From helping boaters navigate their way up and down the multiple locks at Caen Hill to spotting kingfishers, Gill Anlezark shares the highs and lows of helping out on the waterways. Interview: Abigail Whyte.
Maintaining the locks on the Kennet & Avon Canal is no walk along the towpath. In 1810 engineer John Rennie built 16 locks in close succession to mitigate the steepness of the hill, and designed unusually large side ponds to replenish the water in each lock after use. It’s a magnificent feat of engineering – and one that takes a lot of looking after.
Gill Anlezark is a retired biological scientist who has been working as a volunteer lock keeper since the Trust first launched its appeal for volunteers in 2012. We pulled her up for a chat about kingfishers, cake and Caen Hill.
What attracted you to the volunteer lock keeper role?
I’m a regular boater. My husband and I own a 55ft narrowboat on the Kennet & Avon Canal, so I saw it as a chance to help other boaters and visitors enjoy their time at the locks, and help ensure the locks are operated well. Plus, I couldn't think of a better place to work than Caen Hill.
What’s so special about Caen Hill?
The multitude of locks and the extraordinary vision of the original builders who left us something both functional and beautiful, as well as the volunteers who helped in its restoration.
Talk us through a typical day.
We always work in pairs for safety reasons and usually start about 9am. If the full-time lock keepers Bob and Alan are about, we ask them if there are any tasks they would prefer us to do and they usually say: "Find some boats to come up the lock flight!" If all the boats are going downwards, controlling the water levels becomes a problem at the top of the flight.
Throughout the day we help any boats needing a hand up or down the locks, especially if they are single-handing. Sometimes we help with lock inspections; opening and shutting paddles and gates so they can be checked by the Trust staff. The day passes very quickly.
What do you most enjoy about the role?
Meeting all the boaters and walkers and being out in the fresh air.
What do you least enjoy?
Getting wet in the rain!
Have you ever had any hairy moments working on the locks?
Not personally, but some of the other volunteer lock keepers have had incidents to deal with. We're trained in basic First Aid and water safety, but thankfully the only thing I've had to rescue from a lock is a windlass dropped into the water from a holiday boat.
What's the most exciting thing you've witnessed during your volunteering duties?
Seeing a kingfisher in flight at one of the locks and finding wild orchids growing on the lock sides.
What's your favourite snack to fuel a full day's volunteering on the locks?
A cake from the Lock Cafe by lock 44, of course!
You mentioned that you own a narrowboat – what's the joy of being a boater?
Being able to moor overnight in a very tranquil place where you can only hear owls, see millions of stars and be surrounded by fields and farmland.
Where's the most beautiful place you've taken your narrowboat?
The Long Pound between Devizes and Pewsey is one of my favourite stretches. Also, the section between Avoncliff and Dundas aqueducts is spectacular as are the entries into Bath and Bristol by water.
What advice would you give an aspiring volunteer lock keeper?
If you love being outdoors by the canal, walking and physical effort opening sluices and gates, this is for you. Training is serious but fun and you'll be helping so many people to enjoy their days out and holidays on and around the canals.
What's on your bedside table?
My radio, in case of insomnia!
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