A gateway to the past

To herald the upcoming Open Days at Foxton Locks, one of the Canal & River Trust’s most popular sites, Waterfront descends into one of the recently drained locks where all manner of wonders await.

Photos by Colin Nicholls

Words by Abi Whyte

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I make my way up the towpath of Foxton Locks flight, the longest and steepest staircase locks in the country, to meet Site Manager, Alex Goode. He greets me wearing a hard hat and hi-vis, and hands me some similar attire.

“There’s a lot of maintenance going on in the drained locks, so you’ll need to wear these,” he says, leading me down a metal staircase as I pop my hard hat on. “Careful not to rub against the lock chamber wall. You won’t be able to get the smell out of your coat for ages.”

We’re in the bowels of Lock 13, the chamber drained of water, apart from a large puddle in a dip in the masonry, and the walls covered in algae. It’s strange to think that in a few months time this chamber will be full of water with narrowboats passing to and fro once more.

“I was down here first thing this morning, shovelling water out. It tends to seep back through,” Alex explains. “I’ll make sure it’s not too wet when visitors come for the Open Days.”

Alex tells me more about the upcoming Open Days, taking place over three weekends in late February and early March (see dates below). “It’s a chance for visitors to go down into a drained lock, which is quite an unusual experience, find out about the essential maintenance we’re carrying out, and ask us any questions. As well as being a fascinating day out for canal enthusiasts, it’s also ideal for families, as we’ll be putting on fun activities, such as painting and Lego boat building, plus a guided walk around the site.”

He then begins to gesticulate enthusiastically as he tells me about the maintenance being carried out – the removal of five pairs of old lock gates to install brand new ones, fresh from the Canal & River Trust’s workshop, each weighing 1.5 tons. “They’re made to last 25 to 30 years,” he says, “but they need to be maintained throughout that lifespan to keep them watertight. Five thousand boats pass through here a year – that’s a lot of wear and tear on the gates. If we don’t maintain them, the chambers will leak and boats will be held up on their journey.”

He explains that the old lock gates (the last ones installed in 1995) go to timber merchants – in fact he’s in talks with a particular merchant to turn the oak into benches that will be placed around the site. “It’s only the surface of the wood that’s rotten,” he says. “Once you’ve planed it, there’s some decent oak there.”

Maintenance is also carried out on the locks’ masonry, the beautiful red bricks lining the bottom of the chamber dating back over 200 years. “Whenever I come down here I have to touch one of these old bricks, and wonder what kind of day that bloke was having when he laid them,” Alex tells me, leaning down to touch one.

I ask him if he’s looking forward to the warmer weather and more boats passing through. “‘Yes, I love it. I get to speak to boaters all day, help them navigate their way down the locks. For some, it’s quite a nerve wracking experience, particularly if it’s their first time and Foxton is a big tick on their bucket list. But we help put them at ease, talk them through it, and by the time we get to the other end, I feel like I’ve known them for years. Sometimes they even make me a coffee or a bacon bap. I honestly feel I’ve got the best job on the network.”

Meet Alex and some of the Foxton Locks’ volunteers at our upcoming Open Days, taking place 29 Feb, 1, 7 and 8 March. Free entry. Find out the specific activities taking place each day, from jewellery making to fishing taster sessions on our website.

Posted on 28/02/2020