England has an extensive network of canals. They were built in the 19th and early 20th century to carry freight around the country but are now the playground of a legion of narrowboat owners who spend the summer travelling through the English countryside at a stately 4mph. To climb and descend hills the canals are peppered with locks, essentially steps that allow the narrowboats (which can be upwards of 50 feet long) to rise and fall with the landscape.
The canal that links London and Birmingham is called the Grand Union Canal. It is 220km long and has 166 locks. It also runs quite close to our place.
A short drive from Aspley Guise brings you to Soulbury the location of locks 24, 25 and 26 on the canal. Traditionally locks are places where narrowboats moor up and where people congregate and, as a result, often have a public house built on the banks of the canal. At Soulbury there is The Grand Union Restaurant and Bar.
On Thursday Gill, Jean and I shouted ourselves a pub lunch at The Grand Union. The weather was fine and clear but the temperature meant we ignored the outdoor seating and headed inside for a nice table by the fire. The food was great, especially as it was washed down with multiple beers and a rather good Argentinian Chardonnay.
The weather wasn’t the only reason we sat inside. Outside was a worksite. The British Waterway workers were in the process of replacing the gates on two of the three locks and the canal banks were all cranes, high visibility jackets, orange plastic barrier stuff and signs warning that hard hats must be worn at all times.
Sadly all this activity went unrecorded as I didn’t have my camera with me and, to be honest, after a few beers the chance of me taking any decent photos was quite low.
But there is always tomorrow – or today as it is now. I donned my boots, jacket and gloves, grabbed by camera bag and headed out to Soulbury.
As I am discovering, if you turn up anywhere with a camera and hang around for a few minutes people talk to you. So while wandering around the pub and locks I learnt a lot. For example:
- The lock gates being replaced were installed in 1988. The average life of a lock gate is 10 years so these ones were well overdue for replacement
- The old gates were leaking water which made the process of moving the narrowboats slower and more difficult than it should be and led to long delays – bad for the boaties but good for the pub
- The gates each weigh around 3 tonnes so require quite large cranes to install them
- At the same time as they install the gates they are going to dredge the holding pond between the locks which have built up around 3 metres of silt. This build up means that the narrowboats were regularly grounding when they passed each other – slowing down things even further
- Three Locks is located just down stream from a popular narrowboat hire outlet and in summer it is great fun watching the novice holiday bargers try to negotiate the locks without getting stuck or ending up in a lock with no water