It was nearly two hundred years ago that a flight of locks was completed on the Kennet and Avon Canal near Devizes, called the Caen Hill Locks. What an amazing feat of engineering! The concept of building these locks, to raise the level of the canal by 237 feet in 2 miles, the planning, the purchasing of land, the maths needed to ensure the structure and building would work, the technology… all done on paper and in people’s heads, no calculators or computers! The the course dug out by the strength of the navvies working on it, the locks lined with bricks and the gates constructed, the only transport would be what could be brought up on the canal on either side, or pulled on wagons by horses. What an immense undertaking!
John Rennie, a Scottish civil engineer, born in East Lothian in 1761 came from a rural background; his father was a farmer at Phantassie; Rennie was interested in what we would now call technology from an early age. He went on to design many bridges and docks as well as canals. The canal projects he undertook included the Lancaster Canal, the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, the Crinan Canal, the Rochdale Canal and the Royal Canal from Dublin to the Shannon near Longford. Closer to my Cambridgeshire home his other projects included drainage operations in the Lincolnshire and Norfolk fens, the River Witham and a new channel for the River Ouse.
As we walked down beside the canal, watching narrow boats negotiating their way into the different locks to progress up or down, we couldn’t help but marvel at it; the last commercial load was carried in 1948 and it fell into disrepair. Thank goodness it was restored, so many people use it in many different ways, and a whole new industry is dependent on it – leisure and tourism!