The Haunted Lock.
All across England there is a network of canals, most of them still navigable, but many of them had fallen into disrepair. Many years ago I fished the canal as a teenager on the stretches that still had water in them. There was one lock that we fished nearby during the day, but in the evening we tended to avoid without knowing why.
As the years went by, the full length of the Kennet and Avon canal was restored and boat traffic recommenced and in my later years I had the chance to buy a narrow boat called the Hilary Jane. She was forty-four feet long and could be turned on the odd spots where the canal was just wide enough to dig the nose into one side and turn the boat without grounding it. I returned to the areas that I fished as a teenager and explored mile after mile of the canal system. My mooring was at a village known as Great Bedwyn and was next to a winding hole, so turning was no problem there.
Having a chat in the local public house, known as the ‘Cross Keys;’ I chanced to hear about a tragedy that had happened long before I had fished on that canal. It was some time in the early sixties when the canal was derelict and not used.
It was during the summer holidays and the children of the village would play by the disused canal, which has now been restored to its former beauty. One day, some bigger children from the village were walking along the very overgrown towpath to see what the younger children were doing. They could hear the noise that they were making some way off. The younger children had found in the long grass a very old windless. This was used to open the paddles to the lock gates to let in the water and fill it, so that the boats could continue on their way up and down the canal with their loaded cargo.
The younger children were not strong enough to use the windless, as the locks had not been used for some years. This one had fallen into disrepair. One of the older boys who was stronger than the others, said that he could wind down the old paddles and fill the lock. The younger children thought this was a great idea. They had some trouble getting the back gates to move to close the lock, but once they began to give, it was quite easy. Once unstuck, they moved quite easily. Soon both back doors were closed, with the paddles down. Now the front paddles could be undone and the lock rapidly filled to a depth of twelve feet. It was a very hot summer’s day and the curious cows had come to the fence to see what the noise was about! In just a few minutes the derelict lock was full and the fun could begin.
All the children took off their cloths and began to jump into the lock for a swim and to cool off. The bigger children kindly helped the smaller ones in and out of the water. Running down the side of the lock was a rusty steel ladder used by the boaters when they were inside the lock to get in and out.
The children were using this ladder and as their confidences grew they used it more and more to jump in and to climb out of the lock. No one saw that the ladder was coming away from the side of the wall, until it was too late. A terrifying scream was heard from a small boy as it gave way. One of the smaller children who couldn’t swim very well had swung out on the ladder and it had come away from the wall and trapped his foot. The rusty ladder sank, taking the boy to the bottom. He vanished into the cloudy water.
The water in the lock was very deep and gloomy; all the children were screaming, “Do something!”
One of the larger boys jumped in to try and find him, but could not as it was too deep and dark. The young boy’s older brother jumped in as well to try and see if he could find him even though he was not a good swimmer and he to disappeared into the depths. The story ended with both brothers drowning in the lock, one by accident and one through bravery on that beautiful summer’s day many years ago.
This is now a lovely part of the restored canal and a very nice place to moor a boat on a summer evening to chat over tea and biscuits. I was short walk along the tow-path to the pub in the village for a cold drink of beer. Most people, however, get very uneasy towards the late evening at this part of the canal. It gets a little colder than the other parts and very gloomy under the trees. When it’s pleasant or seasonally cool on the rest of the canal this part is icy with an eerie chill.
Boaters have told each other of strange things that happen at night in that area, when the boats are moored up. They hear scratching noises under the hull and the boats move as if something has climbed aboard! Sometimes a child is heard crying in the darkness and a feeling of misery and loneliness fills the soul. A feeling of being watched through the windows on the canal side comes over people. The boat starts to smell of a damp and musty scent as if something has decayed under the floorboards, but most frightening of all are the small wet footprints on the deck and roof. Small handprints appear on the windows and sometimes the ropes are untied and the boats drift off in the darkness.
Boaters seldom moor there twice!
I scoffed at this story and decided that I would moor up just upstream of the lock as good fishing could be had during the dawn at that place. As the evening dipped towards darkness I found that I was not alone. There was nothing I could see and nothing I could touch, but that feeling of being watched by mischievous eyes persisted. I switched on the lights inside the boat and went inside to brew a coffee. Suddenly the boat dipped towards the canal side and I felt someone come aboard, followed by something lighter. I know that I heard a giggle from the bow and childish whispering. There was a bump from the roof as a child climbed up and again the boat rocked. I suddenly realised that both ropes had been undone from the mooring pins and I made my way quickly aft. I switched on the headlight and could see that I was now in mid-canal as I stood upon the hold. Frantically my finger searched for the start button and pressed it home.
That rapidly fired up the diesel engine and I felt the propeller bite and push me forwards. In the torchlight I could plainly see a double row of wet foot-prints making their way towards me along the steel roof. There was nothing to see above those prints of heels and toes, but I knew that two children were there.
My mouth ran dry as they stopped halfway towards me. I could smell the musty smell of old water and bones and gagged on that stench. The boat surged forwards and I had the presence of mind to haul in the rope at my end so it did not foul the propeller. I must have taken the boat out of their ghostly range as two splashes into the canal from that midway point caused the water to ripple and the waves of their entry could be seen. I heard the sound of childish laughter from the dark waters and pushed the engine hard causing an illegal wash to spread the banks.
I soon came to where the other boats were tied up along the tow-path with lights shining and managed to find a space big enough to moor up with a spare set of mooring pins. As far as I was concerned the old pins could stay where they were, at least until the sun was well up!
After a while my heart slowed down and I sat under the starlight wondering just what had I seen and experienced? Whatever now had possession of the lock was not wicked, but more mischievous, as a child would be frozen in time. Like many narrow-boat owners I never moored in that spot again. I promised myself that a malt whiskey at the Cross Keys would suit me fine and I had a tale to tell!
The following day I visited the graveyard where they lay and added some flowers to the untidy heap on the dual mounds. I knew they were not there, because I had been where those restless spirits still played.
Barry E Woodham.