When you leave a lock gate open

Wolverley The Lock
The Lock Inn, Wolverley

My cruise along the Shropshire Union, and the Staffs & Worcester, Canals has been a trip down Ancestry Lane.  First, because some of Andrew’s Kindred navigated this inland waterway, second, because others lived nearby, and witnessed (or worked on) its construction,  and I am following in their wake on my own boat.

So what is it like?  Clearly, my experience of the cut is very different from nineteenth century (some pre-Victorian) boatmen whose boats were drawn by horses, and who navigated these waters to earn a crust, but there are places and things that they would recognise and (I hope) understand.

I was discussing this with another boater the other day.  When I am on my boat, or otherwise obviously a boater, for example with windlass in hand, I am accepted as part of a community.  This holds even for (most) holiday boaters; especially if they are Dutch, or German, or Australian (say), who accept that I understand the canals and seek my advice.  But otherwise when I walk along the cut I am an outsider.  I am just some chap who happens to be walking along, just like the ramblers, cyclists or runners, or those people who think they are running, but who seem to be trying to stamp the towpath into New Zealand.  I guess this dichotomy was so for my forebears, who were seen as outsiders, perhaps not to be trusted, but very much part of a water-borne community.  The disparity was probably more acute for them.

Whittington Lock, at nine feet nine inches is similar to Wolverley Lock.

I see this from the other side.  As a single-hander I hope for some help with locks.  I manage well enough alone, and a surprising number do, but a bit of help is always welcome.  When boaters pass they wave, call some kind of greeting, and pass on some useful information.  But the people who do power-walking, jogging, or determined cycling, keep their heads down.  They miss so much.  If I sounded my horn would they look round?  Maybe.  But maybe some poor cyclist would get wet!  Sometimes I see a walker with something shiny in one hand:  a windlass, maybe (help at hand), but so often it is a bottle of water glinting in the sunlight.

What a waste

Outside The Lock Inn at Wolverley, a short cruise north of Kidderminster, are some seats and tables overlooking the lock.  Last week I spent time helping with the paddles and gates – after all, other people help me – and everyone is surprised that someone is prepared to give up some time for others.  Is that a sign of the times?  Actually, it is a good way of meeting people and finding out about canals, moorings and places to visit, or to avoid.

The other day, though, while I was enjoying a quiet pint of  Banks’s mild, an odd boat came through.  It appeared single-handed.  The boat was about half the length of mine and the man must have walked about five times as far as I would working the same lock the following day.  Eventually, he exited the lock and moored by the café, leaving the top gate open.  Okay if a boat is coming down.  No boat.  Not for about three quarters of a pint.  Two girls emerged from the boat, maybe eight and ten years old.  Ice cream.  Gate still open.

Second pint.  Off they went.  After a while round I went to close the top gate.  The leakage was so much that the lock emptied in twenty minutes.  So what was happening?  The leakage at the bottom gate was obviously enough to empty the lock in twenty minutes (or less).  Would leaving the top gate open make a difference?  Yes, if the leakage was less through the top gate, which it clearly was.

The change in water levels at Wolverley Lock is ten feet.  The width of the lock is about seven feet six inches and the length about 74 feet.  That is 5,550 cubic feet or about 41,500 gallons (about 188,000 litres).  To give an idea of how much water that is:  my tank holds 150 gallons and lasts about a week to ten days; you could wash all of the bed linen in your house for a family of four twice a week for a whole year with that volume of water; if you have a modern washing machine, you could do 2,700 daily washes (that is more than seven years’ worth).  True, we have had some rain of late, but some stretches of canal are closed for shortage of water.

Yes, whoever you are, you wasted all that water!

The canal network, it is plain, was not built for modern traffic.  It was built for horse-drawn boats, which did not have 30-odd horsepower to propel about 15 or 20 tons of metal and wood towards the gate.  And canal users back then were professionals.  Most hire boaters seem to think that a lock gate is an immovable object.  Well it is when you try to open it before the levels have equalised, but that is just one man, woman or child power, not the 34 or 38 hp available to many boats.  Even a light “bump” damages the gate a little.  See how they move when someone overcooks it.  Bump after bump means the gates have to be rebuilt at great cost.

Did the gates leak so much in Evans the Boat’s time?  In some cases they probably did, but, unless something is done by boat hire companies to educate their customers, things will get much worse.



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