Caen Hill

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The main flight of 16 locks at Caen Hill
Caen Hill Locks looking downhill

Caen Hill is in Wiltshire on which stands the town of Devizes.

The name of the hill is famous not for the town but for the Caen Hill Locks; a most remarkable flight of locks indefatigably climbing the hill into Devizes over a course of two miles.

The Caen Hill Locks

Main article: Caen Hill Locks

The Caen Hill Locks are a flight of locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal, between Martinslade and Devizes. The flight carries the canal up 237 feet onto the higher plains beneath the Marlborough Downs.

The locks take 5–6 hours to travel in a boat.

There are 29 locks which give a rise of 237 feet in 2 miles or a 1 in 44 gradient. The locks come in three groups:

  • The lower seven locks, Foxhangers Wharf Lock to Foxhangers Bridge Lock, are spread over 1,300 yards.
  • The next sixteen locks form a steep flight in a straight line up the hillside. Because of the steepness of the terrain, the pounds between these locks are very short. As a result, 15 locks have unusually large sideways-extended pounds to store the water needed to operate them.
  • A final six locks take the canal into Devizes.[1]

Lock 41 is the narrowest lock on the canal.

History and engineering

This flight of locks was the solution devised by the engineer John Rennie the Elder for climbing the very steep slope of Caen Hill, and it was the last part of the 87-mile route of the canal to be completed. Whilst the locks were under construction a tramroad provided a link between the canal at Foxhangers to Devizes, the remains of which can be seen in the towpath arches in the road bridges over the canal.[2] A brickyard was dug to the south of the workings to manufacture the bricks for the lock chambers and this remained in commercial use until the middle of the 20th century.

Because a large volume of water is needed for the locks to operate, a back pump was installed at Foxhangers in 1996 capable of returning 7 million gallons of water a day to the top of the flight, which is equivalent to one lockful every eleven minutes.[3]

In the early 19th century, 1829–43, the flight was gas-lit.[4]

After the coming of the railways, the canal fell into disuse and was closed. The last cargo through the flight was a consignment of grain conveyed from Avonmouth to Newbury in October 1948.[5]

From the 1960s there was a major clearing and rebuilding operation, culminating in a visit by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990 to open the new locks and the flight officially (although the flight had been navigable for a number of years before then).

In 2010 British Waterways planned to install sixteen new locks gates in twelve weeks as part of its winter maintenance programme, in an attempt to reduce the amount of water lost.[6] The exceptionally cold weather delayed work, and when the section was re-opened at Easter 2010 only twelve pairs of gates had been dealt with.[7] The wood from the old gates was donated to Glastonbury Festival and used to build a new bridge which was named in honour of Arabella Churchill, one of the festival's founders.[8]


  1. "Devizes Branch - Locks". The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust website. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  2. "Devizes Branch - Local History". The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust website. Archived from the original on 2007-09-07. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  3. Pearson, Michael (2003). Kennet & Avon Middle Thames:Pearson's Canal Companion. Rugby: Central Waterways Supplies. ISBN 0-907864-97-X. 
  4. "Caen Hill Locks". Kennet and Avon Scrapbook. Retrieved 2006-09-18. 
  5. Clew, Kenneth (1968). The Kennet and Avon Canal (2 ed.). Newton Abbot, England: David and Charles. pp. 145–147. ISBN 0-7153-5939-8. 
  6. "New locks for the Kennet & Avon Canal in Wiltshire". BBC. 2010-01-22. Retrieved 22 January 2010. 
  7. Owen, Gill (22 March 2010). "Caen Hill open for Easter". Paddington, England: British Waterways. Retrieved 17 June 2010. 
  8. Owen, Julian (2010-06-18). "Heart of Glasto". Venue 924: 14–15.