Lon­don’s last link

We visit Car­pen­ters Road Lock in East Lon­don, the only lock in the coun­try with two ra­dial guil­lo­tine gates, and the last link in the open­ing up of the area’s water­ways


Car­pen­ters Road in East Lon­don is one of the more un­usual canal restora­tion work sites. We aren’t talk­ing about vol­un­teers res­cu­ing crum­bling lock cham­bers and dry ditches from dis­ap­pear­ing un­der the un­der­growth of the English coun­try­side here.

No, as project man­ager Colin Perkins un­locks the gate and lets me into the com­pound sur­round­ing the 1930s con­crete lock cham­ber I can look around and see the main 2012 Olympic sta­dium (now West Ham’s foot­ball ground). The West­field shop­ping cen­tre is a lit­tle way away, and plenty of lo­cal peo­ple are strolling around on the high and low-level walk­ways that al­low pub­lic ac­cess to the net­work of for­mer mill­streams and tidal chan­nels known as the Bow Back Rivers.

It’s a far cry from how the site ap­peared when I first ex­plored it in the 1980s. Then, the area was what Colin de­scribes as ‘Fridge City’, with scrap deal­ers and car break­ers oc­cu­py­ing the land sur­round­ing the semi-derelict water­ways on ei­ther side of the in­op­er­a­ble lock.

So what hap­pened? Well, ob­vi­ously the Olympic Games hap­pened – but the story be­gan a long time be­fore that.

Note that I said ‘semi-derelict’: in the­ory the water­ways on both sides of the lock were nav­i­ga­ble, and a few in­trepid souls (en­cour­aged by or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the In­land Water­ways As­so­ci­a­tion’s Lon­don branch and St Pan­cras Cruis­ing Club) did oc­ca­sion­ally ven­ture into them. The water­ways on the western (nor­mally up­hill) side of the lock (the Old River Lee, City Mill River and St Thomas’ Creek) formed a cir­cuit lead­ing off the Lee Nav­i­ga­tion, and a 1987 IWA rally at Brom­ley by Bow saw cam­paign cruises at­tempt the loop from both di­rec­tions, be­fore giv­ing up hard aground on the silt.

A sub­se­quent at­tempt, aimed at pub­li­cis­ing the un­nav­i­ga­ble con­di­tion of the water­ways to the then Bri­tish Water­ways (who had some re­spon­si­bil­ity for these chan­nels, but ap­par­ently no obli­ga­tion to main­tain them to nav­i­ga­ble stan­dard), back­fired slightly when we ac­tu­ally got round the ring – al­beit with a

great strug­gle. Sub­se­quent dredg­ing im­proved mat­ters, but the chan­nels only silted up again, be­cause in those days the cir­cuit (along with the lower Lee, Lime­house Cut and Lime­house Basin) was semi-tidal, and the tides brought in silt.

The other side of Car­pen­ters Road Lock, nav­i­ga­tion was even trick­ier. Wa­ter­works River was fully tidal: at low wa­ter it dried out to a muddy trickle; at high wa­ter there wasn’t head­room un­der the bridges for any­thing big­ger than a dinghy. And the only ac­cess was a round­about route via Bow Locks – so the tim­ing was crit­i­cal on the rare cam­paign cruise that got there.

The lock it­self was un­used and in­op­er­a­ble – in­deed, it was said that it had hardly been used since it was built in the 1930s. How­ever its unique pair of ra­dial guil­lo­tine lock gates (ones which rise to open, but not ver­ti­cally – they swivel up­wards on piv­ots set in the lock­sides) and oper­at­ing mech­a­nisms were in­tact.

A leg­endary bunch of ex­treme boat­ing en­thu­si­asts known as the Odd Boats So­ci­ety had even some­how man­aged to get a boat through the lock some­time in the 1970s. But given the state of the water­ways on ei­ther side, it would have taken some pow­ers of per­sua­sion to put the case for restor­ing it.

A ma­jor im­prove­ment came in 2000 when (fol­low­ing re­build­ing of Lime­house Basin en­trance lock and mod­i­fi­ca­tion of Bow Locks) the tide was ex­cluded from all the for­merly semi-tidal parts of the Bow Back Rivers, lower Lee and Lime­house Cut. This meant that the cir­cuit could be dredged with­out it im­me­di­ately silt­ing up again. It also marked the be­gin­ning of BW’s in­ter­est in open­ing up the water­ways in the area – in­clud­ing restor­ing Car­pen­ters Road Lock and the more con­ven­tional City Mill Lock. How­ever there would still be the is­sue of the water­ways be­low the locks be­ing tidal – and to al­ter that would be ex­pen­sive.

Come 2005, and the an­nounce­ment that Lon­don’s bid to host the 2012 Games had been suc­cess­ful, and these as­pi­ra­tions sud­denly looked much more pos­si­ble. In­deed, in the early days of Olympic plan­ning, so did a lot of other ideas: there were new canals pro­posed, and var­i­ous re­open­ings of filled-in chan­nels.

The more ex­otic pro­pos­als dis­ap­peared as the plans de­vel­oped; one length of the­o­ret­i­cally nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter (the trun­cated sur­viv­ing length of the Pud­ding Mill River) was ac­tu­ally filled in; even the pro­pos­als to re­vive the sur­viv­ing Bow Back Rivers weren’t uni­ver­sally pop­u­lar among water­ways en­thu­si­asts, as what had been a run-down in­dus­trial area was ac­tu­ally be­com­ing a ‘semi-wild’ derelict area with a cer­tain fas­ci­na­tion – and this would in­evitably be lost as a re­sult of its trans­for­ma­tion into the main Olympic site.

One im­por­tant el­e­ment that re­mained in the plans was the con­struc­tion of Three Mills (orig­i­nally Prescott) Lock and as­so­ci­ated tidal bar­ri­ers.

Orig­i­nally in­tended to help the ‘green Games’ to use wa­ter trans­port for build­ing ma­te­ri­als (which never hap­pened to any great ex­tent), this re­sulted in the en­tire length of Prescott Chan­nel, Wa­ter­works River and the north­ern part of the Old River Lee be­com­ing non-tidal. And its new wa­ter level was set at a height which would pro­vide both suf­fi­cient draft and ad­e­quate head­room un­der the bridges. It

would mean that restor­ing City Mill Lock and Car­pen­ters Road Lock would at last be jus­ti­fi­able as con­nec­tions link­ing to­gether two lengths of re­li­ably nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter.

That wasn’t the only change dur­ing the build-up to the Olympics. The high con­crete sides of some chan­nels were re­placed by softer edges and by high-level and low-level waterside walk­ways, and a great deal of silt was dredged away. But as Colin ex­plains, although restor­ing Car­pen­ters Road Lock had ‘ver­bal sup­port’, it wasn’t on the Olympic De­liv­ery Author­ity’s ‘crit­i­cal path’ – which was more about get­ting peo­ple in and out of the venues, in­clud­ing build­ing a tem­po­rary bridge deck over the lock. This meant the re­moval of its su­per­struc­ture (the gates and mech­a­nisms were dis­man­tled and stored, while the con­crete and ma­sonry was de­mol­ished) but no lock restora­tion.

Post-2012, with the change from Games prepa­ra­tions to Olympic Legacy work and also the trans­fer from BW to the Canal & River Trust, ef­forts to se­cure fund­ing for Car­pen­ters Road con­tin­ued. One un­likelysound­ing source was HS1 (the high speed rail link from Lon­don to the Chan­nel Tun­nel) which ben­e­fited from its flood con­trol func­tion; for the re­main­der of the cash, re­peated bids to the Her­itage Lottery Fund were suc­cess­ful at the third at­tempt.

At long last, work could be­gin on what (fol­low­ing the re­open­ing of the rel­a­tively straight­for­ward City Mill Lock in 2010) had be­come the fi­nal miss­ing link in East Lon­don’s water­way net­work.

So much for the back­ground; how has the ac­tual work gone?

The good news has been that once the decades’ worth of silt had been re­moved, the 1930s con­crete of the lock cham­ber turned out to be in gen­er­ally good con­di­tion. Only the tops of the con­crete blocks form­ing the cop­ings of the cham­ber walls were worn, and the con­trac­tors have been care­ful to re­cast the top few inches to match the orig­i­nal ap­pear­ance – this might be a mod­ern lock by most stan­dards, but it’s still a Her­itage Lottery Fund project, with a need to pay at­ten­tion to its orig­i­nal ap­pear­ance.

The bad news is that most of the met­al­work has needed to be re­placed. New curved stain­less steel plates on the cham­ber walls that the ra­dial guil­lo­tine gates will seal against have been in­stalled (it was felt ‘less trau­matic’ to fit the new ones di­rectly to the cham­ber walls rather than to at­tempt to re­move and re­place the old ones which were lo­cated in re­cesses in the walls).

New steel base­plates where the gates will meet the base of the lock have also been fit­ted. The ex­ist­ing gate pivot brack­ets on the cham­ber walls were re­tained, but with new pins fit­ted. And the old coun­ter­weights were ex­tracted, dis­as­sem­bled and the pul­leys re­placed.

The re­main­der is pretty much all new: the old gates were be­yond restora­tion and were taken out in 2014, and have been care­fully mea­sured and copied – but the re­place­ments have been built in three sec­tions that can be put to­gether ‘Mec­cano-style’ on-site.

This method was orig­i­nally adopted with a view to as­sem­bling and in­stalling them while the Olympic works were still

‘The good news has been that once the decades’ worth of silt had been re­moved, the 1930s con­crete of the lock cham­ber turned out to be in gen­er­ally good con­di­tion’

go­ing on over­head. In the event this didn’t hap­pen, but the abil­ity to de­liver them in sec­tions and as­sem­ble them on site made the job eas­ier. A trial as­sem­bly at the Sh­effield steel­works was fol­lowed by de­liv­ery and in­stal­la­tion.

This was fol­lowed by putting in place the equip­ment to op­er­ate the lock gates. That in­volves putting the coun­ter­weights back in their pits, in­stalling the gantries to sup­port the mech­a­nisms, adding the four ca­bles per gate (two to con­nect them to the coun­ter­weights, two to con­nect them to the wind­ing drums) and in­stalling the mo­tors and con­trol gear: it will be elec­tric only – as Colin puts it, you’d need ‘Pop­eye mus­cles’ to do it by hand.

De­spite the mod­ern ma­te­ri­als (in­clud­ing stain­less and Corten steels), the aim is to match the 1930s ap­pear­ance (down to dig­ging out orig­i­nal pic­tures from Ran­somes and Rapier who built the orig­i­nal gates, and study­ing the last River Nene lock with a sim­i­lar gate at Ditch­ford), and to keep the mech­a­nism as vis­i­ble as it would have been orig­i­nally.

Then it’s down to the fin­ish­ing touches: ad­just the seals for wa­ter­tight­ness, train the lock op­er­a­tors (CRT staff and ded­i­cated vol­un­teers – the trust feels that as a struc­ture with a pos­si­ble flood de­fence role in con­nec­tion with the HS1 rail­way, it should be keeper-op­er­ated rather than boater-op­er­ated) – and or­gan­ise the open­ing party.

That hap­pens on Au­gust Bank Hol­i­day, and two of the groups – Lon­don IWA and SPCC – who saw some po­ten­tial in these unloved and un­used chan­nels all those years ago, will be help­ing to cel­e­brate the re­open­ing of their last link.

Car­pen­ters Road Lock with the Olympic sta­dium be­yond

The same scene now: non-tidal and sur­rounded by new build­ings

Wa­ter­works River in 2005, with mud, low tide, and in­dus­tial sur­round­ings

The new Three Mills Lock opens in 2009

Re­stored City Mill Lock opens in 2010

Dredg­ing dur­ing the Olympic build-up

LO­CA­TION The Bow Back Rivers are ac­cessed from the lower River Lee in East Lon­don DIS­TANCE The var­i­ous chan­nels to­tal around three miles, with three locks

Im­pres­sion of the com­pleted lock...

...and how it ap­peared in 2005

The gate pivot is vis­i­ble on the right

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