Rewarding and relaxing, SOPHIE BROWNSON discovers there is fun to be had as a lock keeper on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.
I AM not going to lie. Lock keeping as a career option never crossed my mind before entering the world of journalism, but by comparison it does seem more relaxing.
Just ask a lock keeper.
“I love it,” Barry Forbes, volunteer lock keeper at Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, near Llangynidr, told me as I arrived on a drizzly Wednesday morning.
“If you want to unwind it is the perfect hobby as the boats only travel at four miles per hour if you are lucky – they mainly travel at speeds of two and a half miles per hour,” he added.
Walking along the main stretch of canal that Mr Forbes looks after one day a week, I ask how he got into the profession.
“I have been interested in the canals for years,” he said.
“When I was in my late teens and early 20s I used to go on the canals for hours.
“I have travelled to canals all over the country, including Oxford and the Midlands.”
Mr Forbes added that he has not been a lock keeper for very long, despite his long history of using the canals – it was only when a family member encouraged him to sign up as a volunteer that he took on the role he loves so much.
Mr Forbes tells me the canal currently has three volunteer lock keepers who ensure its general maintenance is carried out alongside the main duty of operating the locks and helping those on the boats to travel smoothly through the canal.
Lock keepers have been a fixture on Britain’s canals for more than 200 years and today’s volunteers provide a polite and friendly face on the modern waterways, assisting boats through the locks, maintaining the area on the towpath, and answering questions from visitors.
A typical day, I learn, begins by walking up a certain stretch of the canal to see if any boats are on their way and may need assistance going through the gates.
Mr Forbes explains that due to the slow speed of the boats, you can generally walk quicker than they can move.
An important element, he added, is having social skills to chat to the punters as they go through the lock, with holiday peak times often seeing many tourists making the trip having having travelled thousands of miles to get to the canal.
“You have to be social and talk to the people as they go through the lock,” he added.
“You would be surprised how busy it gets during peak times, but it really does vary.
“Factors like the weather play a big part in how many boats travel along the canal.
“Last Thursday we had 11 boats come through.
“People come from all over the world to use it too. We have had tourists from America, Canada, Nova Scotia, as well as those travelling from London.”
Finishing our walk along the canal and seeing no boats, the rain is coming down pretty heavily so we shelter in the small house where the lock keepers on duty reside and wait until the rain subsides.
Mr Forbes takes the opportunity to tell me a story about one family who had visited the canal last year after they had told their grandson about a trip to the canal ten years ago and who had travelled hundreds of miles back again on the instance of the youngster who desperately wanted to see the place that had captivated his grandparents so.
“It is amazing,” Mr Forbes said.
As the rain subsides, Mr Forbes asks Rob Hughes, who rents out canal boats under the company Country Craft Narrow Boats, if he would take his boat out onto the canal for me to have a go at using the gates.
While Mr Hughes fires up the engine of his boat, Mr Forbes teaches me some important facts.
“This stretch of the canal runs for 35 miles in to the bottom of Cwmbran,” he said.
“Between the bottom of the lock and the top it is about 50 foot and nine foot deep.
“This lock was built in 1812, so it has recently celebrated its 200th birthday.
“It is incredible to think that they used this same simple mechanism as we use today all those years ago.”
Suddenly we get a shout from Mr Hughes to say that he is ready and so Mr Forbes and I spring into action.
Leading me to the bottom lock, Mr Forbes tells me that you should have two people working together all of the time.
Mr Forbes explains that if the lock is not full of water you must fill it before you can open the top gates to let the boat in.
I make sure all the gates and the bottom paddles are closed and then wind up the top paddles to let the water in.
When the water level has risen enough to let the top gates be opened I wind the paddles back down again using a windlass.
Once the boat is in the lock, you need to open the bottom paddles to empty the water from the lock.
When the lock is nearly empty I then open the bottom gates and let the boat out.
After it leaves the lock I wind down the bottom paddles and close the bottom gates after the boat.
“Last week when the schools were off we had a lot of boats on the canal,” Mr Forbes said.
“But after that we do get a lot of couples.
“It is usually the men on the boast steering and the women getting off to wind the paddles.”
These are the more experienced canal users, I learn, but Mr Forbes said that you should still go and see if they need any assistance and just chat to them.
At this point Mr Hughes turns his boat around to go back up and I begin to repeat the lock process but Mr Hughes invites me on to his boat and I can’t refuse.
Jumping on I have a go at steering it in between the gates and I am fascinated to feel the boat rising to the top as the water level changes.
Passing through the gates I decide that whether you are the lock keeper or just passing through on your boat, the canal is definitely the place to be – even in the rain.
l Gland?r Cymru – the Canal and River Trust in Wales is inviting people in South Wales to take up the challenge to become a volunteer lock keeper this summer, working at one of the region’s most popular canal locations.
The charity is looking for up to six volunteers to work on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal near Llangynidr.
Ideal candidates will enjoy spending time outdoors and meeting people in their local community.
The roles cover the main boating and visitor season from March to October and each volunteer commits to one or two days a week.
No previous experience is needed as full training is given.
If you would like to become a volunteer lock keeper at Llangynidr e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org