Beeston Iron Lock

Something of a phenomenon is Beeston Iron Lock.  I wonder why it causes so much grief.

Beeston Iron Lock
Beeston Iron Lock

Beeston iron lock is rather unusual as the ground is too unstable to support a conventional lock, so it is made from iron sheets, rather like a boat, with the appearance of rusty tudor panelling.  Several times a year boats sink in this lock, and so it is to be treated with even more caution than normal, and it has the added attraction for the single handed boater that it has neither a ladder nor an easy entry/exit route as there is a solid footbridge over the lock tail, no steps or landing at the lock tail itself and only a short metal landing opposite which a fast flowing side stream enters the canal at right angles.  Almost all the way from the lock tail to the next bridge, maybe 150 metres, is so shallow at the edge that the surge of water from emptying a lock is sufficient to raise waiting boats onto the mud at the edge, requiring complex manoeuvres to get off the side.

All good material for some serious gongoozling.

It was with total amazement that I watched the antics of various groups of boats attempting to pass through after being moored close by and spending a couple of hours at the lock side last week because it has a convenient set of benches and picnic tables alongside, plus a faint phone signal which is otherwise absent from this area.  I hid my floaty keyring and became an anonymous mystery phone waver, but noted the following.

One of four warning signs at Beeston Iron Lock
One of four warning signs at Beeston Iron Lock

First boat of the day had been through before and did everything according to the four prominent RED warning signs which advise the boaters of the dangers, and in particular state that due to distortion of the lock chamber it is possible to become stuck in this lock, therefore single boat operation is recommended.  This can be a very busy location and a queue can very quickly build up due to the bottleneck this creates.

The second and third boats to use the lock entered together totally oblivious to the warning signs or the dangers but dropped down together without incident other than to provoke an argument when the next boat up declared they were going alone. Lots of shouting and pointing at signs followed.

Next down was another single hire boat, although the next in line attempted to come into the lock alongside only to be sent packing.  Not by the boat in the lock but by the next boat in line to come up.  At this point none of the four boats attempting to descend had yet read the signs which were now being pointed out to them by the other boaters, so one backed off while the first demonstrated very neatly why this lock is to be treated with care.

The steerer hugged the offside lock wall as he was probably used to doing but also without any ropes to hold him parallel (see the sign).  As the water dropped the front of the boat drifted out slightly and the back of the boat rotated slightly inwards so that the counter sat down on one of the ledges which hold the ironwork together.  It probably only stayed there for 5 seconds, as the water continued to drop while the back of the boat remained on the ledge until the weight of the boat pulled it off with sufficient force to rock the boat through 20 degrees and smash the stern into the opposite side of the lock.

This is why I will still treat this lock with extreme caution and I for one will obey the single boat operation.  Having witnessed the above, I realise that if that boat had been slightly tilted it would have braced against a boat alongside, and would have been unable to drop off the side to free itself, resulting in a wedged pair of boats.  So whilst a pair of boats can pass through safely, if one of them is rocked badly then they could very easily become stuck.

Later I walked the dog down past the hire boat base just below the lock, where a young couple were going through a handover procedure.  I overheard one of them double checking that “so if I push this way, the boat will turn that way…” clearly not an experienced hirer.  So why did the hire base not accompany them all of 200 yards to check that they were familiar with the lock operation?

I sat and watched as they entered the empty lock and closed the gates.  The water level was rising as the top paddles were drawn, but one of the bottom paddles was also half up.  Trying to be as polite as possible I walked over to the hirer and told him that the offside bottom paddle was not closed properly which was why the lock was not filling.  He told me it was yet he still wandered down to the other end of the lock but only stood and scratched his head while the pound above dropped and all boats moored ended up on the bottom.

beeston2He corrected the error and proceeded to the next lock (400 yards) while the pound refilled.  Here he is gracefully heading for the open lock sideways.  I ask again why no member of staff from the hire base, only 200 yards below this known danger spot, bothered to accompany the boat to see if the hirers can successfully demonstrate and understanding of the briefing.

Next in line came Mr Speedy.  His wife brought the boat into the iron lock while someone closed the bottom gates.  Mr Speedy wanted all to know that he was so familiar with the lock that he could operate it with his eyes closed.  Which he did, literally.  He whacked both the ground paddles up at breakneck speed while facing away from the lock and talking incessantly to the crew of the next boat down.  Had he looked at the lock he would have seen the panic on his wife’s face before she finally screamed so loud that he was forced to turn around.  The boat had ricocheted from one side to the other at least three times, such is the force of the water in this lock – and the reason for the warning on the sign.  Take a rope she pleaded, but he only replied “no need love – its almost there now”.

I could watch no more in silence and headed off for a break.  When I returned another boat was filling the lock waiting to drop down.  I walked past with the dog, maybe a mile there and back.  The same boat was still above the lock waiting for the gates to open….. oh no.  No half measures this time – they had both bottom paddles half up while the top were fully open.  I began to recognise that when the sidestream below the lock is not running, someone is draining the canal above.  This time at least 18 inches had dropped from the pound, the few moored boats being tipped over on their moorings to the tell tale drawer opening angle.

I asked whether they were waiting until the entire pound was empty or whether they were going to check why the lock had taken 30 minutes to fill.  “No, no… we’ve been told these locks take a long time …”  Oh dear me.  I closed the paddles, helped open the gates and made sure the pound was once again water tight before going to bed.  At least this section of canal carries sufficient surplus water to top up automatically and quickly.

I retired for the night wondering why only those who had actually operated the lock already were aware of the warning signs, and not one person I saw descending the lock for the first time actually read these until killing time while the lock drained.  Sadly there have been at least two sinkings over the last 12 months in Beeston Iron lock alone.

3 Replies to “Beeston Iron Lock”

  1. Hi Mike, You will have already quessed that I run the ‘offending’ boatyard below Beeston Iron Lock. The boat in question – ‘Thorin’- was obviously crewed by supposedly ‘experienced’ hirers. All of our hirers are thoroughly quizzed regarding their previous experience, both at time of booking and on boarding the boat. If there is any doubt at all of their abilities they are accompanied 1/2 mile down the canal towards Chester, turned in the winding hole, and escorted through the Iron Lock, and through the Stone Lock also, if they are still unsure. However, there will always be some who have been on the canals maybe once or twice before, maybe many years ago, possibly on a dayboat, who will claim many years experience and therefore ‘know it all’ Quote from my colleague “I’VE BEEN BOATING FOR 30 YEARS!!” “Well, by gumm Lad, you must be a slow learner!”

  2. Having read your article I have a couple of points to make. Firstly. The ‘mud’ you refer to on the lower side of the iron lock is in fact a sloping brick wall. It is sloping as due to the unstable ground it was the design Thomas Telford used to keep the canal in and the surround ground out. Therefore, although annoying, it is a necessity and with the bridge so close it is easy enough to get off before hand.

    In regards to the warning signs at the iron lock in my opinion there should be some above and below the lock where boaters wait to go through such as they have at Bunbury staircase. At the iron lock you generally can’t see the signs until you are already in! Therefore lack of attention to the signs is less a fault of the boaters and more of British Waterways.

    Thirdly. The reason boats get caught on the ledges is due to the change in design in boat since the lock was built. Old working narrowboats had curved sides without bits sticking out and so wouldn’t get caught. Having been through this lock multiple times in an old boat, double breasted and without ropes I can say that with knowledge and experience there is no problem. There is only one area of the lock that has curved inwards and if this part is avoided then two boats can easily go up and down at the same time.

    In regards to the instruction from the hire company like anywhere else people will lie. As Mr Hardern has said above often people will go to hire companies and say they have masses of experience when in fact they don’t. As a result all boaters have to sign a disclaimer if they are claiming to be experienced. If they don’t wish to sign this then they will go through the same instruction as everyone else, which may I add has been highly commended. In the boat instruction books there is also detailed descriptions on how to carry out certain operation such as locks so the boaters have no excuses, especially as the owners of the hire company are available 24/7 for any queries.

  3. Well, thankyou for all the good and bad advice about the iron lock!!!! I am now TERRIFIED as I will be steering the boat and hopefully being shouted at to do the right thing..I lways seem to be abandoned about half a mile before a lock whilst David walks ahead to set the locks….I thought this was supposed to be a relaxing way to drift the canals. So far it is mere STRESS I keep asking passing boaters if they have any Valium pills, but I just get”You are doing fine!”
    Does anyone have a low wattage iron to flatten out my stress wrinkles???????

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