This trip takes us to Foxton, a well-known canal location of significant historical interest and very popular today with gongoozlers, people who come to watch canal boats passing through the locks, and visit the museum there which tells the story of the site and the boat lift that once operated here.
Our trip starts at Braunston at the centre of the English canal network and the base for all LNBP canal boat trips. This location is close to many junctions giving numerous options for different trips. Braunston is on the line of one of the earliest English canals, the Oxford Canal, which was completed through Braunston in 1774 and became an important junction when the Grand Junction Canal was completed from here to London, opened to through traffic in 1800. Braunston remains a busy canal location to this day with many boat yards and hire companies in the area including a boat building shed built as recently as 1961 where the LNBP’s boats Lancelot and Guinevere were built.
Lancelot at Braunston with the 1961 built boat building shed in the background
We leave Braunston heading south, passing up the 6 locks of the Braunston flight onto the summit level of the main line of the canal and pass through the Braunston tunnel, just over a mile long, before reaching Norton Junction. Here we turn off the main line onto the Leicester Section and our journey to Foxton really begins. After about half an hour we pass the Watford Gap service station on the M1, a gap in the fence gives access to the service station – useful if you need to do some emergency shopping or even want a meal ashore, and its open 24 hours a day! At this point the canal is sandwiched between the motorway on its right and the mainline railway on its left as all three routes pass through the Watford Gap.
Shortly after Watford Gap we reach Watford Locks. These locks are single, just wide enough for one boat to pass through at a time unlike the double width wide locks we passed through at Braunston. The first 2 are separate locks and there is then a sharp turn which will challenge even the boat handling skills of your skipper before we enter the first of a staircase of 4 locks.
In the staircase the locks are directly connected one to the next, the upper gates of the first lock are also the lower gates of the second, and the boat passes from one to the other with no intervening pound. Adjacent to each pair of locks is a side pound, the water level in which is at the intermediate level of the two locks, and the paddles which control the flow of water from lock to side pound and side pound to lock have to be operated in the correct order to avoid wasting water. The operation of these locks is overseen by a lock keeper and passage is only permitted when the lock keeper is on duty.
The staircase locks at Watford
After the staircase one further single lock brings us up onto the summit level, 52’ 6” above the summit level on the Grand Union main line we have just left and 412’ above sea level. We pass under the M1 motorway and then leave the noise of the railway and motorway behind as we continue on this level for 22 miles. This is a very rural and quite section largely avoiding any civilisation, Crick and Yelvertoft being the only villages the canal passes near to. The canal builders achieved this long pound by following the contours of the land, resulting in a very meandering route (at one point the canal crosses under the same road three times in less than a mile) and by building two tunnels to take the canal through hills and thus avoiding the need for any further locks, at Crick (1528 yds) and Husbands Bosworth (1166 yds).
After seven to eight hours cruising with no locks from Watford we arrive at Foxton. The canal from Foxton to Watford was known as the Grand Union (now referred to as the Old Grand Union) opened in 1814 and linked the existing Leicestershire and Northampton Union Canal (LNU) which went north through Leicester and Loughborough to join the Trent and Mersey canal, to the Grand Junction Canal (GJC) at Norton Junction. Despite the fact that the LNU and the GJC were built with wide locks capable of passing a barge 14 feet wide and able to carry 50 tons, the Old Grand Union was built with narrow locks only capable of passing a much less economic narrow boat able to carry just 25 tons but still requiring the same crew and a horse to operate, a decision that was to have major repercussions.
The locks at Foxton comprise a unique 10 lock staircase arranged in two staircases of 5 with a passing place between, forming the longest staircase in the country, and like the Watford locks there are side pounds alongside each pair of locks. This is an unusual arrangement, there are few staircase locks on British canals and usually the water from one lock goes directly into the one below.
The side pound arrangement at Foxton (and Watford) saves a lot of water but they are slow to operate as one boat has to pass up all 5 locks before another can pass down in order to realise the water saving. The lockkeeper will be watching us to ensure we operate the paddles in the correct sequence! The construction of these locks was started in 1810 and the whole complex including two lockkeeper’s cottages at the top and two at the bottom, boat-horse stables, a blacksmith’s and a carpenter’s shop took four years to complete.
Looking up the Foxton Locks Staircase. The side pounds can be seen on the left and one of the lockkeeper’s cottages at the top.
The Inclined Plane
In 1894 the Grand Junction Canal Company brought out the LNU for £6,500 and the Old Grand Union for £10,000, and set about making improvements. The main restriction to trade was the narrow locks which prevented the use of wide beam boats. Water supply was also a constant headache with limited supplies from only 3 summit reservoirs.
The solution to all these problems, conceived in 1898, was the construction of inclined plane boat lifts at both Foxton and Watford. These would bypass the bottlenecks of the narrow locks speeding up the traffic, enabling the use of barges and saving water. The planned incline plane at Watford was never built but that at Foxton represents the ultimate in incline plane technology in this country, it was a bold and imaginative construction typical of the Victorian age of technical innovation and cost a total of £39,224.
It was opened in 1900 and comprised two counterbalanced water tanks (known as caissons) each running on four dual sets of rails set on a concrete slope with a gradient of 1:4. Each caisson was capable of taking one barge or two narrowboats and had an all up weight of 240 tons. When a boat entered a caisson it would displace its own weight of water so the two caissons were always perfectly balanced and a steam engine of just 25 horsepower was all that was needed to drive the system.
When the inclined plane came into operation all traffic used it and the locks fell into disuse. However, the anticipated increase in traffic did not materialise and the cost of keeping the boiler fired up and maintaining a head of steam at all times so the plane was ready for use when a boat arrived proved uneconomic. The lift was only open to traffic during the day but when steam powered narrow boats came into use they would often operate 24 hours a day (horse drawn boats would always stop at night as the horse had to be rested), and so in 1909 the locks were refurbished and brought back into use for night time operation. In 1911 the lift was mothballed to save money and all boats then used the locks. The canal company intended to reopen it when things got better but they never did and it was finally scrapped between 1927 and 1928. The steam engine and boilers were sold, the caissons and rails cut up for scrap and the boiler house and chimney demolished and the bricks used for repair of other canal structures. The windows from the boiler house were used in the building of a new pump house at Tring on the Grand Junction Canal main line.
The Inclined Plane Today
Little remains of the original structure except for the plane itself. In 1979 the Foxton Inclined Plane Society was formed with the intention of restoring the plane to full operational order. A lot has been achieved in clearing the plane of vegetation and cleaning out the upper and lower approach arms to allow better interpretation of the site. The boiler house has been rebuilt and was opened as a museum in 1989 and a Lift Trail established which includes high level viewing platforms to help visitors explore and understand the site. Unfortunately the plan to restore the lift to full operation has had to be abandoned at least for the foreseeable future as it has proved to be beyond the means of the Society.
A view of the top of the plane today from the upper viewing platform
Passing through the Foxton locks is a unique experience and the inclined plane is a fascinating site to explore making a trip to Foxton a must for all canal aficionados.
Below the bottom lock is a canal junction. Turning right it is five and ¾ miles to Market Harborough, a small town with all facilities including a supermarket. A trip to Market Harborough and return is an easy five day trip. Carrying straight on at Foxton takes us onto the River Soar and into Leicester, a return trip to Leicester is a seven day trip. Alternatively we can continue beyond Leicester to the Trent and Mersey canal and return via the Coventry and Oxford canals. This route is known as the Leicestershire Ring and would take nine days to complete.
If this great trip sounds perfect for your community group or organisation, Why not speak to us for further information and about making a booking.
Contact LNBP’s Booking Officer, Nigel, on 07967 406875 or email at email@example.com