Wonder #7 – Caen Hill Locks

On 15th June 2013, we edged warily across the first of the Seven Wonders Of The Waterways, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

On 14th August 2013, just fifty days later, we emerged blinking from number six, the Standedge Tunnel.  This frenzied progress inspired Emily to put her cartography skills to work:

Wonders update


Finally, a whopping 387 days after that, we made it darn sarf to that last elusive star and bagged the set.


Caen Hill Locks are on the Kennet & Avon canal.  The “K&A” connects the Bristol River Avon (which flows into the Severn) to the River Kennet (which flows into the Thames).  It traverses Somerset, Wiltshire and Berkshire, to link Bristol and Reading.

It is the only great extant canal of “the south”.  And it is a controversial waterway amongst canal travellers, who view it as either backbreaking and over-rated, or as breathtaking and splendid.  These 29 locks which take the canal up 237 feet in 2 miles, exemplify this debate.  A marvellous piece of engineering, with plenty of wildlife, and majestic views; yet also incredibly hard work.  Me, I like the combination, especially when you have plenty of crew to share the labour.


(Strictly speaking, the actual Wonderous bit is the middle sixteen up Caen Hill.  But this “main course” is sandwiched between a “starter” of seven at Foxhangers, and a “dessert” of six at Devizes.  By the end of this monstrous feast, one requires a long sit down and a nap.)



And so it was that last Saturday, Felucca set sail up Wonder #7, with aforementioned crew, here pictured clowning around at the bottom of the flight.  They won’t be smiling soon!





We tucked into the first seven locks at Foxhangers with a jaunty appetite:





And then onto Caen Hill proper.  There are longer lock flights in the country; there are deeper locks too, and harder ones.  But these sixteen are notable for how close together they are, and the engineering panache required to pull off such proximity.  Each lock is separated by a very short intervening pound of water; you drive out of one, and seconds later are in the next one already.  This makes things very efficient from a boating point of view; your crew can stay on the bank, scurrying back and forth and nipping lithely from lock to lock, going up the whole lot in about 2 hours.

Such a swift ascent would have been preferred by working boatmen for whom time was money; much better than tackling the same ascent spread over five miles, say, which would take a lot longer, with much energy wasted walking between locks, rehitching the horse, getting on and off the boat, etc.

But the short intervening stretches between the locks were an engineering headache.  Each chamber is filled from the canal above.  If that stretch is very short, filling an eight-foot lock will drain it, rendering it shallow and unnavigable.  To prevent this, head engineer John Rennie and his gang of navvies built huge “side ponds”.  Each of the problematic short stretches was equipped with a big reservoir of water off to the side; this prevented the level from changing significantly when the locks above and below were filled and emptied.

A map of the hill looks like this:

google map



And it looks lovely from the air – though unless you have a quadcopter (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvL9tMLPTbs), you have to use your imagination, or Google Images:






When we reached the bottom of this lot, we had a great stroke of luck, catching up with Glynn and Pete on NB Racundra.  Sharing makes things even snappier:  more crew on the bank, and the stabilising effect of a second boat in the lock chamber with you.  And up we went.



Felucca bites her lip and chugs towards Caen Hill Bottom Lock



Boots, tea, rope, beard.



Suzie and David



Half way up.



Paddle up



One of the side ponds. Home to lots of plants and animals having a jolly time.



Pete The Thinker



Felucca and Racundra scale the dizzy heights of Wiltshire.



Suzie and Emily pass the time chatting to Glynn.



Lots of locks



Lots and lots of locks



Lots and lots and lots of locks


And by and by, we reached the top.  A most enjoyable experience:  just the right balance of hard work and standing about; thoroughly interesting; and overall, rather uplifting, to the soul as well as to the boat!


So, here is the countdown of my favourite wonders, in reverse order:


7:  Burnley Embankment.  https://nbfelucca.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/wonder-4-burnley-embankment/  Undoubtedly an impressive bit of 18th century earthworks but rather underwhelming from the boat.

6:  Barton Swing Aqueduct.  https://nbfelucca.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/wonder-3-via-a-historical-detour/  Another good bit of building but needs a lick of paint; rarely swings nowadays.

5:  Standedge Tunnel.  https://nbfelucca.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/wonder-6-standedge-tunnel/  Magnificent, mad, long, dark, bendy, intense.  The most Wild West of the lot, and the highlight of an outrageously wonderful canal; bit too much stress for the man at the tiller but unmissable.  Not good for paintwork.

4:  Anderton Boat Lift.  https://nbfelucca.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/wonder-2/  A sixty-foot drop into the River Weaver in an unlikely Victorian bird’s nest of hydraulics and steel girders.  Jaw-dropping and rather fun but just misses the top three on account of being rather passive from the boater’s point of view; you just moor up and get lowered, with no opportunity to crash into anything or show off.

3:  Caen Hill Locks.  Lockwheeling extravaganza.

2:  Bingley Five Rise.  https://nbfelucca.wordpress.com/2013/08/03/belatedly-wonder-5/  The Hanging Gardens Of Babylon of the inland waterways of England and Wales.  Pips Caen Hill on account of it being a staircase:  as per the above but all telescoped into one barmy structure.

1:  Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  https://nbfelucca.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/wonder-1/  https://nbfelucca.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/stream-in-the-sky/  Truly a stream in the sky.  Peerless views of the Dee Valley in all directions; and a panic-inducing sheer drop just inches away.  Glorious.


Hats off to those incredible engineering visionaries of yesteryear; to Robert Aickman for compiling the list; and to all our various crews who put in the muscle to get us up/down/through/across all of these.  Happy days!

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One comment on “Wonder #7 – Caen Hill Locks
  1. […] we’d been on all the major canals, to famous canal towns, to all seven of Robert Aickman’s wonders of the waterways, on tidal rivers, on the sea. We’d been boating in sun, rain, hail, more rain, thunder and more […]

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