Opening Lock Gates Automatically

When we were travelling down to the Thames this summer, on the Grand Union, we came across Richard Horne who operates working narrowboat Arundel carrying aggregate from the conveyor at Denham to Hanson's wharf at West Drayton. The last time we were down that way, in 2003, we saw the then new Land & Water barges that were specifically designed to fill Cowley Lock operating through Cowley. This time we saw Arundel reversing back empty from the winding to its wharf at Denham to fill up at the coveyor and later, after we had moored, watched her descending Cowley Lock.

Richard, who operates the boat as Phoenix Canal Carriers, was operating single-handed and was using an interesting technique to open the lower lock gates. It was a version of a technique that I had not seen before but had read about in Waterways World in the mid 1990s. The technique consists of using the boats motive power (i.e. horse or motor) to automatically open the lock gates when the lock is empty. The description I read in Waterways World described a pair of horse boats going down Hatton Flight. I remember finding it very hard to follow the description; I read it through several times before I began to understand it. Seing a modern version with just one boat made it easier to follow but I have to say it was no less impressive in terms of ingenuity.

I took a video of the technique on my Nokia N95. I hope you can follow what is happening. The process involves putting a line from the towing mast around the lock gate rail and selecting reverse on the motor. When the water levels are equal the force on the line which over the gate is sufficient to open it. Once the gate is open the motor engine is put into neutral via a line to the engine-hole. Richard gets on board and then leaves the lock, retrieving the line to the gates in the process. Obviously the gates are left open in the manner that prevailed during the days of full-scale commercial carrying.

Richard Horne automatically opening the gates of Cowley Lock using the engine of NB Arundel, August 1st 2008

I discussed how much aggregate Arundel was carrying with Richard. He had on board a very impressive 30 1/4 tonnes. As he pointed out, it just demonstrated what could be carried when canals are properly dredged. It appears the section between Denham and West Drayton has been dredged to 7ft.

Steve Parkin