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Boat Blog: Caen Hill Deconstructed..

Posted by indigodream on 13 February, 2011

Saturday 12th February

Famous view up the Caen Hill flight...

We had a magical day yesterday when we joined a BW open day at the infamous Caen Hill lock flight on the Kennet and Avon Canal.

By some strange fate we’ve cruised the down the Caen Hill flight once but up it three times! People may get daunted by it, but we love it, and I have to say that I find it no effort at all :-). I was amazed at how familiar it all seemed – like coming home – I found myself grinning with the sheer pleasure of being here. Now, that’s odd, because I find long stretches of the Kennet and Avon tedious beyond belief, yet there are some points on the canal which are so special you just have to see them at least once in your cruising life. I guess it’s the classic curate’s egg – very good in parts!

We drove down with the three hounds in under 2 hours – it’s not far at all and the route from Surrey is very scenic, taking in the rolling countryside of Hampshire and Wiltshire – replete with history, wealth and the most beautiful thatched hamlets. The otherwise featureless Salisbury Plain is punctuated by tank crossing points – we’ve never seen a tank in action there but it would be a great diversion. I was amused by the ‘Salisbury Plain bylaws’ notices posted on each tank crossing – the words are far too small to read when driving past and we wondered whether the notices are a lure for unwary drivers – anyone who stops to read the fine print are promptly used for target practice!

It was the most glorious day – the further west we drove the sunnier it became – it was positively warm by the time we reached the BW car park and spotted the BW welcome tent. We were a little early for our tour so we wandered up to the cafe at the top of the flight – we’ve never been there before but it is a fine little place – too popular by half today, as the queue for coffees exceeded the time we had available.

We wandered back down to the BW welcome tent, which had a diverting display of old photographs. It’s hard to believe that in the 1960’s the flight, and indeed most of the canal, was totally derelict. What vision and determination it must have taken to open the waterway again. There is an archive programme from 1973 on the ITV web site, click here. Coincidentally, nb Harnser has also posted a charming film of the K & A from 1948 – check out the steam trains! Much as I’ve complained about the K & A, I’d be complaining even more if it wasn’t available for cruising!

See how the towpath has collapsed - that happened recently and was an unwelcome addition to the winter works...

As always the greyhounds drew a lot of attention – we’ve become used to people exclaiming “look, just like a tiger’ when they see Lou’s striking brindle – she, of course, poses outrageously in response. She and Lynx were lavished with fuss (Ty’s too shy) from the crowd waiting for the tour.   And it was a crowd – maybe 30 people on our tour and they’d had similar or greater numbers on earlier tours. Many people were locals – Caen Hill is a popular spot with walkers – maybe even more so than with boaters, judging by the number of gongoozlers we’ve encountered on previous cruises. The flight and the towpath are apparently closed for 2 months – I think that the tours were great way of explaining why the stoppage is so lengthy.

Our tour was led by Mark, who manages the whole of the Kennet and Avon Canal plus the Bridgewater and Taunton – he was knowledgeable and articulate – a perfect guide to the flight and to the works. The Caen Hill flight has been designated as an ancient monument but I was pleased to see that they were not constrained to ancient building techniques for the repairs.

Some of side-pounds had been drained so we could see how shallow they were – when they’re full they look like a very tempting hiding place when long boats have to pass in the short pounds. Uhmm, maybe not then – though you couldn’t choose a more scenic spot to be grounded 🙂

We strolled down the flight, imbibing fresh air, beautiful views and interesting facts in equal measure. The highlight of the tour was watching the contractors lowering a huge new lock gate into position. It was skilled work – especially by the man standing at the bottom of the lock checking the fit – he looked utterly insignificant. The lock had obviously been drained, exposing its smart red brick lining. The drained lock was imposingly deep – I’d forgotten that these locks are not just monuments – they’re monumental!

One of the best waterway views....

Richard spent some time chatting to the guides so I’ll let him fill in the technical details….

Maintaining a 200 year waterway is not easy, no doubt made harder at present, with cutbacks just as the canal passes the 20 year point since its restoration. Today was a great opportunity for the guys on the ground to show what they do and explain some of the difficulties – they did it very well.

New sheet piling is being put in to support crumbling towpath walls. Rather than re-building the slender brick walls they have managed to get English Heritage approval to put in piles designed for a 100 year life, well done BW. They are working off floating pontoons which is pretty efficient as you can get closer to your work, which makes the plant smaller and therefore cheaper; but it is an interesting logistical exercise to keep certain parts of the flight in water for this sort of work whilst de-watering other parts for lock gate works.

Lock gate works are obviously the most impressive part of the operation and we can forgive the guys making a bit of a show of it. Why do I write about it being a show? We were convinced that they had the crane move the gate into position once an hour for each tour – we’re so glad they did as it made for great photographs 🙂

The team have to fit the gates into a recess which has gradually changed shape over the last 20 years, yet they make fitting them  look easier then hanging a door. Ok, the team was led by the same guy who originally hung the gates there before the 1990 restoration; but it’s worth remembering that each leaf weighs about 3T and costs £10,000 to buy. Apart from a few exotic materials such as the use of a phosphor bronze pin at the base, they are made of the same stuff as the original gates from 200 years ago. Interestingly oak, with its bit of ‘give’, continues to be the material of choice – steel is cheaper, ekki is harder/more durable but both modern alternatives lead to deterioration to the lock quoins.

There seems to be a real commitment to keeping the skills of their direct labour force in house; that is to be commended, but it is clear that the pressures are mounting. Between Bath and the summit there is a chain of pumps keeping the canal in water. Mark said the old records mention that at times the Caen Hill flight would only be open in the mornings as they had such severe water problems. It is less severe now, with pumps and a 24″ pumping main running up the hill alongside the lock flight; but the whole network of pumps costs £400,000 a year just in electricity. That is 10% of Mark’s £4 million annual budget.

Allocating that budget takes a lot of hard work. On the Kennet & Avon, the entire canal is surveyed once a month to update a 4,000 item defect list. The work is normally done by the same people, so they get quite good at looking for changes. So, if a crack has been there for many years and is not opening or closing then it goes on the list as a defect but not urgent. They use that list to prioritise their work. But when pressed they admitted that they’d like maybe £2 million more per year – that would enable them not to produce a perfect waterway, but a 200 year old waterway in reasonable condition. Will they get this needed extra 50%? Fat chance if the DEFRA budget is being cut by 15%. The sad thing is that these are not large sums of money, for example £2 million is the value of a previous Lord Chancellor’s pension after a few years work – Bah Humbug!

The tour was immaculately organised, with a minibus at the bottom the flight to take people back to the starting point, though the majority, including us, chose to walk back up the flight. The view from the top of Caen Hill is my favourite on the whole canal network though there is plenty of competition!

All too often, Engineers are poor communicators who don’t properly explain what they are doing, so people don’t understand the difficulties, and the whole status of the profession suffers as a result. Mark, as a civil engineer, and his team, did a great job and we thanked them for the efforts – we had had a genuinely interesting tour and they are to be congratulated.

After our tour we drove down to one of our favourite canalside pubs – the Barge Inn at Seend. We’ve moored here several times – it’s a warm, welcoming dog-friendly pub with good food – even on a Sunday. It was so nice to be back – there was plenty of room for the exhausted greyhounds to stretch out in front of one of the many open fires and we had a fine lunch. It is a Wadworth’s pub – the brewery’s in nearby Devizes – they offer a novel ‘taster’ – three one-third of a pint measures of different brews; choose your favourite then get a discount on a whole pint! As we relaxed into the afternoon, our only regret was that Indigo Dream was moored back at Limehouse – we could have done with her here for a post-prandial coffee, snooze and rugby! We drove home well contented and arrived just in time to see Wales win the rugby – amazing – that hasn’t happened for a while. It was a fine end to a fine day….


We had no ideas the BW tugs were so 'pointed' under the water - is that to make it easier to come into shallow edges???

One of the drained side-pounds - these are vital to the working of the flight and are also great homes for the local wildlife.

Sheet piling operation...

Partially repaired - new sheet piling and a background view of the old piles which have failed dramatically...

Hanging a new lock gate is a big operation...

Good view of the gate paddle - or rather, the hole which the paddle will cover...

Delicate work...

Beautiful red brick arched lining - not a sight we usually get to see through the turbid waters...

A few fine adjustments....

View down to the drained pound below - they need drained pounds for the lock work but full pounds for the towpath repairs - it's a logistical puzzle....

This pump was busy - presumably keeping the works dry - I assume that water seeps down from above come what may...

Wending our way back up the flight...

Abundant freshwater mussels - the fish are moved when they drain the pounds but I guess these critters just have to take their chances...

A selection of Wadworth's finest....

The brewery in Devizes (taken in haste from the car) - it does tours! We really must explore this town sometime - it looks charming...

Stop and read it if you dare - we suspect that the last line reads "people who stop to read this notice will be run over by a tank".....

2 Responses to “Boat Blog: Caen Hill Deconstructed..”

  1. When we lived in Southampton in the 70s, there was an incident on Salisbury Plain. An elderly couple dozed off in their car after lunch, parked across a tank crossing. Along came an MBT on exercise and cut the back half of the car clean off.

    The old folks weren’t harmed at all in one of those miraculous survivals.

    Great post, keep ’em coming!


  2. indigodream said

    It had to have happened! Can’t wait to be on the move at the end of March – then we’ll be back to proper posts!

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