A watery staircase for boats

UNLIKE IN HOLLAND, the landscape of England is often not flat. In the 18th century, a network of canals was constructed to carry freight between different places in England and its neighbouring countries. The routes of these canals almost always involved crossing hilly terrain. When a canal encounters a hill, it can sometimes be routed around it, or it can pass through a tunnel, or it can cross the incline by means of a lock or a series of locks. A series of locks can be separated by short stretches of the canal on level terrain, in which case it is called a ‘flight of locks’. A good example of this are the six locks on the Grand Union Canal at Hanwell in Middlesex. Alternatively, one lock can lead into the next in the series without an intermediate pool or stretch of water. When one lock leads into the next, and that leads into yet another one, this is called a ‘staircase’ of locks. A good example of this is on the Leicester Line (branch) of the Grand Union Canal at Foxton in Leicestershire.

Foxton lock staircase

The staircase at Foxton, which we visited recently, consists of two sets of five interconnecting locks separated by a pool where boats can queue whilst the staircase is occupied with other boats. Each of the ten locks are just broad enough to accommodate one traditional narrow boat. Locks work by raising or lowering boats by being filled or emptied of water respectively. When each of the locks at Foxton is emptied to lower a boat, the water released flows via a series of valves into a side pond. The water from a side pond is reused to fill the next lock down when a boat needs to be raised. This ingenious system means that little water is required to operate the staircases.

The staircase of locks at Foxton was constructed between 1810 and 1814. On average, if there are not queues of other boats, it takes about 45 minutes to ascend or descend the whole staircase of ten locks. In 1900, an alternative to the Foxton staircase was constructed. This was known as the Foxton Inclined Plane. The way this worked was as follows. A boat sailed into a water filled container, which was made watertight. This was then hauled up rails on an inclined ramp or lowered down it if it was descending. The motive power for this boat lift was provided by a mechanism powered by a steam engine, whose housing is now an interesting canal museum. This lift reduced to traverse time from 45 minutes to about ten minutes. There were two parallel lifts, so that when one boat was being hauled upward, another could be lowered simultaneously, rather like the counterweight in a lift in a building. This ingenious mechanism was abandoned in about 1911 and dismantled in 1926. Visitors to Foxton can see what remains of the inclined plane tracks.

A visit to Foxton Locks is highly worthwhile. It is not only fascinating from the viewpoint of the history of engineering. It is also an impressive visual treat. The volunteers who work at the locks helping both users of the canal and sightseers, like us, are both friendly and well-informed.