There are over 1,800 locks on the 2,000 miles of navigable waterways in England and Wales. Locks allow boats to travel up and down hills, and have been around for hundreds of years.
With around 35,000 boats licenced to cruise the canals, there are approximately 3.85 million lockages (uses of a lock) each year.
A lock is simply a chamber with gates at either end, and canal boat holiday-makers follow a series of step-by-step tasks to use them. By emptying or filling the chamber with water, boats can move up or down onto a new section of waterway.
There are many different kinds of locks
From narrow and broad, to staircase and double, there are many different kinds of locks. But they all on work on a similar principle. With the lock gates closed, boaters should open the sluices (paddles) to let the water in or out. When the water level under the boat is the same as the level it’s moving to, the boat can move in or out of the lock.
Some locks are operated by boaters, others by lock-keepers. Tuition is included in all Drifters’ canal boat holiday packages, and during the handover boat yard staff will usually guide hirers through their first lock.
Top 8 flights of locks
Here at Drifters’ we’ve put together our Top 8 flights of locks to celebrate these marvels of canal engineering:
The Caen Hill Flight on the Kennet & Avon Canal
One of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’ and a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the locks at Caen Hill are one of the most iconic sites on the waterway network. With 29 locks spread out over two miles, raising the canal by 72 metres, it takes around six hours to passage through. The 16-lock section clustered together up the hill is truly a magnificent site. Drifters’ narrowboat hire base at Devizes is at the base of the Flight at Foxhangers Marina.
Marple Locks on the Peak Forest Canal
One of the steepest flights on the system, the 16 locks at Marple raise boats by 64 metres over just one mile. The locks are built of local stone and are mostly tree-lined, giving the canal a lovely secluded feeling. In fact the Peak Forest Canals is said to be one of Britain’s most scenic waterways. It runs through beautiful countryside on the edge of the Peak District National Park. Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Stoke on Trent is 32 miles and 14 locks away.
The Tardebigge Flight on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal
With 30 locks spread out over two-and-a-quarter miles, this awesome flight of locks is the longest on the inland waterways system. In total, the locks raise and lower boats 67 metres, and it takes around five-and-a-half hours to travel through them. In recognition of the effort it takes, the Canal & River Trust issues certificates to boaters rising (or lowering) to the challenge. Drifters’ nearest canal boat hire base is at the top of the flight at Tardebigge Wharf, near Bromsgrove.
The Bingley 5 Rise on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal
This spectacular staircase of five locks near Bradford is another of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’. The locks raise (or lower) boats 18 metres in five cavernous chambers. The locks open directly from one to another, with the top gate of one forming the bottom of the next. It takes around one-and-a-half hours to work through. The size of the chambers can be intimidating even for experienced boaters, but friendly lock-keepers are on hand to help. Drifters’ nearest canal boat rental base is 25 miles and 20 locks away at Barnoldswick.
The Hatton Flight on the Grand Union Canal
This impressive flight of 21 locks was nicknamed ‘The Stairway to Heaven’ by the boaters who once carried cargos on the canals. The locks rise up 45 metres over two miles, and it takes boaters around four-and-a-half hours to travel through them. Just below the Top lock, Hatton Locks Café provides welcome refreshment for narrowboat holiday-makers and the “gongoozlers” watching them! Drifters’ nearest canal boat hire base is at Warwick, just two miles and two locks from Hatton Bottom Lock.
Foxton Locks on the Grand Union Canal Leicester Line
With countryside views all around, this flight of 10 locks raises boats up 23 metres in just a quarter-of-a-mile. Foxton Locks is the longest set of staircase locks in the UK and is designated a Grade II Listed structure. Staircase locks open directly one from another, so that the top gate of one forms the bottom of the next. It takes around 45 minutes to pass through the locks. Lock keepers are on hand to help, providing key advice when it comes to opening the paddles. Their mantra “Red before white, you’ll be alright. White before red, you’ll be dead” is helpful to keep in mind! Drifters’ nearest narrowboat boat hire base is a 14 hour cruise away, on the Grand Union Canal at Braunston.
Wolverhampton Locks on the Birmingham Main Line Canal
This flight of 21 locks rises boats up by 40 metres over one-and-three-quarter miles. Travelling through these historic locks is one of the highlights for narrowboat holiday-makers travelling round the popular Stourport Ring. Drifters’ nearest canal boat hire base is just 12 minutes away at Autherley.
‘Heartbreak Hill’ on the Trent & Mersey Canal
The Cheshire flight of 31 locks between Middlewich and Kidsgrove, raise the canal up 85 metres from the Cheshire Plains. The locks have been renamed ‘Heartbreak Hill’ by generations of leisure boaters. Because the locks are close enough for the crew to stay on the towpath, but far enough to require a lot of walking! Drifters’ nearest canal boat rental base is three cruising hours away at Stoke on Trent.