Sunday, 19 February 2012

Home Tourist 4 - Bingley Five Rise Locks

As we live no more than five minutes' walk from the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Bingley, when I heard on local radio that there would be an opportunity to walk through the famous Five Rise Locks, we jumped at the chance. The locks were in the process of being restored and new gates had only just been fitted. In order to complete this major project, the lock system had been drained and, for one weekend only, the public were given access. So, on the 28th of January, my youngest daughter and I donned our wellies and set off.

Bingley Five Rise Locks - photo courtesy of

Bingley Five Rise Locks are one of the major landmarks of the national waterway network and have been described as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’. An 18th century engineering masterpiece built by John Longbotham, these five locks operate as a 'staircase' flight – in which the lower gate of one lock forms the upper gate of the next. When completed in 1774, thousands gathered to watch the first boats make the 60 foot descent.

We walked along the familiar stretch of towpath from Bingley Three Rise Locks, our point of access, and joined the large number of other people who were heading in the same direction. The towpath is a popular route for walkers and cyclists all year round but this was the busiest I have ever seen it. Luckily the weather was dry, bright and crisp which added to the enjoyment. The locks had been open to the public since 10:00am and already several hundred people had made the trip through them.

We arrived at about 2:00pm and made our way to the end of the queue that was snaking back over the swing bridge and up towards the Fairfax Road allotments. The queue was made up of a diverse range of people; families, ramblers, those with an interest in engineering or local history. Everyone chatted amiably and, with a few exceptions, nobody minded the wait. Several people commented on the numbers that had made the trip to see the locks and how the owners of the Five Rise cafe must have been looking forward to the best weekend of the year.

As the queue gradually moved forward (with more people arriving all the time) we overheard one of the renovation team on his mobile phone, "We're going to have to stay open a little later than planned...check with the volunteers that they can stay on after four..." How great that so much interest was being taken in our little piece of industrial heritage. Mini was certainly excited by the prospect of walking through the locks. "Will it be muddy?", she asked with a glint in her eye.

After 25 minutes or so we reached the head of the queue. As we carefully clambered down the first temporary staircase into the top lock chamber the scale of the project began to dawn. The water had been drained from the locks, and small pumps in each chamber were dealing with any seepage. Looking upstream, I could see the planks of wood laid one on top of the next to form a water-tight barrier. It seemed sturdy enough..."I hope so", said the cheerful volunteer who was stationed at this point, "It's all that is keeping back sixteen miles of canal!"

Once in the lock itself, you can really appreciate the skill of the craftsmen who were involved in the original building of the canal. Blocks of stone three feet wide, stretching up over ten meters above our heads. To one side was a hole in the wall big enough for mini to climb inside. This was one of the sluice outlets that help to fill the locks as they are required. Down here, awed by the sheer scale, it was easy to imagine the sheer hard work involved in digging out the channel, lining it and making it all function. All done, of course, with hand tools; you could almost hear the echoes of the pick axes and shovels.

We moved through the five locks and I cursed myself for not bringing my DSLR camera. Plenty of people had and were capturing the day both in stills and on video. Beneath one of the new gates we listened to another volunteer who was explaining about how they were made locally in one of only two workshops in the country capable of doing it. Each door is handmade to fit from English Green Oak and weighs five tonnes. With the weight of the water in the lock when they are operational, each door will weigh nearer twenty-five tonnes. The pairs of doors cost in the region of £25,000 to make and are expected to last up to thirty years. The top set they are replacing had lasted over forty years but with new regulations on the kinds of preservatives that can be used it is unlikely that these new ones will have as long a life.

Looking back up the flight of locks, I was really pleased that I had made the effort to come and see them from this unique perspective. Mini had been fascinated by the whole adventure, and this was a fantastic opportunity to experience some real living history.

As we climbed the staircase and stood on the side of the bottom lock, a small, tourist boat edged its way into the mouth of the lock for a close up look at the new gates. Mini waved at the passengers and squeezed my hand. "They can't walk inside it, can they?" she said. "No, but we have. Did you enjoy it?"
"Yeah!", she replied, "It was cool!...but not very muddy"
She seemed almost disappointed.