When they opened nearly 250 years ago the town’s church bells rang out, the local militia fired their field guns in salute and around 30,000 awestruck spectators turned up to cheer.
Today the Grade I-listed Bingley Five Rise Locks in West Yorkshire are still considered one of the true wonders of Britain’s waterways and can, thanks to a major restoration project, carry on lifting boats up and down the Leeds to Liverpool canal for years to come.
Workers have spent the last month replacing the giant gates at two of the five locks. At 7 metres’ tall and weighing six tonnes, they are among the tallest lock gates in the UK. They form part of the steepest flight of locks in Britain. There is a magic about them, said the former lock keeper Richard Moore, part of the team restoring the site.
“When you’re at the top looking down it does look huge, it looks scary,” Moore said. “But it’s only a 60ft rise really. It is just so impressive in terms of the engineering and the scale. It is a beautiful thing. When you see people’s reactions going in … it’s like a fair ride.”
For many it is daunting but lots of help is always on hand. No narrow boat can go through the locks without a lock keeper, and even though they have taken down the “you must obey the lock keeper at all times” sign, people are still expected to follow instructions.
It can take 30 minutes to get a boat down the locks and 45 minutes to get up. At busy times there are queues, the result being sometimes that if a boat arrives in the afternoon it might not get through until the next day.
The new lock gates have been hand-crafted using traditional methods at the Canal and River Trust’s specialist workshops at Stanley Ferry in Yorkshire.