This afternoon, the boys and I went for our first After School Walk of the year. I always feel that after a day of sitting in classrooms or scrubbing houses, we all need a breath of fresh air before embarking on the end of the day chores such as tidying bedrooms, doing homework, cooking dinner and writing scintillating blogs. One of our favourite local beauty spots is Foxton Locks (in Leicestershire for my overseas readers).
The lock system on this part of the Grand Union Canal is a wonder of engineering. I get rather excited about engineering I’m afraid; show me a Cornish beam engine and I’ll be entertained for ages as long as it involves a cup of tea and a slice of jam sponge at some point in the proceedings, but I digress. In many cities and towns, the canals are often dirty, neglected and silted up, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, the canals provided two thousand miles of ‘motorways’ that allowed the transport of goods which kept the shops, industries and economy going.
Most canals were cut before mechanical tools were invented and thousands of navvies (from the word ‘navigation’) created the waterways using shovels, picks, barrows and horses. Early canals followed the contours of the landscape, but as more and more goods were transported this way, it became necessary to construct flights of locks, aqueducts and tunnels to speed things up.
In 1810, an engineer called Benjamin Bevin designed a staircase of two sets of five locks which take boats up and down the 75 feet between the top and bottom of the steep hill at Foxton. A trip through these ten locks takes about 45 minutes, but if there are lots of other boats queuing up it can take half a day. This is the largest flight of locks on the English canal system and is a marvellous sight.
However, by the end of the 19th century, the canal was in poor condition and, coupled with the coming of the railways, competition for methods of transport was stiff. Steam tugs had arrived and companies needed wider barges to carry coal from the north to the London factories.
The decision was taken to build an inclined plane. This was a counter balanced lift with two huge tanks, each of which could carry two narrow boats or one wide barge, weighing 230 tons, up a 1:4 gradient. Once the boats were inside the giant metal tanks (or caissons), the guillotine gates closed keeping the water inside the tanks. A huge winding drum at the top of the slope reeled in the thick steel cable attached to the upward moving tank, whilst at the same time letting out the cable attached to the descending tank. The whole wondrous thing was powered by a 25 horsepower steam engine and took just 12 minutes. The rails upon which the tanks moved were taken from Brunel’s defunct broad gauge railway.
Unfortunately, the Foxton Inclined Plane had been built on the understanding that the canals at both Watford Gap and Foxton would be widened in order to cope with the increased traffic, but the widening never happened and the lift became uneconomic (plus ca change) and it was decommissioned in 1911. It was maintained for a few years but in 1928 the machinery was sold for scrap.
What is left now is a grassy slope with trenches in which The Boys and I play World War I. This usually consists of them hiding in the trenches while I pretend to be a Sopwith Camel shooting them down like dogs. This game goes on for hours. Hours I tell you, but at least there is the promise of a cup of tea and cake or ice cream at the end of it.
The Foxton Inclined Plane Trust is currently fundraising like billy-o to get the Inclined Plane restored as a tourist attraction and educational facility. For more information click on the link. Better still, pay it a visit. There’s a café halfway down, a great spit and sawdust pub that sells good beer called Bridge 61 at the bottom, where they sometimes have live folk music, The Foxton Locks Inn which is more family orientated and the new Boathouse restaurant. There is also a museum and shop and fantastic views over the Leicestershire countryside. And did I mention tea and cake? Oh and bring your own bi-plane.