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Navigating Mile End Lock

On the Regents Canal

Working the locks on the Regents Canal.

The ups and downs of life on the Regents Canal. While we were over in Mile End Park one Sunday in 2006 we took a walk down to Mile End Lock and sat there for about an hour fascinated by the water borne traffic passing through. The locks take the boats up or down a step in the canal bed. They allow the canal to be dug at an even depth along it’s length without having to carve out deep valleys to pass through higher ground. The locks combine more or less into a giant staircase going up or down the undulations of the land, each lock being a separate step. Here are a few photos taken in the short time we were there. Please bear in mind that I have never navigated the canal system so my explanation of the lock mechanics are purely from my amateur observations. Please correct me or supply your own original guide if I am wrong.

Operating the canal locks

Photo 1. You can see the lock gates here, there is one at each end of the ‘step’ in the canal bed. The pressure of the water is so great that it holds them closed at the deep end allowing the lower gates to be opened.

Photo 3. The lock viewed from the opposite end shows how the vessels enter the empty lock from the lower end to be raised up to the next level.

 Photo 2. Shows the gates at the low water end. These can be opened to let the boats into the empty lock as the water is being held back by the closed high water gates. You can see from the next photo the height that the narrow boats will actually be raised.

Photo 4. The waiting narrow boat eases into the lock from the lower level. There is room for a number of boats depending on size. This particular lock is unmanned so all the gates and sluices have to be operated by the crew of the boat themselves.

Photo 5. Once the boat is inside the lock the heavy gates are pushed shut behind it. You can see the ribs on the ground to assist the grip of feet in the pushing process.

Photo 6. Once the gate is closed with the boat inside the empty lock the sluices on the gates at the upper level can be wound up to let the water rush in and flood the lock, raising the boats inside.

Photo 7.  With one set of gates acting like a dam holding the water back and the other set now closed to prevent any water escaping, the boat owner uses a key to wind up the sluice gates. You can see the water rushing in through these small sliding hatch-like openings.

Photo 8. As the water pours through the openings the level gradually rises taking the boats inside upward to the level of the water on the other side of the gate.

Photo 9. The lock is now fully filled and the barge is now level with the higher part of the canal. It has effectively been lifted up the ‘stair’.

Photo 12. The lock gates at the top are closed behind the barge and the whole process starts over again in reverse, in order to lower it down.

Photo 11. Once the boat has cleared the lock to head upstream to the next one, the boats that have been waiting to go down the ‘step’ are allowed into the lock which is now full of water.

Photo 10. The top gates are now open and the narrow boat is untied and floats out of the lock about ten or twelve feet higher than it was when it entered the bottom gate. The whole process took about 20 minutes I would guess.

Photo 15. I don’t know what the correct protocol is regarding the empty lock (I suppose there must be some rules), but as the queue had finished these cabin cruiser crew decided to close the gates when leaving.

Photo 14. The lock keeper’s cottage is still there but no-one mans the lock anymore. All the work is done by the boat crew and if they are not used to it the job can take a lot longer.

Photo 13. The sluice gates at the other end are opened and the water flows out until the level in the lock is the same as the canal level. The traffic inside the lock has been lowered.

A pleasant way to spend an hour or two

As I mentioned earlier, I am not a boat person and know absolutely nothing about travelling canals by water (is there any other way?) but it was an entertaining hour or so that we spent there watching the experts and novices making their way through the lock. I was amazed at the sheer volume of traffic passing through the lock. It seemed to be a continuous process with people arriving to go in each direction all the time.

I also wonder what was the cause of the decline in movement of goods by canal. In these days of traffic jams and fuel prices I am surprised that there is not more enthusiasm for the barges carrying goods around our waterways.

A qualified City of London tour guide.

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