In the second of our features on unique jobs that have stood the test of time, NATALIE WALKER speaks to a lock keeper who ensures canal boaters can travel across Lancashire’s waterways.
In the 19th century, canals were a vital way of transporting goods across towns and cities.
Lock keepers were employed to open and close the locks, allowing boats to pass through.
Once road haulage came into play, canals were no longer used for such measures, but are still an essential piece of history.
Lock keepers are still in force today, as a voluntary role with the Canal and River Trust. They regularly man lock points across the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, which opened 200 years ago and stretches across Lancashire, including Wigan and Rufford.
The Rufford Branch links the canal with the Ribble estuary near Preston. This gives access to the Ribble Link and the Lancaster Canal. The Leigh Branch runs from Wigan to connect with the Bridgewater Canal.
Peter Baxter, 53, has been a lock keeper here since 2015.
He says: “I had a hip replacement a few years ago and I would often go walking along the canal.
“It was a great walk and I managed to amble the whole length of the Leeds Liverpool Canal in pieces.
“During this time, I saw an advert for volunteers and I inquired about it.
“I spoke to the trust and they accepted me, to my delight. I am in my third season, which runs April to October.”
Peter looks after the two-mile stretch of locks in Wigan.
He adds: “Wigan flights has 23 locks which is quite daunting and arduous for boaters so I assist.
“It can take three hours to go through the locks, as we have to wait to either empty or fill up the chambers, depending if people are going upstream or downstream. It can take 15 to 20 minutes per lock. I operate the lock paddles if people require it. I then walk along to the next one. It is a two mile walk.
“Not everyone wants my help, but I am there to assist if they need me.
“The canal in Wigan is not terribly busy. Somewhere like Skipton has a lot of hire boats so there is more traffic.
“I am lucky that it is a relaxed volunteer role. I don’t do it in bad weather and you find boaters won’t go out anyway.”
For Peter, of Springfield, Wigan, the benefits of being a lock keeper are ample.
He adds: “I am not interested in going to the gym, so this is the best form of exercise for me. I love interacting with people. We are the face of the canals and of the trust.
“Also we are part of living history. In the 1890s there was a draught and lock keepers were put on half pay. They had to be more frugal with the water and not waste it. It is interesting to see how things have changed.”