Wiltshire Tourist Guide

Devizes Caen Hill Locks - Wiltshire

When you visit Devizes Devizes Caen Hill Locks are a must to see. These spectacular 16 locks form part of the 29 Devizes flight of locks.

The best way to appreciate the locks is to start off from Devizes Wharf where you will get a feel for the importance the Kennet &Avon Canal had in the industrial development of the town in the early 19th century.

The Kennet & Avon Canal Museum makes an excellent place to understand the chequered history of the canal from dream to reality and its resurrection from decay.

The museum charts the setbacks, disasters and triumphs leading to its final completion late in 1819, the prosperity it brought to Devizes and Wiltshire and the years of decay and decline that followed as competition from the railways took hold and finally forced the canal to close in 1948.

The restoration of the canal to what we see today was brought about through the persistence and dogged determination of volunteers who against all odds to dug out and rebuilt walls and lock gates to bring the canal back to life.

All this restoration work culminated in the refurbishment of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the Caen Hill flight of 16 locks and the re-opening of the canal by Queen Elizabeth II in 1996 and in its way represents the triumph over adversity, not just once, but twice over.

If you walk or cycle the towpath from the Wharf, directions are simple. Cross the road bridge and walk to the left (west) on the side opposite the Kennet & Avon Museum Trust. At the next bridge you are directed up on to the road to the other side of the canal and down the wooden staircase to rejoin the towpath on the opposite canal bank. You will pass under a tunnel which was used by the horses to tow the barges. They also accommodated a temporary tramway along which cargoes were hauled up and down Caen Hill to be loaded and unloaded on to the barges at the top and bottom. This was prior to the completion of the final Caen Hill flight link.

There are three distinct flights between Devizes and Rowde at the bottom - The first gently falling six locks from the wharf at the beginning of the Devizes Caen Hill locks flight, then the steepest 16 and the lower seven Foxhangers locks spread over a further 1.2km

Lock number 44, located next to the Caen Hill Locks Cafe, is the first of the Caen Hill locks descent and about 15 minutes walk from Devizes Wharf. From then on its ‘downhill’ and apart from admiring the spectacular views of Wiltshire countryside you will now appreciate what a mammoth construction project the Caen Hill series of lockgates were. The 16 locks of Caen Hill are the middle of the 29 locks that make up the Devizes flight and were completed in 1810. The boatmen came to know the locks as ‘the steps’ and were vital in the completion of the link between the ports of London on the Thames in the east and Bristol on the Avon in the west.

In order to construct such a steep flight of locks and maintain the flow of water through the locks to enable their continuous use the engineer John Rennie constructed huge side pounds at each lock holding vast volumes of water, the biggest of any canal of the day.

Clay that occurred about half way up the flight on the south side of the canal was used in a specially constructed brickworks to make the bricks to build the locks as well as the in the construction of the Bruce Tunnel further east. This canal tunnel was built under the southern edge of the Savernake Forest. The then Earl of Ailesbury, the owner of the estate, would only allow the canal across his land if it was put underground which delayed construction of the canal even further. The brickworks remained in use until the middle of the 20th century.

It takes 5-6 hours for a canal boat to traverse total 29 Devizes Caen Hill Locks in all. All the locks apart from Lock 41 are able to take two canal boats at a time side by side The 29 locks have a rise of 237 feet in 2 miles (72 m in 3.2 km) or a 1 in 44 gradient.

Devizes Caen Hill Locks