The Environment Agency embarks on its annual winter programme of major repairs and refurbishments to locks along the non-tidal River Thames next week (Tuesday 1 November).
In all, 8 lock sites will have a total of £1.2m spent on them – 5 in Oxfordshire and 1 each in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Surrey.
Major works include removing both pairs of lock gates at Shifford Lock near Bampton in Oxfordshire, and Kings Lock in Oxford, so that the frames can be re-faced with new sheets of timber. As each gates weighs around 8 tonnes, they will be removed by crane and transported by low-loader lorry to the Environment Agency’s depot in Osney, near Oxford where its in-house team of specialist craftsmen will carry out the work.
At Penton Hook Lock near Staines in Surrey, the downstream gates will be removed so that repairs can be made to the hinges that support them. To do this, the lock chamber will need to be braced and then pumped dry. Before the lock is fully drained, any fish found in it will be safely transferred to the main river – this is normally many hundreds if not thousands of fish.
Barry Russell, Waterways Manager, said:
We maintain and operate 45 locks in total. These are part of a portfolio of over 1000 navigation structures on the Thames that we look after. Many of these are important heritage assets which we are custodians of on behalf of the nation, and without them, boating on the Thames as we know it simply wouldn’t be possible. So taking good care of them is a huge responsibility for us, but one we’re very proud to have.
Funding for the work comes from boat registration fees and government. The annual investment in their upkeep ensures the locks are in good working order, enabling boaters to carry on cruising throughout the 135 miles of navigable waterway from Cricklade in Wiltshire, near the river’s source, to Teddington in south west London, where the river becomes tidal.
The work is done during the winter months when there are very few boats on the river. This minimises disruption if locks need to be taken temporarily out of service.
Often, the work that is carried out is the culmination of many months, sometimes years, of planning and preparation. As Barry explains:
What we do each winter is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the totality of what’s needed to keep all these structures in a good state of repair. To stay on top of things we’ve got to maintain an accurate understanding of the condition of each and every one, know what work will be necessary, and when, and prepare for that.
So whether it’s carrying out a structural survey – above ground or below water - considering the findings, planning and costing the work, seeking funding, sourcing and ordering materials or fabricating parts in our workshops, there’s always something going on. In many ways, it’s like owning and caring for our very own Forth Bridge.
Fortunately, the people doing all this work – many of whom are engineers, technicians and other specialists brought in to support us from outside my own waterways team - are as talented and dedicated as anyone could hope for. Between them, and our 60 strong team of full-time lock and weir keepers who operate them, these structures are in very safe hands indeed.