When they opened nearly 250 years ago the town’s church bells rang out, the local militia fired their field guns in salute and around 30,000 awestruck spectators turned up to cheer.
Today the Grade I-listed Bingley Five Rise Locks in West Yorkshire are still considered one of the true wonders of Britain’s waterways and can, thanks to a major restoration project, carry on lifting boats up and down the Leeds to Liverpool canal for years to come.
Workers have spent the last month replacing the giant gates at two of the five locks. At 7 metres’ tall and weighing six tonnes, they are among the tallest lock gates in the UK. They form part of the steepest flight of locks in Britain. There is a magic about them, said the former lock keeper Richard Moore, part of the team restoring the site.
“When you’re at the top looking down it does look huge, it looks scary,” Moore said. “But it’s only a 60ft rise really. It is just so impressive in terms of the engineering and the scale. It is a beautiful thing. When you see people’s reactions going in … it’s like a fair ride.”
For many it is daunting but lots of help is always on hand. No narrow boat can go through the locks without a lock keeper, and even though they have taken down the “you must obey the lock keeper at all times” sign, people are still expected to follow instructions.
It can take 30 minutes to get a boat down the locks and 45 minutes to get up. At busy times there are queues, the result being sometimes that if a boat arrives in the afternoon it might not get through until the next day.
The new lock gates have been hand-crafted using traditional methods at the Canal and River Trust’s specialist workshops at Stanley Ferry in Yorkshire.
The locks are considered one of the greatest feats of canal engineering of their day and are Grade I-listed, the same as York Minster – only 2.5% of listed buildings are Grade I. They sit on a waterway that was once one of England’s most important transport links.
In the 18th century when the canal arrived in your town or village it was something to celebrate said William Froggatt, a heritage adviser to the trust.
“What tended to happen was the price of coal went down significantly and in those days coal was the thing – you cooked your food, you heated your house … industry was increasingly using coal. A boat could carry 40 tonnes of coal as opposed to a horse and cart which could perhaps carry one tonne.
“The canal was a cause for celebration anyway but a structure like this would have been out of anybody’s experience.”
They were – and remain – quite something to see close up. When they opened in March 1774 a report in the Leeds Intelligencer said the locks were among “the noblest works of the kind that perhaps are to be found, in the same extent in the universe”.
The lock repairs are part of the charity’s wider £55m winter restoration programme across the 2,000-mile network of historic canals and rivers.
“I think these things are worth preserving and maintaining not just because they exist, but because people built them whose names in the main we’ve forgotten,” said Froggatt. “I think it is worth it in their memory as much as anything else. We are respecting their work and I hope people will respect our work in 100 years time.”