Canal Cuttings

Lack of Rain

The big topic on the waterways for the summer of ’22 is the lack of rain. We’ve had one of the driest periods for 50 years. Canals in many parts of the country have run out of water. Foxton Locks are on restricted opening hours to try and conserve the reservoir supplies. Currently the flight is open from 10am to 4pm. As is the one at Watford Gap at the other end of the 20 mile summit level. So far we have not had many instances of boats arriving at the locks not being able to pass through.

‘Like 1976’

People are comparing it to 1976, the ‘Year of the Drought’, but conditions are quite a lot different. 1975 was actually very dry. There were heavy restrictions on movement towards the end of the year, and 1976 started with the reservoirs almost empty. The Leicestershire Line Canal was closed completely throughout, and dried out down to a trickle in the middle. The Locks were a strange sight then as people came out primarily to see boats moving. There were no pubs here then, and without the boats, although the sun blazed down for what seemed like months, the place was like a ghost town. Just tumbleweed and dust, no paths or hard surfaces.

Foxton Boat Services

Canal Cuttings Summer 2022, Foxton Boat Services logo

Foxton Boat Services, and the other hire fleets on the section, had to re-locate elsewhere and attempt to earn a living without the visitors. We re-located to the River Soar in Leicester.

Canal Cuttings Summer 2022, Foxton Canal Museum logo

If they couldn’t come to us, we had to go to them. We built a mock-up butty cabin out of scrap boatbuilding wood, mounted it on a Austin A47 chassis and towed behind the Land Rover. Went round to every boat rally, country show, craft fair, church fete, whatever, to sell painted canal ware, chandlery and gifts. Despite quite a hard life it survives as a popular feature in the Foxton Canal Museum.

The bottom lock cottage, unoccupied at the time, was basically furnished as a holiday let at £15 per week for 4 people. From a small advert in The Times it was booked all summer!

Drought Breaks

The drought broke spectacularly on the August Bank Holiday. People danced about in the torrential rain and rolled in the mud. The dried-out lock gates leaked profusely and it took some time for the planks to tighten up again. The canal banks were full of holes made by burrowing animals, and literally leaked like a sieve.

Nowadays, nationwide there is a comprehensive system of back-pumps, which move water back up locks. Aided by computer technology that reads levels and automatically opens and closes sluices. Although Foxton Locks does not have back-pumps because of its Grade II* listing. Back then, it was canal banksmen going out and assessing things by eye, so generally the water supply is more effectively managed now. Much of the bank edge is steel piled. No matter how ‘clever’ we get we cannot make rain. Let’s hope that we can get to the end of the season without more closures.

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Mary Matts