20111227_Foxton Locks Mini Walk / Visit.
When : 27th December 2011
Who : Just Me – But to also meet some colleagues from my scout group
Where : Foxton – Leicestershire – England
Map used : 1:25000 Explorer Map no.223 – Northampton and Market Harborough
Start and End Point : SP,693,892
Summary : A mini-walk, little more than a visit really, to the staircase locks and associated canals near Foxton at a Tee-Junction of The Grand Union Canal.
If you click on a pic’ it should launch as a larger image on my flickr photostream.
As the weather forecast was kind of OK : Grey and overcast but mostly dry, with the odd chance of a light shower or even with a drop of sunshine possible, I decided to head out to Foxton Locks; a place I’ve visited at regular times over many years now. The reason was three-fold really :-
- Firstly: To test out how my knees were improving after key-hole “arthroscopy” surgery on both knees/cartilage. It was the first time I’d had my boots on since the op’s a few weeks earlier.
- Secondly: To meet some friends + colleagues in the scout group I help out at (I’m an ACSL with the Cub Scouts). The group always do a Christmas family walk, and this year they’d chosen a circular based on Foxton.
- And last, but not least; To potentially take a few photo’s, simply because it’s a quite interesting and attractive place to go.
The village of Foxton is just a couple of miles north-west of Market Harborough and my route to get there was along the A4304 for much of the way from my home in Rugby. Before reaching Mkt Harbro’ though, I took a left turn in the village of Lubenham to take a minor road north to almost reach Foxton village at a tee junction. Taking a left turn onto Gallow Field Road and then another left very soon after onto Gumley Road in fact now took me directly away from the village. This may seem counter-intuitive, but there is good reason, as the car-park I was heading for is in fact a little way along this road out in the middle of the countryside and not in Foxton itself. I soon found myself parked up, along with so many other cars that I had to use the over-flow field. Obviously a lot of other people had similar ideas to myself and a real testament to the popularity of the place. There is a charge for the car park but there is a toilet block, which considering this was The Christmas Holidays, I was surprised to find open.
Anyway, enough of the pre-amble to the walk. I managed to get my boots on OK(ish); bending my knees wasn’t overly easy, and I set off along a path running alongside but set back from the road in a westerly direction. In only a matter of a few minutes a bridge is reached crossing The Grand Union Canal. The canal side path that I wanted was on the far bank, so I crossed over the canal, but I didn’t need to brave the narrow “hump” of the roadway, as there is a wooden footbridge immediately to the side of the traditional brick built arch. The drop down to the canal is really nothing to write home about, but I took it quite gingerly, easing my way into the walk, not wishing to put too much strain on my knees which I have to admit were rather sore and decidedly stiff ! Once down on the canal side however, turning north on the tow path, the way became very much easier on the old knees, being absolutely perfectly flat and I soon reached the top lock and lock keepers cottage at the top of the really quite steep hill.
The canal has to descend a total of 75 feet (about 23 meters) in height within a very short distance. In terms of a canal, that has by design got to retain water by being dead flat, this is quite a task. The canal engineer Benjamin Brown solved the problem by constructing two flights of five very deep staircase locks – 10 in all. Unusually, one lock leads directly into another without any linking stretch of canal. This means the bottom gates of one lock are also the top gates of the next lock down. This in turn means that only one narrow boat can negotiate either up or down each set of five locks at any one time. There is just one short passing place between the two flights. As you can imagine when it’s busy on the canal this makes for a real bottle-neck and a single boat can take some time to travel from top to bottom (or vice-versa).
The system is also potentially very expensive on the amount of water needed to transport a single craft up or down the hill. To this end, there are a good number of balancing/feeder ponds tiered down the hill by the side of the locks. The result is not only a practical solution but also very aesthetically pleasing on the eye and a superb semi-naturalised environment for wild-life.
I spent some time switching back and forth trying to find the best angles for some photo’s, trying not to be too clichéd in my snaps. Not easy for me today, mainly because my knees really did not like the steeper drops as the pathways descended in a series of steps – It wasn’t just discomfort and stiffness now, there was real pain! and disappointing as well as I’d hoped (probably unrealistically) that things were improving. I was also trying to guesstimate when my scouting colleagues might be coming over the fields from Gumley, so headed off to the bottom lock, crossed an attractively arched bridge and headed up the tow path heading north (with the canal on my left) passing a number of moored narrow boats on the way. The roofs of the boats are often used to carry stuff; bikes, flowers/vegetables growing in pots, decorative buckets, etc., etc., and I particularly liked one boat with a pile of fire-wood, nothing unusual in that perhaps, but the delicate stacking did look very precarious.
After a short while along the tow path (occasionally dodging cyclists), a modern metal footbridge is reached, which I had to wait a few minutes to cross because of the number of people enjoying a post Christmas stroll in the fresh air. The steep steeps however were not good for my knees and I fairly hobbled up and own each side. Once on the other side however the way was very easy, at first walking close to a hedge (on my right) and then after a few hundred yards, passing through to the other side to head diagonally across the adjacent field towards a farm. It was just outside the farm that I met my scouting friends who told me they’d had a super walk (the muddiest part being the farm yard they’d just come through) and I turned around to retrace my steps with some of them back to the metal footbridge and then back down to the Foxton Locks junction. Once over the canal we headed for one of the two pubs here, bought some drinks from the bar and sat on an outside terrace over-looking the basin. Luckily the weather was dry (although rather chilly) which was a good thing because otherwise it was standing room only in the pub; all tables being full of drinkers and diners – again testament to the popularity of the area. Slowly but surely, people moved off, leaving just a few of us to finish our drinks, and eventually I said my farewells and headed back into the locks area, this time heading up to the remains of The Inclined Plane.
The Inclined Plane – An innovative boat lift.
As mentioned before, the flight of locks is a bottleneck waiting to happen when the canals are busy. In modern times this is pretty much leisure craft, but back in the late 1800’s when canal traffic was industrial this was a real problem – Time is money and all that! – The narrow 7-feet wide locks also restricted the width of the boats/barges that could negotiate the flight precluding larger wider boats being used. At the same time, the use of canals to efficiently transport goods around the country was coming under stiff competition from the railways which obviously were much quicker.
To try and counter the competition, engineer Gordon Cale was employed to find a solution to the bottle-neck and allow larger and wider barges (that could carry larger loads) to make use of the canals here…. The result was “The Inclined Plane”. This consisted of two huge tanks (known as caissons), each could accommodate two of the normal narrow boats or one of the larger wide barges. One tank would sit at the top of a steeply slanting slope, with the other at the bottom and would link with canal arms at the top and bottom of the hill. When ready, the two tanks would be closed by means of guillotine gates ensuring the tanks were maintained full of water and would run sideways up and down the slope on tracks (resembling railway tracks), one counterbalancing the other. The system was operated by means of a winding drum and thick steel cables attached to the ascending tank whilst playing out cables attached to the descending tank. The whole thing was powered by a 25 horse power steam engine. The Boiler House for the steam engine has now been converted into a small museum.
After all the investment and engineering works, the inclined plane was opened on the 10th July 1900. However, the canal wasn’t widened at Watford Gap, further down the cut; canal traffic didn’t increase and the railways (and ultimately roads for that matter) won the race for moving goods about the country. The inclined plane lift closed in 1911, just ten/eleven years after its grand opening! It then fell into disrepair and only in recent times has a restoration programme been put in place.
Anyway, enough of the potted history, there’s MUCH more info’ available from various sources if you care to look for it. Some examples I’ve found very easily [ they’re all external sites I have no links with or influence over, just some sites I’ve found ] :-
- Foxton Locks Inclined Plane Trust
- Go Leicestershire
- Flickr Photosharing
- More Wiki Stuff
- Wild Over Waterways (education for kids)
- Canal and River Trust
So, back to my wander; I headed over to the remains of the inclined plane; The concrete blocks and channels give a sense of the scale of the operation. At the top, there is a beached huge barge, again giving a superb indication of what was achieved here and totally belying the current prettiness of the area : This was an industrial place, not a tourist attraction.
Incidentally, the flat roof of the boiler house affords a super view out over the balancing ponds and locks.
After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing I dropped down to look for some interesting camera angles, eventually reaching the bottom lock and basin area once again.
By now, it was starting to get decidedly cool and I could feel my knees stiffening up even more than before, and felt was time to start moving back up the hill, so started the climb past the museum to reach the dead end of the canal arm that used to feed the top of the incline plane. Walking up the right hand side of this part of the cut felt quite remote, being somewhat removed from the main locks, and I enjoyed trying to get some pic’s here-abouts – My faves being of some sloe berries and a small gorse bush in flower hanging over the dark (almost sinister looking) waters of the canal.
The path this side of the canal peters-out, meaning I had to return the way I’d come, then switching over to the opposite side to follow a much wider path all the way back up to the original footbridge used at the start of the walk. From here it was a short distance back to the car and the drive home.
An enjoyable wander, I never tire of going back here – If you get the chance, go see it for yourself …. And if you’re after a longer walk, there’s plenty of scope for longer circulars including footpaths to the villages of Lubenham, Gumley, Loughton, Saddington (and it’s small reservoir), Smeeton Westerby and of course Foxton itself.
I hope you enjoyed my scribblings and photo’s, and if you end up visiting I wish you some blue skies and sunshine, as it’s so much more rewarding in good conditions.
So, T.T.F.N.…. If you’d like to comment on my diary or any of my pic’s please feel welcome. Bye-Bye, Gary