Friday, December 04, 2009

The Challenge of Caen Hill

Heading westwards, our next major milestone was Devizes, and Caen Hill in particular. Since Wootton Rivers we had been on the 15-mile 'long pound', with no locks as the canal wriggled around the contours. Soon that would all change!

We arrived at Devizes Wharf in the late afternoon and planned to go down the 6 'Town' locks and 16 Caen Hill locks the following day. That evening and the following morning, we looked around to see if there was anyone else likely to be going down the locks, so that we could share the locks and help each other. The weather forecast was not all that good, and the morning sky's message was 'red sky in the morning – shepherds' warning'.

Just a couple of hundred yards ahead of us was 'Britannia', Tony's boat. He was planning to go down the flight that same day, and had arranged for David, a friend of his, to come and help him. We agreed to meet after the first lock and go down the flight together. After we had gone through the 'town' locks, Tony had to pop in to the BW office so, while we were waiting for him, the three of us decided to tie the two boats together and start down the flight 'breasted up', with Val steering the two boats and David and Dave working the locks. Tony had a surprise when he came out of the office and found Britannia was already part way down the hill!

After that, it was near record-breaking progress! One of the 3 blokes went ahead to prepare the next locks, while the other two operated the lock that the boats were going through. This meant that Val could drive straight out of one lock into the open top gates of the next. We were down the bottom of the Caen Hill 16 by 12:40, and we had only started off from Devizes Wharf at 9:20. That's 22 locks in 3 hours 20 minutes – just over 9 minutes per lock, which is good by any standards!

It's really worth looking at the scale of Caen Hill. Here is an aerial view, and here is some more information from British Waterways. There are lots of photos of it on the web, but here's one Dave took the next morning. Tony had gone on further but we were happy to stay there overnight. There was no hurry!

One of our memories is of taking a detour via Devizes on a family visit from Romford to Bristol back in the 70s or early 80s, just to see this magnificent flight of locks, even though it was completely derelict at the time. The next time we saw it was when we took a boat up it in 2004 – wow!

After Caen Hill, 'ordinary' locks might seem a little dull, but the remaining 7 locks down to Lower Foxhangers Farm have their own charm, with longer pounds between them and some side ponds as well.
We didn't travel far that day; just pottered on to Sells Green and filled up with water. We had thought to go a bit more but, in the event, decided to stay there overnight.

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