Piling it on along the canal

NEEDING BREAKFAST ON our way from Warwick to visit Baddesley Clinton House, we chose to stop at the Hatton Locks Café, which we had noticed on our road map. What we did not know is that the café is located next to the uppermost of a flight (or series) of 21 canal locks. The locks are situated on a stretch of the Grand Union Canal that was, when it opened in 1799, the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, which was built to carry locally mined coal for use in power stations and nearby factories (https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-history/history-features-and-articles/the-history-of-hatton-locks). It became an important transportation link between London and The Midlands.

 The 21 locks are spread along an almost 2 mile stretch of the canal and the towpath along this section of the waterway is popular with cyclists, walkers, and their dogs. Some of the locks are narrow. They were built when the canal was first constructed. Other locks on the flight are far wider. They were built in 1932 and allow two craft to use the lock simultaneously. The newer locks were built at a time when the canal system began to have to compete with motorised road and rail transport.

The café is about 310 yards northwest of a small car park and is reached by walking along the towpath. Near the café, there are some unusual looking tables and benches made of old timber. Most of the timber pieces are planks with a short semi-circular projection at one end. These wooden piles used to be driven into the floor of the canal between parallel wooden blocks that held them straight upright against the walls of the waterway. Their purpose was to prevent the banks of the canal from being eroded by the water flowing past them. Nowadays, they have been replaced by coir matting that serves the same purpose because it is considered to be more eco-friendly that timber. The wooden piles were driven into place by a mechanised hammer system aboard a motorised boat that plied along the canal. One of these boats, now disused, has been preserved near the café.

The locks on the Hatton Flight looked different from the many other canal locks we have seen on our travels around the country. Each lock is flanked by what looks like a pair of tall, stout candles. These things house the mechanisms that control the flow of water into the locks and are operated by canal users equipped with a special handle or windlass that fits onto a projection that is linked to the gearing that operates the valve.

The Hatton Locks Café is a real treat, both visually and gastronomically. Both inside and outside, it is decorated with a profusion of objects, some folkloric, some whimsical, and others related to the life and traditions on the canal. A team of friendly workers produce simple but excellently prepared English breakfast items as well as very acceptable coffees. So good was our breakfast that we made a detour to return to this place on the following morning. Most of the clientele seemed to be locals, many of whom were on friendly terms with the staff. Although we had only been once before on a busy morning, the staff remembered exactly what we ate and drank on the day before. When we are next nearby, we shall certainly visit this wonderful establishment again. On our next visit, we will join the other walkers and stroll past all the 21 locks.

Once it was owned by Rothschild

ACCIDENTALLY, WE BOARDED a bus, which we believed would take us to Gunnersbury station in west London, but instead it took us to the edge of Chiswick Business Park furthest away from the station. This meant that we had to walk through the business park, and this was no bad thing.

The business park has been built on land that used to be owned by the Rothschild family, who owned nearby Gunnersbury Park for much of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. In 1921, a bus company built a 33-acre bus maintenance establishment on the site where the Rothschild’s used to have orchards and where today the business park stands. This was closed in 1990, and various architects, including Norman Foster, drew up plans to develop the site with buildings around a central ‘piazza’.

Eventually, after gaining planning permission, the first building was completed at the end of 2000. Gradually, the rest of the buildings were constructed. The site was completed in 2015. The result is spectacular. The buildings are uncompromisingly modern, almost sculptural, and, most importantly, pleasing to the eye. They are arranged around an attractive lake or pond, complete with waterfalls, a bridge, and some metal sculptures. A number of small spherical glass and metal ‘meeting pods’ have been placed close to the water feature and there are several refreshment kiosks dotted around the place.

In 2019, a long footbridge, suspended from a series of giant oxidised steel hoops was constructed between the place where our bus (route 70) terminated within the business park and Chiswick Park Underground station. It is an elegant piece of engineering.

We have often passed the Chiswick Business Park whilst travelling by car or bus along Chiswick High Road that forms its southern border, but never bothered to walk in it. Today, we did, and it was a pleasant new experience.  

Draining a canal

EVERY NOW AND THEN, a canal needs repairing. For example, it might have sprung a leak either in its retaining walls or in its clay bottom. In such circumstances and no doubt others, the repair work can only be carried out if the canal is emptied of water, a tall order in a canal that might be many miles in length. Recently, we were walking along the towpath of the Macclesfield Canal, which links Marples Lock on the Peak Forest Canal with Hardings Wood Junction on the Trent and Mersey Canal, when we spotted something that we had never noticed before whilst walking along a canal towpath.

What we saw was a pile of sturdy wooden planks, each with two metal handles attached to their narrowest edges. They looked quite modern. We asked a man, who was walking his dog, about the planks. He explained that they were used to block both ends of a section of canal between two consecutive bridges. When these barricades are lined with plastic sheeting, the water between the two barricades can be drained from the part of the canal between the two waterproofed wooden barriers, Then, work can be carried out on the drained stretch of the canal. The planks are known as ‘stop planks’

Our informant pointed out notches carved in the stonework near to a bridge. The notch is opposite another identical one across the canal. It is into these pairs of notches that the planks we had noticed ate inserted to create a dam, I regard myself as being quite observant, but I have never seen or noticed either this kind of notch or the wooden planks for inserting in them during many long walks along canals in other parts of England. Maybe, they are common, but until we walked beside the Macclesfield Canal, I had never seen them before, Maybe, this is because other methods of damming (see: https://www.rchs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/OP-128.pdf) are also employed in addition to that which we spotted on the Macclesfield Canal at Bollington in Cheshire.

Arms and locks

THE GRAND UNION canal, constructed from the late 1790s onwards, is an important artery of England’s canal network. Beginning at Brentford on the River Thames, it winds its way to Braunston and Birmingham. Along its way it meets other canals, some of which are designated ‘arms’. For example, the Paddington Arm joins the main canal at Bulls Bridge in west London and from there it makes its way eastwards to Paddington. Recently, we visited friends, who live in Northamptonshire, and they took us on a walk along another arm of the Grand Union, the Northampton Arm. This branch of the main canal begins near Gayton and Blisworth and runs to nearby Northampton, where it enters the River Nene, which flows eastwards towards The Wash, an enormous inlet of the North Sea.

A swing bridge with a lock behind it

Much of the Northampton Arm is very narrow, just wide enough for passage of a single narrow boat. At regular intervals, the arm widens to allow vessels travelling in opposite directions to pass each other. Though short in length, only 4.6 miles, the Northampton Arm has seventeen separate, hand-operated locks for vessels to negotiate. The twelve of these, a flight of locks, is 1123 yards from the Gayton junction with the main canal. These twelve locks are along a stretch of canal only nine tenths of a mile long. The northernmost lock, that nearest towards Northampton, is a few yards north of a bridge carrying the M1 motorway. The locks carry the water from a bit over 300 feet above sea level nearest Gayton down to less than about 225 feet, each lock capable of lifting or lowering a vessel over 6 feet on average. Nearer Gayton, there is an old swing bridge, rather like a castle’s drawbridge. Looking at old maps, it appears that there were several more of these along the arm, but we only spotted one in the stretch between Gayton and the M1.

The canal and its associated towpath pass beneath the motorway through a giant concrete arch, paraboloid in shape and reinforced with horizontal concrete beams. Lined with graffiti, both conventional and anarchic artwork, walking under the motorway is an eery, rather science fictional experience. In contrast to this brutalist concrete arch, several lovely brick, hump-backed bridges carry minor roads over the Arm

The authorisation of the Northampton Arm was given in 1793, but it took another 18 years before it was ready for use. A brief hstory of the Arm (https://waterways.org.uk/waterways/discover-the-waterways/grand-union-canal-northampton-arm) relates:

“Almost immediately the Arm began to carry a large volume of merchandise and stayed busy for over 100 years through to after the First World War.  In the post war years coal, grain and timber were supplemented by goods needed for the show industry such as strawboards for packing as well as iron ingots for castings.  After World War II the carriage of goods ceased as road competition strengthened.”

Now, the Arm is used by intrepid canal boat owners, who are not averse to too much manipulation of lock gates. On the sunny Saturday afternoon that we visited the lock flight, we only saw one narrow boat attempting to negotiate the flight of twelve locks. In contrast, at Gayton Junction, the main Grand Union Canal, from which the Arm branches off, was full of pleasure-seekers’ narrow boats and other craft.

Though hardly used for freight these days, the canal system provides much pleasure to visitors both afloat and on shore. Wandering along the towpaths, one cannot fail to be amazed when considering the engineering ingenuity of the canal builders that we can still see today, as well as the work that is done to keep these waterways usable so many years after they were constructed.

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.

The spy in the pond

QUEENSMERE POND on Wimbledon is surrounded by woodland. It was dug in marshland to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. In the 1830s, the area was a popular duelling ground.

In 1984, the corpse of a former Soviet spy Boris Hatton was discovered in the pond. On the 1st of March 1984, The London “Times” newspaper reported:

“Mr Boris Hatton, formerly Baklanov, a former assassin with SMERSH, part of Soviet wartime military intelligence, may have committed suicide or he may have been murdered. Dr Paul Knapman. the coroner at a Westminster inquest, recorded an open verdict, saying ‘It is not impossible that there may be other sinister factors in view of his past’.

Mr Hatton, aged 59, the son of prominent Soviet Commu-nist Party member between the wars, had been a strong swimmer and never spoke of suicide, the court was told.His son Phillip, an accountant. of Westerham, Kent, said that his father defected after the Second World War because SMERSH, wanted him to assassinate dissidents against Communism which his conscience would not allow.”

For 10 years he worked as a researcher at The Daily Telegraph.”Well, I would never imagined that this had happened when I watched a swan with its cygnets swimming lazily by the edge of the lovely pond.