There are over 1,800 locks on the 2,000 miles of navigable waterways in England and Wales, all enabling boats to travel up and down hills.
These structures have been around for hundreds of years but can be daunting for canal boat holiday newcomers, especially when there are lots of them in quick succession.
Fortunately there’s no mystery to using locks – just a series of step-by-step tasks. A lock is simply a chamber with gates at either end. 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, 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 and 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 procedure boat yard staff will usually take canal boat holiday-makers through their first lock.
Here at Drifters’ we’ve put together our Top 6 flights of locks to celebrate these marvels of canal engineering:
1. Caen Hill – One of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’ and a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the flight of locks at Caen Hill on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Devizes in Wiltshire has to be 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’ Devizes narrowboat hire base is at the base of the Flight at Foxhangers Marina.
2. Tardebigge – with 30 locks spread out over two-and-a-quarter miles, this awesome flight of locks on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in Worcestershire 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.
3. Bingley 5 Rise – another of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’, this spectacular staircase of five locks on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal near Bradford, raises (or lowers) 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, and 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.
4. Hatton – nicknamed ‘The Stairway to Heaven’ by the boaters who once carried cargos on the canals, this impressive flight of 21 locks on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire raises boats up 45 metres over two miles, and takes around four-and-a-half hours to travel through. Just below the Top lock, boaters will find the popular Hatton Locks Café for welcome refreshment and usually plenty of “gongoozlers” watching boats passing through the locks too! Drifters’ nearest canal boat hire base is at Warwick, just two miles and two locks from Hattton Bottom Lock.
5. Foxton – surrounded by stunning views of the Leicestershire countryside, this set of 10 locks on the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal raises boats up 23 metres in just a quarter-of-a-mile. Foxton Locks is the longest set of staircase locks in the UK – where the locks open directly one from another so that the top gate of one forms the bottom of the next – and they are designated a Grade II Listed structure. It takes around 45 minutes to pass through and there are lock keepers on hand to help, providing key advice when it comes to opening the paddles – “Red before white, you’ll be alright. White before red, you’ll be dead.” Drifters’ nearest narrowboat boat hire base is just two and a half hours away at Market Harborough.
6. Marple – one of the steepest flights on the system, the 16 locks on the stunning Peak Forest Canal 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, running through beautiful countryside on the edge of the Peak District National Park. Drifters’ Peak District canal boat hire base is 32 miles and 14 locks away from the bottom of the Marple Flight.