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.

Afternoon by the canal

THE VILLAGE OF APSLEY, now a suburb of Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, has no connection with Apsley House at London’s Hyde Park Corner. The house, once home to The Duke of Wellington, derives its name from Apsley in Sussex. The place in Hertfordshire, which we visited with friends today, derives its name from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘aspen’ (a kind of tree). We had lunch with our friends at a waterside pub called The Paper Mill.

Although the pub appears to be of recent construction, its name recalls the fact that it is built near the site of a once innovative paper making establishment. John Dickinson (1782-1869) was the inventor of a machine that made paper continuously as opposed to the previous manual methods that produced sheets of paper rather than rolls of it. He also invented a range of other practical products including security paper impregnated with silk threads, which was known as ‘penny post’, and, still in use today, the envelope with a gummed flap.

During the early part of the 19th century, Dickinson bought several mills in and around Apsley. He converted these for the manufacture of paper products. Only one of his three mills still stands today. The mills were located close to the then recently built Grand Junction Canal (now ‘Grand Union’). The canal provided a practical mode of transport for raw materials and finished products. The pub where we ate lunch is named to honour the memory of what was once a thriving industry in Apsley. It is located next to the canal and contains a framed family tree of John Dickinson’s family.

After a lazy lunch in the sun by the waterside, we took a leisurely stroll along the canal. Modern housing developments line parts of the stretch of water flowing through Apsley. Other parts are lined with shady trees and dense bushes, which hide modern office buildings that are served by a main road running parallel to the canal. Unlike other stretches of the canal, which we have walked along, there was a notable absence of waterfowl, except for a couple of swans with their four cygnets, and a pair of ducks. Other signs of life on the canal were the occasional slow moving narrow boat and the inhabitants of stationary craft moored along the banks and in a marina near the pub.

It was a hot afternoon and being beside the canal was pleasant. Occasional gentle gusts of cool air added to our enjoyment.

Visiting Denver

MENTION ‘DENVER’ and most people will immediately think of a city close to the Rocky Mountains in the American state of Colorado. Recently, we visited Denver, not the city in the USA but a village in the English county of Norfolk. This small settlement lies a few yards west of the A10 road between Ely and Kings Lynn, immediately south of Downham Market. Norfolk’s Denver derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon words, ‘Dena fær’, meaning ‘the ford or passage of the Danes’. This name dates from the time that the Danes and Vikings were invading Britain after the Romans had abandoned it. Denver is located close to the River Great Ouse that flows into The Wash at Kings Lynn. It was this river that the Danish invaders needed to cross as they headed on their way to invading parts of England.

Denver windmill

The village of Denver is attractive and is arranged around its parish church of St Mary. Surrounded by its graveyard, the walls of this mainly mediaeval edifice, mostly 13th to 15th century, are made of large irregularly shaped boulders held together with mortar and trimmed with carved stone. Many of the village’s other buildings have walls constructed similarly, a feature that we observed in several other north Norfolk villages. St Mary’s has a square tower at its western end. Inside, its nave has a wonderful timber barrel vault ceiling decorated with carved features typical of gothic design. Otherwise, the church’s interior is simple without being plain. We could not spend too much time examining the place because we did not want to disturb a small group of elderly people praying aloud.

Denver has a tall historic windmill. This is on the western edge of the village and was built by John Porter in 1835 to replace an earlier mill on the same site. In 1863, a steam powered mill was erected next to the windmill. Further modernisation followed that. The large sails of the mill have gone, but the small fantail remains. The mill forms the centrepiece of a small complex of commercial enterprises housed in buildings that were formerly part of the mill compound. These include a café and a coiffure, aptly named ‘The Hair Mill’. Denver Mill is one of several lovely old windmills we saw dotted around northern Norfolk.

A narrow thoroughfare, Sluice Road, leads west from Denver towards the River Great Ouse, which is about 1.6 miles away. The road reaches a complex of sluice gates that regulate the levels of water in the river and other waterways including the River Wissey and the New Bedford River (man-made) that meet here. Now managed by The Environmental Agency, this set of sluice gates was first established, albeit in a simpler form, in 1651 by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1677). It was he who introduced Dutch land reclamation methods to England, mostly in East Anglia and the Lincolnshire Fens. He married an English woman, Katherine Lapps, and his descendants remained in England, having changed their surname to ‘Youdan’. In 1647, Vermuyden lived in Maiden Lane in London’s Covent Garden.

There are at least five modern, electrically operated sluice gates at Denver. By operating them judiciously, water levels in much of Norfolk and its surroundings can be regulated. The Duke of Bedford River was built by Vermuyden to shorten the distance that water had to travel to and from Bedfordshire. According to the season, this was either flood water or water needed for agricultural purposes. The system of rivers and canals regulated by the sluices at Denver is far from simple. So, I will not attempt to explain it, but visitors to this impressive water-controlling complex can read all about it on a series of informative panels posted next to the sluices.

Sluice Road crosses the River Great Ouse and other streams along bridges to which some of the sluice gate mechanisms are attached. Although the river system would have been quite different when the Danes invaded England, it is possible that where Vermuyden built his first sluice might be close to where the invaders forded the Great Ouse and lent their name to Norfolk’s village of Denver.