“Pop your windlass onto the spindle, then wind it slightly to release the ratchet and lower the paddle.” This sort of instructions make sense only to narrowboat enthusiasts who must open and close locks on navigation canals. But what are those locks and where are they? And, more importantly, why do people still sail along the canals in the era of air travel?
Canals and the Industrial Revolution
To understand the construction of the canal system, we must go back in time to the Industrial Revolution. It started in the mid-1700s, when imperial state and industrial power drove the economic growth of Britain from 1750 on1.
By the 1880s, the vast production of coal, pig-iron and steel in Britain, which was bigger than that of Europe, led to the growth of the shipping industry. Water made the transport of bulky goods easier and more cost-effective than roads. However, not all rivers were navigable and sometimes mills and weirs blocked them.
The response to these problems was to build canals. Canal-building was especially active in the 1770s and 1790s1. Although not exempt from problems, canals like the Staffordshire and the Worcestershire, which connected to the River Severn and the sea, provided cheaper transport for bulk goods like iron and coal.
According to Black and MacRaild1, canals were integral to the process of industrial change. Industrialists built mine shafts, factories and wharves near the canals to facilitate the transportation of their goods. Another advantage of canals was that many roads became impassable in the winter, so canals were a better option unless the water froze.
Eric J. Evans2 posits the notion that canals were crucial to a successful industrial revolution because it depends on the creation and satisfaction of a mass market. Canals reduced transport costs, thus lowering the price of mass-consumption goods like coal.
By the 1820s, there were about 4,000 miles of navigable waterways in Britain. Canals linked the rivers Mersey, Severn, Trent and Thames. This “canal mania” also had a positive impact on the construction industry, as there was a high demand for workers, bricks and iron2.
When canals were first built, men and horses towed the barges upstream along some stretches when sailing was impractical, or if the wind was unfavourable. They had to walk on the banks, which were sometimes muddy.
In the late 1700s, tow path companies started to build brick towing paths along the canals. These paths were suitable for horses, which pulled the boat as they walked along the towpath. Nowadays, towpaths are a favourite place to jog, walk, or cycle.
What is a lock?
According to the dictionary, a lock is “an enclosed chamber in a canal, dam, etc., with gates at each end, for raising or lowering vessels from one level to another by increasing or decreasing water in the chamber.” As you probably guessed, the water level varies between canals and rivers.
I’ve never been on a boating holiday or even sailed in a narrow boat for the day. However, I was lucky enough to see a lock in action by pure chance. I’d gone to Guildford for the day. I was strolling along the River Wey after lunch and shopping when I came across people operating Millmead Lock.
Why is there a lock in Guildford? Created between 1651 and 1653, the River Wey Navigation is one of the oldest in the country. It connects Guildford with London and provided a fast and cheap way to transport wool to the capital. But the Wey’s meanderings made it unnavigable. Locks like Millmead bypassed sections of the river and make the journey shorter.
How does a lock work?
As I approached the lock, I saw a narrow boat waiting behind the paddle and a man and a woman at either side of the water. They were about to open the lock, so I stayed and asked for permission to video the whole process. Although I found it very interesting, I’m happy to let other people do it. It’s hard work!
- Pop the windlass onto the spindle, wind it slightly to release the ratchet and lower the paddle.
- In order to open the gate, lean on the white bit of the gate and push gently.
- The boat sails into the lock, making sure it’s kept forward of the cill markers, which mark the bottom of the lock.
- Shut the gate behind the boat and lower the paddle.
- Do the windlass thing again on the other gate.
- Open the paddle up half-way first. Let water come in.
- When the turbulent water settles down, open the gate and let the water level rise.
- When the water is level with the river, open the gate. The boat sails out of the lock.
- Close the gate.
The canals today
For some people, narrowboating is a lifestyle. They live in their houseboats full-time, sailing along the canal network. So, what about winter? Narrowboats are insulated against the cold and have diesel-fuelled central heating. They can stay in a marina over the winter if they wish.
Others like to go on boating holidays or weekend breaks and rent a narrowboat, like the people I saw in Guildford. They can sail along and stop wherever they like. However, they’re expected to move on after 14 days.
Would I do it? Probably for a weekend or so. Although I prefer to stay on terra firma, I’d love to see parts of Britain from a boat. It seems to me that you can visit places you’d never reach by car. You have the freedom to stay put or move on wherever and you don’t need to worry about transport and accommodation because it’s an all-in-one deal.
1 J. Black and D. MacRaild, Nineteenth-Century Britain, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
2 Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain 1783-1870, 3rd ed., Longman, 2001
Also read about London’s Little Venice.