Photo: Mark Kent
When engineer John Rennie was planning the route for the 87-mile Kennet & Avon Canal, he was faced by the challenge of a steep hill between Rowde and Devize. His solution was to construct one of the most impressive series of locks on the entire waterways network, a daunting flight of 29 locks that rise 237 feet over 2 miles and are considered one of the wonders of the waterways. The locks are a Scheduled Ancient Monument but they are also an illustration of the way the canal engineers created spectacle almost unintentionally, as they searched for the easiest and most practical solutions for getting boats from A to B. The result is one of the longest continuous flight of locks in the country. They opened in 1810 and, thanks to Rennie, provided a quicker and cheaper route from London to Bath than anything available by road.
Flights of locks are required wherever a single lock will not be sufficient to get a boat up or down a gradient. These can be constructed as a number of individual locks separated by short stretches of canal, or ‘staircase’ locks of interconnecting pounds. The locks at Caen Hill are divided into three separate groups – the lower seven and upper six are divided by the central flight of 16, which form a straight line up the hill, with very short pounds, giving them a dramatic visual appearance.
The locks can take 5-6 hours to navigate and use vast amounts of water, requiring use of a pump that returns 7 million gallons to the top of the flight each day – that’s the equivalent of a lockful every eleven minutes. The locks are an incredible sight and are surrounded by gorgeous countryside as well as remnants of industrial history such as the tramroad that provided a link between two stretches of canal while the locks were being constructed, and the brickyards from which they derived the bricks for the chambers.
Following their decline, the locks were official reopened by the Queen in 1990, and in 2010 many of the gates were replaced – the old ones were donated to the Glastonbury festival. The locks remain a popular tourist destination, with a nearby café and pub as well as numerous spots to admire the locks in action. For more information, take a look on our website.