Canal Cuttings – Locks in Lockdown

After a really wet and miserable winter, and a three-month closure of the locks for new gates, everybody was looking forward to things getting moving again.  Many boats had been trapped due to flooded rivers, others were planning to start their spring cruising, and hire fleets were gearing up for the Easter break. No sooner had the flight re-opened than came the bombshell that everything was to shut down because of coronavirus.

It was surreal – the stillness…the silence.  The locks were like a monument: no gush of water through the paddles and over the weirs, no swinging of the gates back and forth, no rattle of ratchets or shouts between steerers and lock crew, no squeals of kids running about. Only the song of the blackbird on the branch, the coos of the pigeons on the telephone wires, the drilling of the woodpecker in the woods, and the caws of the rooks circling their tree-top nests.

The wildflowers were exceptionally beautiful, as if to compensate for the extraordinary situation. Violets carpeted the banks and hedge bottoms, followed by forget-me-knots, celandines, cowslips, daisies, and the full array of spring flowers and blossom.  In the pub gardens the pansies and tulips put on a spectacular show when there was nobody there to appreciate them.  The canal was still and clear, with only the skitter of a moorhen or the splash of a big fish, no longer in danger of being hooked out for somebody’s dinner, to disturb it.  Duckweed lay in drifts, the reeds encroach unchecked, and the waterway was fast reverting to a nature reserve.

The drought year was weird and difficult (1976), the Foot & Mouth year was weird and difficult (2001) but nothing is as weird, difficult and disturbing as this.  The canal has never looked like this before.

A common question is “what day is it?” answer: “today…another day…someday… any day…”  Another question might be “what year is it?” 2020 or 1950?

Canal & River Trust stated that there was to be no navigation, except for residential boaters accessing water and toilet emptying facilities, or in exceptional circumstances by prior arrangement. The 14 day mooring rule was relaxed, and fishing was banned. The two metre social distancing rule makes passing on the towpath tricky, often meaning somebody should theoretically be walking on water!  Cyclists take the opportunity to fly along even faster than they did before, and joggers are seemingly exempt.  Picking up dog poo also seems to have gone by the board.

At time of writing CRT are now saying that people can make short journeys in their boats, but not stay overnight or use locks or manned structures, and fishing has resumed. The normal mooring regulations are back in place, although there will be some leeway, with dispensations for those who are vulnerable.

The public are now coming back to the locks in some numbers, particularly in the beautiful weather that seemed sent to taunt those who cannot get out, and those whose business depends in it. The car park and toilets are open, and Foxton Boats shop has kept open for groceries, take-away drinks and some food.  The Coffee Stop at the top lock is also open for take-away.

Mary Matts

Mary Matts is a regular contributor to the Kibworth Chronicle. For most of her working life she was part of Foxton Boat Services Limited. Consequently she has lived next to the Foxton Canal Base for many years and is an authority on its history, the canal workers of the past, its flora and fauna, its art and really most aspects of canal life in our area. Her interesting talks were often enhanced by her appearing in the dress of the 18th/19th bargees women.