In an earlier posting, I mentioned the lock keeper’s cottage on the edge of Freeman’s Marsh outside Hungerford. Now in a sorry state of disrepair, this once picturesque abode would have typified the accommodation of keepers of the lock, both canal and river-based, up and down the country in times past.
To me, these cottages conjure idealistic visions: places of romance, rural intrigue, comings and goings, exchange of news. Some or all of this might be true enough but, despite the desirable residency of the post, and an almost autonomous responsibility, the life of the lock keeper was not wholly idyllic. He was expected to operate and maintain the lock twenty four hours a day, seven days a week; (women were prohibited by law from becoming keepers of the lock in 1831). Despite everything, many craved the position of lock keeper, concomitant life being far preferable to that in the urban tenements of industrialisation.
Maintaining the lock and surrounding water-edged countryside also included offering whatever aid was needed to water-borne travellers, including the rescue of those who had fallen into the canal or river. Sometimes, the keeper was allowed to retain the tolls paid by those whose boats passed through the lock. Where the authorities took these payments, they occasionally offered the keeper a small stipend. Either way, it was a poor living so lock keepers and their families made the most of the generally large plots of land that surrounded their cottage. All sorts of enterprises have been recorded which mostly centred on the provision of goods that could be sold to those who traversed the canal. Kitchen gardens were substantial as was animal husbandry. Some of the more enterprising built bread ovens, brewed cider or beer, made cheese and a surprising number were bee keepers.
Of course, as the commercial nature of the canals declined, so too did the need for a professional lock keeper. Here, in a photograph held by Bradford on Avon Museum, is George Andrews who was the keeper of the lock in that town in 1925. Behind him, you can see his cottage. Today, George’s house comprises the tea rooms on the wharf. In a somewhat torturous, but eventually successful, arrangement, the freehold of his erstwhile home is owned by the Canals and Rivers Trust (CRT). The Kennet and Avon Trust secure the leasehold from the CRT and they sub-let to the far less bureaucratic and thankfully more down-to-earth Victoria to serve tea and cakes. I love Victoria. On this informative but wind- penetrating expedition, she provided me with a delicious cup of FREE steaming coffee just for standing next to a bloke in a high viz jacket!
And the lock keeper? Well, handing one’s CV into the local dole office with ‘lock keeper’ as your main desirable employment is not likely to get you far these days. However, a brief look at the website of the CRT will quickly alert you to several relevant vacancies. This is the delightful and unassuming Richard, one of today’s volunteer lock keepers at Bradford on Avon wharf. Richard’s one of those people you unexpectedly bump into when waiting for someone else; one of those folk who, once he’s started talking, you wish you had another two hours to spare to listen to.
Richard, a merchant navy engineer in another incarnation, has been a volunteer lock keeper for six years and told me all the things I should have known: his lock, at 11 feet 6inches in old money, is the second deepest on the Kennet and Avon. The deepest, somewhat unimaginatively named Bath Deep Lock, is the deepest IN THE COUNTRY. All very well me putting that in capitals – some of today’s local commentators were a little dismissive of the Bath construction claiming it comprised two locks conjoined so ‘it would be wouldn’t it’. Richard’s lock is also one of the busiest in the country. Normally. Interestingly, it’s not busy today:
‘The Avon’s too full’, says Richard in passing.
‘Too full of what’, the cub reporter enquires? Boats, I think but don’t posit.
‘Too full of water. Dangerously fast water’, the expert informs me. ‘And there’s a bridge down at Seend’, he continues. So, nowhere much for the boats to go, but plenty of opportunity for repairs. I am sucked into this world and its inhabitants. I am a walking anorak. Dare I ask whether there are many mishaps at Bradford on Avon wharf? Am I looking for glamour where it’s not required?
‘Well’, replies the poker- faced Richard, ‘we had two sunken boats in the lock last year. Would that be the sort of thing you’re interested in?’ Yes, oh yes. I try not to appear too excited.
In order to understand how the narrow boats sunk, I am obliged to stand on a very muddy piece of grass close to the water’s edge whereupon tricky engineering issues are pointed out. There’s no way I can utilise either my notebook or my camera. I must now rely on my unreliable memory. Basically, a cill is a large piece of stone which juts out from the lock gate. The narrow boats enter the lock. The captains observe all the warning signs, of which there are many clearly displayed, and they stop their boat short of the cill. Unless, according to today’s lock keeper, they are ‘out of their skull on drink’ or are busy on their mobile telephones. Moving forward of the cill results in a flooded boat. ‘And’, he continues. ‘if you get sucked under into the dark, you won’t be coming out again’. More importantly, for everyone else, they cause the canal to be closed for a week. Use of a heavy crane is a non-starter because it will damage the lock so a proper salvage operation must be undertaken which costs the narrow boat owner £100,000.
I think about all those lock keepers surviving in times when there were no cranes or salvage operations of the type that Richard refers to. All of those men and their families intent on the safekeeping of the locks. And all of those whose living depended on the well-being of the canal.
I am indebted to a writing blog I discovered: https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/a-lock-keepers-cottage/ Sadly, the author gives no source for her piece on canals but she writes as one who has undertaken substantive research