12 August 2009

Hanwell Locks: Take your bike on a flight tonight

I'm quite a fan of short-haul flights, so long as they're canal locks. They offer a best-of-all-worlds cycling experience: gentle freewheel downhill; scenic waterscape; and sometimes, a lock-keeper's cottage isolated from the road system where a ruddy-faced chap in a self-knit sweater has a sideline in home-made pickles or carvings.

Britain's longest canal downhill, the 30-lock monster serpent at Tardebigge near Bromsgrove, has a towpath but it's 'not officially open for cycling', according to British Waterways. (I intend to investigate just how not officially open it is at some point soon.)

Caen Hill's famous 16-ish-lock staircase (above right) just outside Devizes is visually more impressive, being as straight as a cycle pump, and as wheezy if you try to bike up it, and welcomes cyclists too. (There's a chapter about it in my book.)

Five Rise Locks at Bingley (right) is shorter (but, being in Yorkshire, steeper and tougher) and is also a cycling frisson.

London cyclists can enjoy the gravity-assisted tour of locks on Regent's Canal and Hertford Union, but the towpaths often duck under bridges in an alarmingly narrow and twisted way, so you have to keep getting off.

So the best London lock-flypast is on the Grand Union Canal at Hanwell Locks (right), about a mile or so before Brentford, as the canal starts its final descent south to join the Thames. It's a sequence of half-a-dozen locks with a pleasantly wide, curving towpath, and connects the vivid little-India melee of Southall with the shiny little-Singapore office blocks of Brentford, and the little-England riverside village of Old Isleworth lauded two days ago.

So we recommend downhill canals. Perfect riding for a summer's evening. And from your position of freewheeling ease you can gongoozle at the narrowboaters hacking through the locks. Watching honest toilers engaged in tedious, repetitive tasks for minimal gain may enlighten you as to how your line manager feels when they see you working in the office.


  1. I did a so-called 'flight' of locks between Woking and Weybridge a few weeks ago - but as each lock was about a kilometre from the next I didn't think it really counted. But I've done the Bingley flight - brill.

  2. those flights look very impressive - I don't think that I even came across any flights on my narrowboat holiday last year!! They look like fun, even if you comment about tedious, repetitive tasks made me giggle!

  3. I'm going to be a bit of a canal anorak here and point out that Caen Hill isn't actually a staircase of locks - that description is only correct when the top gate of one lock chamber is also the bottom gate of the next one (as at Bingley). Then there is Brindley's early attempt at a staircase which is a curious set of 3 locks where only about 10 feet separates the bottom of one lock from the top of the next (http://geograph.org.uk/photo/614512).

    My father used to run a charity event on Caen Hill flight of locks in the 1980s before the canal was restored to navigation. It involved teams of 4 people paddling an inflatable boat across the sideponds (to the left of the lock gates in your picture) and then dragging or carrying it across the banks between them. It was much more difficult than cycling up beside the locks!

  4. @CAF... Yes indeed! I intended 'staircase' merely as a colourful, writeresque description, but did think it might not be terribly wise, seeing as I bang on Five Rise's genuine staircase in the next paragraph.

    I'd actually made a mental note to change it to 'aquatic elevator' or some such, but got caught up in breakfast, or shouting at Lord Mandelson on Radio 4, or something, and forgot.

    Anyway, I'm planning to do the Falkirk Wheel in a few weeks, so I'll keep an eye open for any inflatable-boat charity mayhem.

  5. I'm planning on doing the canals from birmingham to London in a couple of weeks time so will let you know how that goes. Good write up, hope it encourages more people to use the canals.

  6. Has anyone heard of the Prostate Cancer Charity London Ride? it takes place on the morning of the final stage of The Tour of Britain 2009, on the 19 September.
    Apparently you can cycle two laps of the Tour of Britain London circuit with no traffic on the roads at all. I think they still have spaces at www.unitebycycling.org.uk - is anyone going to do it?