This winter our charity is running free face-to-face open days at six sites to showcase how we protect and conserve our canal heritage. They are just a small selection of the 172 large scale maintenance works that we’re spending £50m on this winter. Waterfront joined the first open day on West London’s Hanwell lock flight to watch some of its mighty lock gates being replaced, meet the friendly visitors and learn more about the flight’s fascinating history.
A drained-down lock is an unusual sight and as we arrive, visitors are already peering into the cavernous void below. With a mug of tea in hand, cheery regional construction manager, Andrew Morris, explains the logistics behind the enormous task of installing the new gates at Lock 94.
“They're made from Forest Stewardship Council approved green English oak at our facility in Stanley Ferry, near Wakefield, West Yorkshire”, Andy explains. “Each gate is unique and takes up to a month for skilled carpenters to make by hand. The new top lock gates weigh around 3.6 tonnes dry and are eight feet tall; the bottom pair are around 6.5 tonnes and fifteen feet high. Moving them 200 miles to Hanwell takes three days; they come down from Stanley Ferry by road, then we crane them onto our pontoon locally and the tug pushes them to site.”
The fish in the lock were carefully removed by specialists and the lock drained down, before the old gates were lifted out using the crane boat. Once the new gates are installed at Lock 94, the team will replace the bottom gates at Lock 93. “The whole job takes five people six to seven weeks to complete, and will cost around £170,000,” says Andy.
With regular maintenance, the new gates should last around 25 years, but what happens to the old ones? “They'll be cleaned, and all the metal will be taken off. We'll reuse what we can and we have people interested in using them for art sculptures,” Andy tells us.
This section of the Grand Union Canal runs through the heart of Southall, once a rural idyll with a windmill and now a major centre of vibrant South Asian culture, where in the 1960s many people settled and found work, due to its proximity to Heathrow Airport.
On an informative tour led by volunteers, we meet Lasantha and his son Navitha, who walk their dogs here often. Lasantha explains: “These locks are always our fascination, so it's interesting to see one drained and replaced.” Navitha adds: “My dad was just telling me how they can't open the locks if there's too much water because of water resistance, so it kind of applies to the physics I'm learning about in school.”
Further up the towpath, we meet locals Minni and Ash. Although Minni has lived in the area all her life, it's her first visit to the canal in over 20 years. “Back then it was a lonely place and a bit foreboding; I wouldn't have walked along here on my own.” says Minni. “But now it's improved, peaceful, green and there's more people around, so I'd happily walk down here at the weekend.”
Ash is also a regular visitor, telling us: “I cycle, jog, run and walk along here. This is where I learned to kayak years ago. I like it because it's so tranquil, a nice break away from the city.”
Constructed in 1794, the Hanwell flight consists of six locks, each with its own side pond used to conserve water. This impressive and well-engineered section of the canal was designated in 1975 as a scheduled monument, and is the Trust's last remaining site on Historic England's ‘Heritage at Risk' register.
The canal, linking London to the Midlands, was “the motorway of its day”, says volunteer lock keeper, Tony Rands, and this section has a host of interesting features which he and heritage advisor, Phil Emery, are keen to show us.
At the top of the flight, Lock 92 has a particularly interesting history. Firstly, this high ground was the ideal site for a windmill, which was captured in this painting by JMW Turner.
The windmill was later replaced on the site by a lock keeper's cottage and a side pond, which unusually also had seven huge barrel vaults extending 45 feet beneath the cottage garden to provide additional water storage. “This design is rare,” Phil tells Waterfront, “if not unique, and needs to be protected for posterity.”
We follow the huge wall of the old County asylum to Lock 93. Phil explains that the institution was very progressive for its time: “It was set up with a pioneering philosophy that recognised insanity as an illness. Inmates were called patients, and were encouraged to take up therapeutic occupations, such as growing fruit and vegetables on allotments. Their produce was going out on barges and being sold on, while the narrowboats brought in coal to heat the building.”
As we stand alongside the huge wall of the old asylum, Phil points out the bricked-up archway which led to the asylum dock, where barges delivered coal to power the hospital boilers. Should a blaze take hold, four ‘fire holes' in the wall allowed hoses to pump in canal water.
Moving across to the lock itself, Phil points out the hydraulic gear, of which he says many seasoned boaters are quite critical. Whilst Tony recognises their frustration, he points out that: “At the time, it was probably state-of-the-art”. It's a difficult balancing act to protect sometimes important but far from perfect heritage. “A criticism that I sometimes have to field is that heritage is obstructing change,” says Phil. “But we have quite a responsibility to make sure that any change is managed carefully.”
As dusk descends and the visitors melt away, the Trust's press officer, Alex Paterson, shows us some sepia-toned photographs of the canal being drained and locks replaced in the early 20th century. Suddenly, we share a real sense of history repeating itself and feel part of the circle of time. Waterfront looks forward to getting a date in the diary 25 years from now, when these wonderful lock gates need their next refit.