Stairway to Devizes


 

Caen Hill Locks, Devizes
Caen Hill Locks, Devizes

We took an impromptu trip to Devizes this week after a visit to my parents in Tetbury.  The main purpose of the visit was to see the spectacular series of locks known as the Caen Hill Locks.  Rather than try and write my own potted history I am going to quote from the Wikipedia entry on the locks:

Caen Hill Locks are a flight of locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal, between Rowde and Devizes in Wiltshire England. The 29 locks have a rise of 237 feet in 2 miles or a 1 in 44 gradient. The locks come in three groups. The lower seven locks, Foxhangers Wharf Lock to Foxhangers Bridge Lock, are spread over 1.2 km. The next sixteen locks form a steep flight in a straight line up the hillside. Because of the steepness of the terrain, the pounds between these locks are very short. As a result, 15 locks have unusually large sideways-extended pounds, to store the water needed to operate them. A final six locks take the canal into Devizes. This flight of locks was engineer John Rennie’s solution to climbing the very steep hill, and was the last part of the 87 mile route of the canal to be completed. Whilst the locks were under construction a tramroad provided a link between the canal at Foxhangers to Devizes, the remains of which can be seen in the towpath arches in the road bridges over the canal. A brickyard was dug to the south of the workings to manufacture the bricks for the lock chambers and this remained in commercial use until the middle of the 20th century.

It is very hard to photograph the locks and do them proper justice.  You need to be quite high up above them or low down below them.  It was a lovely sunny day but the wind was blowing very hard and quite cool tempering some of the pleasure of walking down the path by the locks.  There was, however, a lovely little café at the top of the main flight where it was possible to sit inside with a hot chocolate and piece of fruit cake and still gaze out over the locks and the beautiful countryside spread out below.

Devizes itself is a fairly unremarkable town in its current incarnation.  Although there are clearly many old buildings the architecture is much more heterogeneous than places like Bradford-on-Avon or even Malmsbury or Tetbury, for example.  The attraction is the canal itself which was quite busy with boats negotiating the lock system.  A feature of the canal, for which the “stairway” of locks is necessary, is precisely that Devizes is quite high up on a hill which is a bit of a problem for canals.  As noted above the locks were the solution to the hill, the alternative to which was a proposed tunnel that the builders decided was too expensive to attempt.  The result is that one can be walking on the towpath, or on a boat of course, and gaze out over the countryside as it falls away into the distance.

Narrow boats at Devizes
Narrow boats at Devizes

Narrow boat moored with countryside in the distance
Narrow boat moored with countryside in the distance
Canal dog
Canal dog

Accompanying one of the boats was a little Scotty dog who was scampering around enjoying all the action wearing its own life-jacket that was quite endearing.

I have posted a new gallery of my attempts to photograph the locks to accompany this post.  I hope you can get some sense of the scale of what was a herculean task for the navvies who dug it all out by hand.

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