Climbing on Water

Western fringe of Devizes, the Kennet and Avon Canal plunges towards the Avon valley. Being a canal, it has to plunge a bit at a time.

In a mile or so, canal boats must drop 231 feet. They do so by passing through no fewer than 29 locks.

Going down is no easier than going up. In either direction, the crew must open the lock gate, chug into the narrow well of the lock, close the gate, open the sluice at the opposite end, wait for the water-level to equalise to that of the next stretch of canal, open that lock gate, chug the boat out and, finally, close the gate again, to make it ready for the next traveller.

Twenty-nine times.

Each lock in this stretch has a broad pool alongside - partly as a reservoir for the water which must, eventually, dribble down the hill, partly as a turning space for canal navigators who change their mind, partly to provide some respite for those who can't face going through another lock for a while.

The view over the Avon valley is some consolation, however. It promises the soft delights of the West Country proper, where the twilight gleams. If you have lunch in Devizes, it will probably be twilight before you reach the bottom of Caen Hill.

Although such effort is backbreaking for canal travellers (and a serious barrier to the development of the K & A as a leisure amenity), there is pleasure to be had from the process. By watching. In fact, the practice of watching canal boats going through locks has become so prevalent that a new word has been coined to describe the activity - "gongoozling".

If only I'd known in time, I could have told my Careers Master of my burning ambition to become a gongoozler when I grew up (if ever).

William Marshal The Marshal England and the Danes Alfred
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