Words by Nick Herrmann
Posted on 30/10/2019
It’s early morning at Caen Hill Locks. There’s nobody around yet, just the various birds that call this place home. A swan does a headstand in the water. Gulls tumble and cry above a lock, then crash into the water hunting for breakfast. A heron stands proudly, statuesque and silver in the morning sun. I pass some volunteers kitted with life jackets and throwlines. They’ll walk, on average, six miles per day – nine when the flight’s busy. In the summer they can have 10 or 15 boats going each way.
Built by John Rennie in 1810, Caen Hill is one of the longest continuous flight of locks in the country – a total of 29, stretching over two miles and climbing 237 feet. The central and steepest part has 15 large reservoir ponds to store water on the hill and keep the locks in operation. An innovative feat of engineering, these ponds have become important nature habitats. I linger to take in the impressive sight: white paint and water gleaming in the autumn light, stretching up the hill as far as I can see. To me, the entire system seems incomprehensibly complex.
I’ve come to talk to Bob Preston, head lock keeper here along with Alan Giddings, to find out what it takes to keep Caen Hill Locks running smoothly. Bob is laconic, but immediately friendly and laid back. There’s a certain heron-esque quality about him. There’s also a resemblance to Robert Redford: swept-back silver hair and a twinkle in his eye that suggests he might be telling more jokes in his head than out loud.
I ask him if the system’s complexity makes it a high pressure job. He insists it doesn’t, but after talking a bit more, I get the feeling that perhaps there are quite a few risks involved. “Occasionally there’s catastrophic failure but it’s not often,” he chuckles, his tone breezy. “We had a boat come into lock 46 one day and he got his reverse and forward gear mixed up, and he crashed into the lock gate at the bottom end of the lock, which destroyed the planking. The gates behind him slammed shut, and the water obeyed gravity – instead of him taking four minutes to go down, it took less than four seconds.”
Bob tells me that he “just sort of fell into the job”, but it soon becomes clear that his position is the result of decades of hard work and experience. Now 65, he started working on the canal as a waterway operative doing general maintenance at the age of 19, in 1973. I realise that, as well as accomplished, Bob is humble – later, I found out he was awarded Lock Keeper of the Year in 2014, but this doesn’t come up while we’re speaking. Whenever I ask about his responsibilities, Bob talks about the wider team. “Today the point of the spear might be me and Alan,” he says, “but behind us there are hundreds of people.”
He holsters his windlass – the tool used to open and close the gates – and takes me to meet some of the volunteer lock keepers out working on the flight. Proudly, he points out the diversity of his team. There’s Kim, lead volunteer, ex-RAF and doctor; Ian, an Australian who’s recently retired from multinational conglomerate, Honeywell; and Gill, who used to be a scientist working on vaccines. It seems like a close-knit team – they all smile when they see Bob coming. I ask each person what they enjoy most about working here, and there’s a common refrain: the people. Bob describes meeting everyone who passes through, as a “great privilege”. “And obviously,” he says, “if I was working in a factory manacled to an assembly line I wouldn’t get that, would I?”
I came expecting to interview one of the busiest lock keepers in England, stressed and rushed off his feet, but I found someone grounded, level-headed, put at ease by the team around him. “I don’t think this is a face that represents 30 or 40 years of stress, somehow,” he tells me. “I never dread going to work.” It becomes apparent that it’s not the case that the job is simple, it’s that the right person is in charge: someone who’s been working on the canal for over 40 years and still regards it a privilege. Someone with a deep respect for Caen Hill.
I ask Bob what the biggest challenge is as lock keeper. He thinks for a moment, in that still, considered way he has. “Becoming complacent,” he answers. “Understanding I’m not a full stop. It doesn’t end with me. I’m just here for a short period of time. I’m just a custodian, or a guardian, for the moment. And I’ve got to hand it on to the next generation in the same way it was handed to me.”
Plan your day out to Caen Hill Locks with our online guide
Illustration by Matt Lincoln