Photo: Rob & Helen/Flickr
There’s a real thrill to be had when faced with a flight of locks on the UK waterways. These awesome pieces of engineering demonstrate the way early canal builders tackled the complications of landscape in the most resourceful fashion, navigating steep inclines with series of locks spaced so closely together they become known as a flight. The mountainous five-pound staircase lock at Bingley on the Leeds & Liverpool is the steepest in the country, and one of the most spectacular sights on the entire UK network.
Like so much architecture on the canals, the locks at Bingley look great but they weren’t built for their appearance. Lock flights were used by canal engineers when they had to navigate steep passages where a single lock would not suffice. A flight is any consecutive sequence of locks in a relatively short space of canal, and these locks can be divided by normal stretches of canal or connected to form staircases, as at Bingley.
Here, the five lock pounds share gates, with each lock opening directly into the next. The flight has a gradient of 1:5, rising around 60 feet over a distance of 320 feet, and contains some of the tallest lock gates in the country. Hugely ambitious, the flight was designed by John Longbotham and opened in 1774, when 30,000 people turned out to watch the inaugural passage of a boat travelling through the locks in just 28 minutes. Onlookers still watch boaters using the locks today, although not in quite such numbers. The locks are Grade-I listed and several interesting canal buildings are nearby, including an old lock-keeper’s cottage that was once a warehouse in Liverpool, but was dismantled and moved to Bingley by boat.
For many years, the locks were operated by Barry Whitlock. He began working on the locks in 1978 and retired in 2017, having been awarded an MBE for his services. Barry worked from a small office at the top of the locks and controlled the flow of 10 million gallons of water a day between Bingley and Leeds and to ensure the locks were correctly prepared. There are several cafes and pubs around Bingley for those interested in seeing the locks, and there are also walking trails to enjoy. For more information, head to our website.