The archaeology of water


Water doesn’t like to be managed. It likes to flow. It likes to follow the path of least resistance. It doesn’t like to be held back or told what to do. It runs away at every opportunity.

It has my sympathy.

But in a canal, water has to be managed. Most of these channels didn’t exist before an army of navvies hacked them into the land, and they have no natural water supply. Every time I empty a lock to move my boat up or downhill, I take 86,000 gallons of water out of the canal. Small wonder if we go aground sometimes on a busy August afternoon, with dozens of boats taking their share of the available resource: there’s not enough bloody water left to float in.

So the canal doesn’t just have machinery. It is machinery. Most of it is vernacular and unnoticed. The pile of stop planks, to make a temporary dam if the canal bottom needs repair; the inconspicuous sluice, to drain a section; the by-weir that prevents overflow. Occasionally, a Victorian engineer gives us a grand rhetorical flourish like the Barton Swing Aqueduct or the Anderton Boat Lift (above). But mostly it’s undramatic. This is the gentle work of restraint and possibility.

My favourite piece of water management is the stop lock at Hall Green, built in the 1830s as a sort of prophylaxis to prevent too much fluid being exchanged between two canals. It’s nothing spectacular and it takes five minutes to pass through, but it’s one of my landmarks – a last stop on my way home at the end of a summer season boating. It unfailingly provides blackberries and sloes for the Christmas gin. Even a boater cannot live by water alone….

Hall Green stop lock




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