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~We know how to show visitors a good time!~
In the unlikely event that you were ever to come and visit me and it wasn't raining, then there's a high probability that we would go to Foxton Locks. Unless it's a very short visit or you express a total loathing for our nation's industrial heritage, you will - sooner or later - get stuffed into the back of my car and taken to our favourite local attraction. Only if your greatest wish is an afternoon in the charity shops and coffee bars of Market Harborough, might you persuade me NOT to treat you to the twin wonders of the Foxton 'staircases' and the utterly awesome 'Inclined Plane' boat lift. Actually I probably oversold the Inclined Plane - you need a vivid imagination and my best story-telling prowess in full flight before it can really be considered awesome. If hanging around the canal sounds dull there may well be a pint or two at the end of it if you behave yourself, so relax and come with me on a visit to the water wonderland of Foxton Locks.
~Turn right past the prison~
Foxton Locks is located a few miles north of Market Harborough in the south of Leicestershire. It's easily accessed off the A14 and A6 and is well signposted in the area. It's close to HMP Gartree, the local maximum security prison which seems to be considered a minor attraction by some of our visitors who are interested in such things. There was a breakout some years ago - wisely the prisoners chose to escape by helicopter and not by canal boat, especially since if they went in the wrong direction they'd have 45 minutes minimum delay to get through the locks.
Short and longer stay car parking is available - for those with mobility issues (especially if they've got disabled parking permits) the short stay is recommended as it's situated at the heart of Foxton Locks and will minimise how far you need to walk. For those looking to save a little money or stay a bit longer, the long stay parking is cheaper but a much longer walk from the locks. The long stay closes in the early evening so if you're looking to have dinner or a few beers at the end of the day, it's better to go for the short stay and pay a little more for the convenience of not getting your car locked in for the night. There are public toilets in both car parks.
~Lock, Stock and Barrel~
Foxton Locks offers visitors a fascinating chance to see how the canal network was a key enabler of the nation's industrial growth. As well as a museum about the canals and the locks, you have the real thing - a genuine, fully functioning flight of 10 locks. And on all but the quietest of days, you can expect to be able to watch the locks in action. Since quite a lot of people negotiating the locks are people who've hired a boat for the weekend and haven't really worked out what they're doing, it can be quite fun to watch the sheer terror on their faces which is magnified by having an audience.
There's a lock-keeper's cottage with historic displays for those who want them and drinks and buns for those more interested in food and drink. To the side of the locks are holding pools which store the run off water and attract water birds and at certain times of years the fields in the other direction fill up with frisky boxing hares. For more earthly pleasures there are several pubs and places to eat and for those of an engineering bent there's the remains of the Inclined Plane boat lift which makes my eyes pop out with delight every time I visit. There are platforms where you can stand and look out across the countryside for many miles around and displays that tell you just how long it would take to get from Foxton to just about anywhere else on the canal network. This soon reminds us of a much slower time when the pace of life was measured in days and locks not hours and minutes.
~Thursday's Child has Far to Go~
I've always suspected that my love of the canals dates back to one of my favourite childhood books - 'Thursday's Child' by Noel Streatfeild (e before i - go figure). Not for me the prancing around in tutus of her 'Ballet Shoes' or its many shoe-themed sequels; I loved her story of Margaret Thursday, the orphan child who ran away to work on the canals. It was made into a television series too so may be familiar to many readers. Thanks to family and friends who have owned canal boats, we've had lots of opportunity for messing about on canals and if I can't do the locks myself, I'm happy to sit on the bank and watch people negotiating a flight.
Locks are required when a canal needs to change altitude. Unlike a road or a railway you can't just stick a slope in because water will always find its lowest point. To climb a hill, boats have to ascend a few feet at a time and to climb a big hill, they may need to repeatedly pass through locks, rising a little as they pass through each. The ascent at Foxton is approximately 75 feet (30m) and takes 10 locks to complete the climb. Foxton's flight of 10 locks is arranged in two 'staircases' of five locks each with a holding area in the middle. Since the full flight will take a minimum of 45 minutes, you can imagine that there would be an outcry if nobody could start heading up until the boat coming down had finished its descent. Hence boats can move in opposite directions then tie up in the middle to wait for the chance to swap over and complete the flight. In case of any conflict, the lock-keeper at the top will make it clear who has the priority.
I remember learning about how locks work when I was at school and my mind was blown by the simplicity and the apparent paradigm that water flowing downhill could make a boat go uphill. Even though I know the system inside out I still love to watch a boat progress down a flight of locks. Because the flight is so well known and because Foxton is set up to encourage visitors, the nervous boat pilot can expect an audience at most times. Yes we will snigger if you hit the sides or if you drop the lock key in the water or - if you've got a dog like my sister's mutt Finlay - if your dog falls in. It's important to be realistic though and point out that locks are dangerous and parents will want to keep their children under control when playing around the locks. Boats have to be careful not to catch their tail ends on the lip of the locks or they can get caught and if you fall off a boat inside a lock it's extraordinarily dangerous, especially in locks which are as narrow as those at Foxton. So parents, please bring your kids, use the locks to explain the basics of hydrodynamics but make sure they understand that they are dangerous places.
~A Bit of History~
The locks were built between 1810 and 1814 and are very narrow. As the traffic on the canals expanded through the 19th century and larger boats started to become more popular, the amount of traffic through the locks was too much for the system to cope with. Larger boats couldn't make their way through at all so the Grand Junction Canal Company decided to build a system to facilitate the movement of wider craft up to 14 feet across the beam. The solution was the Inclined Plane boat lift. Boats were driven into wide water filled tanks called 'caissons' which could hold two narrow boats or a wider barge. These tanks were then dragged up the hill by a stationary steam engine. As one tank went up the hill, a second tank with two boats from the top of the hill came down to balance the weight going up. The ascent time was cut to just 12 minutes for 2 boats up and two boats down which made it possible for a lot more traffic to pass through Foxton and de-bottlenecked the canal. Sadly the inclined plane was not completed until 1900, pretty much just in time to become almost instantly obsolete as the railways became the transportation method of choice and the canals went into disrepair and the inclined plane was mothballed in 1911 and dismantled 15 years later. It was a clear example of great technology at the wrong time. Today all you will see is a steep hill, a few grooves and the holding area at the bottom of the plane. However, with a good imagination, you can soon picture the scene of boats being literally dragged up the hill.
~Other things to see and do~
I have never been in the Foxton Canal Museum - I'm basically too mean to pay for the entrance fee and I am always more than satisfied with what I can see for free. The museum occupies the old steam room for the engine which worked the inclined plane boat lift. It seems to be popular and at just £2.50 for adults and £2 for concessions, it's probably worth a visit. I can go back any time so I'll get round to it one day when it's raining, I expect. If you're only ever likely to go the one time, I'd suggest to consider the museum.
At the bottom of the flight you'll find a small shop and a couple of pubs. Boat trips go from outside the Foxton Lock pub and a half hour trip costs a very reasonable £2.50 for adults and £1.50 for children. Dogs are free and welcomed so long as they behave themselves. For those who prefer to spend their money on beer, the Foxton Lock pub has a lovely water-side beer garden and serves food inside. Be aware at busy times there are very few tables inside unless you're eating.
If you pick the time of your visit carefully, there are various festivals that take place during the year when you'll find more boats at Foxton, people selling things off their boats (I particularly like the 'cheese boat' and the 'beer boat') and some events come with live music and various forms of jollity. The Foxton Locks Festival takes place in mid August and is always a good event but if you prefer to avoid crowds, turn up on any day of the year and most of the time you'll find a peaceful place surrounded by beautiful countryside. Depending on how often we get visitors, we'll often be up at the locks four to six times a year. I really can't get enough of this place.
Whilst there's obviously a steep hill to head up and some of the ground is a little rough underfoot, I've taken two people with mobility issues to Foxton Locks, shamelessly exploiting them for their parking permits. In each case they've found plenty to amuse them and managed the slopes when given enough time to take things gently. There are many places to stop and sit if you need a rest. Strollers and prams can similarly be accommodated if those pushing can cope with the slope.