Getting Us Down

Having driven only a short way on Saturday in the inclement conditions, we wanted to get a bit further on Sunday.  This was the not-quite-summit level so there were no locks for ten miles.  That meant there was very little scope for interaction with other people. We arrived at a swing bridge just as another boater had opened it for himself.  He generously waved us through.  I offered to stop and close it behind us so that he could go on his way.  He thanked me for the offer but said not to bother.  At another bridge one boat had stopped to open it, another had gone through and stopped to close it.  They both waved us through so we got another free pass.

Mooring can be tricky on the Kennet and Avon Canal.  It was around lunchtime when I simultaneously noticed a moorable looking spot and the start of a shower.  We managed to get moored without getting too wet, two of the boats we’d seen earlier gave us cheery waves as they passed in the rain.

By the end of the day we’d managed to dodge most of the showers and arrive at the top lock in Devizes.  The visitor moorings before the lock were all full.  I suspect that quite a few of the moorings were occupied by boats that weren’t moving on after 24 or 48 hours as they are supposed to.  We had little choice but to carry on through the lock, but fortunately found a reasonable mooring in the short pound below it.  “Reasonable” here means it was in full sun, but we needed to use the gangplank to get on and off the boat.

After dinner, we went for a walk to see what was in store for Monday.  We had done the first lock of the Caen Hill Flight – only another 28 to go!  To preserve water, the central flight of 16 locks are only open for a few hours each day – entry is only allowed between 10am and 1pm.  Usually this sort of restriction is policed with a padlock on the paddles or a chain joining the gates.  I am something of a fan of the well placed bollard to resolve traffic problems, but I’ve not seen them on gate arms before.

A lock gate arm in the evening sunshine.  A bollard is in place to stop the gate from being opened.
A Well Placed Bollard

We carried on down the flight in the evening sunshine.  Almost all the locks were empty with one of the tail paddles open.  I presume this is part of the water management protocol.  There is a pumping station at the bottom of the flight which is reputed to be able to send a lock-full of water back up the hill every 11 minutes.  That sounds like it ought to be able to keep up, but clearly something isn’t quite right.

We saw a number of herons on the quiet side of the locks.  They seemed to like perching on the brick walls at the lower side.  The locks are extremely close together, so most of them have an associated side pound.  In engineering terms this reduces the water level variation when a lock-full of water is added or extracted.  The local wildlife likes the pounds. A pair of birds caught our eyes as they chased each other across the open water.  One of them splashed in and almost instantly recovered.  The distinctive flash of blue and orange showed they were kingfishers – another activity I have not seen before.

The bottom of the main flight was marked by padlocked paddles – more like what I was expecting.

A close-up of the gear mechanism for aground paddle.  The white painted mechanism is disabled by a collar on the spline held in place by a brass padlock.
Paddle Gear Disabled with a Padlock

We made a relatively early start in the morning.  I’d hoped we would have company in the flight, but there was no sign of anyone going our way.  We worked through the five locks above the main flight on our own.  As we got in to the main flight, a Canal and River Trust (CRT) volunteer lock-keeper came over to us.  He apologised and said that there was a strict two gate policy.  We had been opening just one gate at each end as Bartimaeus fits through that.  He said that one of the main causes of gate leaking was damage to the seal caused by rubbing when only one gate was open.

He went away, leaving me thinking he had just doubled our workload and now wasn’t even helping.  How wrong could I be!  What he had gone away to do was set up the next lock in our favour.  Throughout the rest of the main flight we always had one or more of the friendly CRT volunteers helping us –  we were not on our own any more!

We had to pause between locks three times to let boats coming up the hill pass.  Clare opted to pull in to the side for the first two and let the pairs of boats pass almost unimpeded.  The final boat was on its own, so crossed in the pound with Bartimaeus.  To my surprise, and obviously the lock keeper’s too, this boat was paddle-driven.  What an amazing splashing noise it made!

A paddle-powered narrowboat exiting a lock.  The driver and a companion on the bank are shirtless.  A lock-keeper is standing watching them - in awe or bewiderment.
Paddle Powered Narrowboat Leaving a Lock

The paddle boat had been in the foreground of the view up the hill I had taken the night before.

A view up the main Caen Hill Lock Flight.  The locks march up the hill in an even line towards a vanishing point.  In the foreground are boats waiting to enter the flight.
Looking Up Caen Hill Flight

By the time we had reached the bottom of the main flight it was lunch time, and I had already worked at least half of twenty-one locks.  We moored up on the only remaining bollards – where the paddle boat had been – and started eating.  After a short while, the man in the boat behind  came to ask if we wanted to do the remaining locks in the flight with them.  I told him we would be happy to once I’d managed a little more lunch.  We had a few more minutes while the lock brought another boat up, and we set off again.

The other boat had two enthusiastic teenage crew members, so I switched to driving while Clare took the windlass.  We got through the rest of the locks in short order and then spotted another reasonable mooring (same definition) and pulled over.  After a bit of a rest I had a look at the weather forecast.  We wanted to be near Trowbridge by the end of Tuesday, but Monday’s sunny weather wasn’t going to last.  Going through the five Seend Locks in the late afternoon sunshine seemed a lot more attractive than in the next day’s drizzle so we headed through those too.

There were still other boats moving.  While we waited for one lock to fill I’d noticed a man carrying a baby and chatting to his young daughter.  I later met him wanting to bring a wide boat towards the lock as Clare was closing the gates.  I managed to signal to her to open them for him.  He was very grateful when he arrived, telling her that he wasn’t allowed to hold a windlass and a baby at the same time.  That sounds like a good rule, but I don’t know whose.

We finally found another reasonable mooring in the early evening, having come down through a total of 33 double locks during the day, and quite a few swing bridges too.