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Triggers Broom

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

I doubt anyone reading this hasn't seen the scene in Only Fools and Horses about Triggers Broom. Trigger, who sweeps the road for the council, says he's had the same broom for 20 years but adds its had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. "How can it be the same bl**dy broom then?" Asks Sid the cafe owner. Trigger produces a picture of the broom and says "what more proof do you need?" That's how I imagined canal lock gates to be. Here's a fine example here's the bottom gates at lock 14 on the Grand Union Canal (top lock at Stoke Bruerne).

Of course they're leaky, and in this case come complete with some rather attractive foliage, but like Triggers Broom they're still doing the same job as when they were first built, in this case nearly 200 years ago. And I think they're rather lovely, don't you?

As an aside some of you might be wondering how the top lock at Stoke Bruerne is less than 200 years old when the canal was opened over 200 years ago? Well the original lock is next to it, no longer used, in fact the current top lock was a part of a second set set of parallel locks built in 1835. The second set of locks was intended to be a 'fast track' for perishable goods to compete with railways. It didn't work and other than the top lock the second set of locks no longer exists. I don't know why the original top lock fell out of use but it explains the dog leg entrance to the lock that we use today. You can still see the entrance through the bridge to the original lock which is there with what I imagine are it's original lock gates.

As a second aside I'm also fascinated with the choices early canal builders made when engineering the canals we love today. It's a bit of piste but I thought I'd share it before getting back to Trigger and his Broom.

Canal builders have always had the same desire to build straight canals from start to finish. Of course they can't because of geography, they have to deal with the hills and valleys that get in the way. The tools at their disposal to deal with this were off course locks, bridges, tunnels and cuts. None of these

are new inventions of the Canal age, indeed pound locks were first used in China as early as the 10th century, but all of them were made more possible as the industrial revolution exploded in the 18th century.

Nonetheless in the very early days canal engineers were more limited in what they could so. James Brindley, who engineered many of the first canals in this country, did all he could to make things simple. His canals, still distinctive today, tended to follow contours in the geography to avoid the need for complex engineering as much as possible. His canals tend to be pictureqsque and circuotous like the Staffs and Worcester between Wightwick and the river Severn, 12 miles as the crow flies and 22 1/2 miles by canal. Of course we shouldn't be too disparaging of James Brindley, this was the middle of the 18th century, canal locks, bridges and tunnels were difficult and expensive.

At the end of the 18th century when William Jessop was building the Grand Junction things had moved on to 'Canal 2.0'. Lots of things were more possible. But lots of things were also still 'bleeding edge'. The Blisworth Tunnel took two goes, the first go collapsed and wouldn't have met in the middle anyway. The first Aqueduct at Cosgrove also collapsed and needed a second go (three if you count a temporary wooden aqueduct). And the cut at Tring, whilst a modest 30 feet deep and 1 1/2 miles long was hard to achieve because of the sheer manpower needed. Even with the manpower what do you do with the stuff you dig out? In the case of Tring you pile it up at the edge, which is why it looks deeper than it should.

So throughout the canal building age, unless cost ruled them out, locks were the tool of choice to change the level of the canal which is why today we still have around 2,000 canal locks left in use.

But, back to lock gates and of course Triggers Broom. There is an element of Triggers Broom about canal lock gates, but there's more to it than that. Lock gates do of course need lots of 'Triggers broom' like maintenance, but even with this they eventually need replacing. Many locks are listed and so, thankfully, can't be replaced with longer lasting modern materials so Oak is used which generally gives lock gates a life span of 25 years. Canal lock gates are all bespoke and hand made in only 2 places in the UK. I'm told they make 200 new sets of gates a year at about £30K a pop. They make them all year round, but of course they're mostly replaced in the winter and stored wet (to stop them shrinking) until needed.

So that's lock gates, I love them all, no matter how old and creaky they are, no matter how leaky, no matter even if the the gate paddles need herculean strength to open them. And when I look at them I still think about Triggers Broom.

I started with a picture of the leaky top lock gates at Stoke Bruerne but in the interests of balance here's some much newer, much less leaky gates at Cosgrove lock.

More soon.

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