for photography. I was still taking black and white photos which I self-processed. Our broom cupboard was dark enough and big enough for me to get film from the cassette and load it into the developing tank. Once in the tank the chemicals could be added in daylight so that was easy. Once the film was developed, fixed and well washed it was safe in the light and could be hung up to dry. When ready, a room could be darkened and the safe light used. The film in the camera was sensitive to all light but printing paper was not sensitive to red light so you could see what you were doing.

I had an enlarger which was a bit like a projector. The film negatives were held in place and projected onto the baseboard. You got it all set up and focussed and maybe used a light meter to tell you how long to expose the printer paper for. You made a judgement about the quality of paper to use. Some papers offered more contrast than others.

With the enlarger turned off you placed your printing paper in place and then switched on the enlarger for the required number of seconds. Nothing seemed to happen, but you then transferred the paper into a dish of ‘developer’ and the image appeared before your eyes. You had to keep a watch on this process. Leave it too long and the paper turned black. When you judged right – still under the safe, red lamp, you transferred the print to the stop bath – which may just have been water and after a quick swish it went in the fixer. This removed the light sensitive chemicals in the paper so that you could see the image in normal light. But the print still needed a good wash and then a dry off. I had a drier which helped to keep the prints flat. My dad just left prints to dry and they tended to curl up.

Well that was a bit of an intro. I have already shown a black and white photo of Chirk aqueduct on this blog.

But it was a transitional time. My wife must have been using the little Canon Demi and was taking colour slides. That’s what we see here.


That’s me on the tiller – not that there was any steering to do for the channel through the aqueduct was only just a few inches more than boat width. The aqueduct was to the design of Thomas Telford. The railway viaduct does rather dwarf it.

The arrival of children really caused the demise of the old black and white stuff. It was time consuming, space consuming and led to toxic chemicals being in the house.

On the canal in 1975

May 31, 2016

During the mid-70s, before the arrival of children, we had thought of buying a canal boat. We made a brief excursion into boat ownership with a strange little craft that had the name ‘Snatcher’ written on it. In theory, it had a car engine driving it with three forward gears and a reverse. In practice it was difficult to keep going and perhaps this was one of those occasions.


That’s me at the front, paddling the boat. My wife is at the back with a pair of nephews. I’m guessing we were somewhere near Honeystreet. Well perhaps the photo – I guess taken by my brother in law – captures the spirit of adventure in those days when our local canal, the Kennet and Avon, was not a through waterway and anything went. Nephews certainly look nervous!

These days this stretch of canal is the haunt of modern, luxurious narrow boats with some wider ones as well for this canal is a barge canal and can, mostly, take two narrow boats side by side through the locks. With Snatcher we never had to worry about locks for it was and still is in the middle of a 15 mile lock free stretch.

On being photographed – Caen Hill locks

April 26, 2016

Chased by the paparazzi

Well not really, of course, but at time it almost felt like it. But here’s the word of advice. If you want to feel like a superstar chased by photographers then take a boat up the Caen Hill flight of locks near Devizes. Make sure it’s a decent day for weather and a weekend as well. Then be ready to pose.

Caen Hill locks are, of course, an unofficial wonder of the world. There are 29 locks in all, but 16 of them form what looks like a giant’s staircase with one lock seemingly built on the previous one. In the true canal sense this isn’t a staircase for a true staircase has no intervening stretches of canal between them. The Caen Hill flight has short pounds, as they are called between the top gate of one lock and the bottom gate of the next. To help with water management each pound opened out at the side to a large area – about an acre in extent. They make a haven for wildlife.

So here we see a swan’s nest by one of the locks and adjacent to one of the side pounds.


And here we see the boat we were helping on.


The boat has just left one lock and has almost reached the next one. The entrance to the side pound can be seen.

And here’s the boat in a lock near the bottom of the flight,


Passing through a lock takes the time it takes. There is nothing you can do to increase the speed at which water enters or drains out of a lock. So like our gallant lock workers here, sit on the beam and relax.


There were getting to be more canal watchers about. Once upon a time people watching canal boats were called gongoozlers. Soon we had them in droves.


That’s my wife at the back of the boat. She was in charge of the boat at the time. On the front is one of her old school friends. It must have been the men doing the work at that time.


The gathering gongoozlers watch and snap photos of our Boat (we don’t own it, it was hired). The boat is out of sight, deep in the lock.


I snap a photo of people taking photos of our boat. It was now lunch time, clearly the time for the boat watchers.


A pair of Canada geese are uninterested in people – unless they feed them.


This is an old school friend of mine – married to my wife’s old school friend. He’s resting on a beam again whilst a lock fills

Permanent moorings.


We moored here for a while to enjoy a spot of lunch. Our mooring was not permanent and had a 24 hour limit.

My photos don’t really convey the almost continuous sight of cameras of all kinds pointing at us as we worked the locks or the boat. I dare say we’ll be on dozens, even hundreds of personal pages by now.




James Brindley

April 11, 2016

James Brindley was a millwright and then a canal engineer in the early days of canal building. He, effectively, set the standard for much of the English canal network by making locks about 70 feet long and just 7 feet wide. James was responsible for most of the grand cross – the canal network which linked the Severn, the Mersey, the Trent and, later, the Thames. His canals were built with economy in mind. When he surveyed a route he found a contour level and stuck with it for as long as possible. He’d have been aware that locks used water which somehow had to be replaced in totally man-made waterways. Locks were also more expensive to build than plain canal. So you’ll recognise a Brindley canal as one which meanders around hillsides rather than taking a short, direct and heavily engineered route. Amongst Brindley canals there is the Staffordshire and Worcestershire which we have travelled on more than once and it has featured on this blog – including this image at Bratch.


That’s me with the easy job, on the boat whilst friends work hard pulling a lock gate shut behind the boat.

But James Brindley means just that bit more than a man who built lovely, winding canals. You see, he’s a relative of my wife.

My wife had a great great great great great grandfather called Henry Brindley. James was his elder brother. Henry was a miller and one imagines James might have helped him with technical issues.

James is well known and there are numerous books about him and this is one of them.

image003Of course, most of Nick Corble’s book is about James’ career but there is a chapter on family ties and some of that may make a blog someday.

But for now, just accept that James is a bit special to us – special enough that we had one book about him before we ever entered the world of genealogy and knew he was related. That, of course, makes him more special.

Locking up

March 12, 2016

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!


The Wilts and Berks Canal

February 12, 2016

This canal, built to the narrow (7 feet wide) size, linked the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington with the River Thames at Abingdon. It took in some places of some industrial importance at various times, either on the main line or on branches. These included the towns of Calne, Chippenham and Swindon and also Wantage.

The canal opened in 1810 but was never much of a commercial success. By 1841 railways were taking over freight traffic from canals and a final straw came with an aqueduct collapse in 1901.

The canal was officially abandoned in 1914.

These days there is a society hoping to reinstate the canal. Progress is slow, but is being made on this canal which has been out of use for more than 100 years.

Back in 2004 we were in the vicinity of Dauntsey and I took a couple of photos.


Here’s a bit of clear canal, with water. It looks quite hopeful for restoration here. But nearby is a lock.


This was clearly undergoing restoration. The brickwork looks modern and a vertical ladder has been put in. Away from the lock the course of the canal needs a bit of the eye of faith to make it out.

But never say never! The Kennet and Avon Canal was a wreck into the 1970s but is now a fully open and thriving leisure waterway. The Wilts and Berks would make a good link for happy boat folk.

A tub boat at Blists Hill

November 17, 2015

Tub boats were small barges that could carry goods into difficult terrain. Obviously, they floated along tub boat canals – particularly in Shropshire, but where a hill was in the way, the boats were floated into rail borne cradles and hauled up.

Blists Hill is in the Ironbridge Gorge area and is a large open air museum. It has the Hay inclined plane – the tub boat railway that lifted the boats more than 200 feet from roughly River Severn level and it also has tub boats.

I was there in 1972 when the museum was in its glorious infancy. There were traces of rail visible on the inclined plane.


I think that’s me standing a bit up the slope so my wife must have had the old Canon Demi camera at that time.

I believe that trackway is now fully restored and railed. No doubt it makes more sense in restored order but somehow it lacks that pioneering look.

Up at the top the tub boat would have been re-floated in the canal for more of its journey, delivering coal to local factories. This was the scene back in 1972.


The very rectangular vessel in front is an old wrought iron tub boat.

Happy memories!

An interchange station

November 9, 2015

Today I have a photo of a station, with hardly a railway in sight. The station looks not much more than an attractive brick hut.

image002 I owe my dad something here, for he captioned this slide (taken on my Canon Demi) and he even added a grid reference for posterity.


My only mark on that is the R (upside down) at the bottom right. That’s a mark which tells me the photo was taken in the summer of 1973. My dad has added the information at the top.

So this is a canal/rail interchange station. We can just see a bit of canal at bottom left and there is a railway bridge in the background.

Now my dad has called it a passenger interchange and that would have happened for in days of yore canals did operate passenger services. But I suspect this was more a goods interchange point, between the Montgomery Canal and the railway linking Shrewsbury and Chester.

I think this is a lovely building and it still exists. It’s where the arrow points on the map.