Wash House Lock – Kennet and Avon Canal

Picture of Locks

This is an article my father wrote for the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust about my father’s memories of when he was young and used to play and live around the Kennet & Avon canal area, in and around Bath . . .

Although the canal during the 40s and early 50s was run down, it was a great area for natural habitat. Swans, coots, red wings in winter and the occasional kingfisher were to be seen on the pound above the Wash House Lock. Water lilies were widespread and in winter pike were clearly visible. There were large numbers of bats in the summer evenings and rats were common place.

One of my first memories of any traffic on the canal was a barge full of clay which was being used to ‘puddle’ leaks in the canal bed.

Fishing in the lock using lock weed as bait often produced a catch of dace, roach and perch. We had a cat which waited patiently on the arms of the lock for fish to be caught. This was before cats became fussy about food and the cat would eagerly devour the fish raw immediately after they were dispatched.

There was a cottage on the far side of the lock in which an elderly couple lived. One day the man of the house, who had drunk a bit too much, fell into the lock. His wife was more concerned about the 10 shilling note in his pocket than of his rescue, or so the story went. Also, behind the cottage and leading towards the church was an overgrown garden leading to an isolated house in which lived a lady named Mrs Gusher. We were always told as children that she had left her lights on during the war in order to guide German bombers into Bath during the blitz and that she was a German spy. I am sure this was not true, but it was enough to deter us as children from crossing the iron lock bridge and trespassing into her garden!

In the winter of 1947/1948 is was extremely cold and the canal froze to the point where my cousin and I (aged 5) were towed on a sledge by my uncle from Widcombe to Bathhampton including going under tunnels in Sydney Gardens. The ice must have been really thick and I remember enormous icicles hanging from the Sydney Gardens tunnels. I am sure Health & Safety would be somewhat alarmed had they existed then.

A right of passage for the local boys when we were about 12 years old was to swing across the base of the Wash House Lock iron bridge using the side bars as hand holds. Crazy, but I never recall anyone losing their grip and falling into the canal.

A further rumour was that there were unexploded bombs in the canal pound behind Horseshoe Walk and also in the canal leading to Wash House Lock. If there is any truth in this I often wonder how the present day canal trippers might react.

Why ‘Wash House Lock’? There was a commercial wash house in the opening between Caroline buildings and St. Matthews Buildings up until the 1940s. It was almost adjacent to the foot bridge and it had probably been there since the canal was dug?

Today my rough and tumble childhood playground seems very neat and tidy, but it’s good to see that so many people enjoy the footpath and canal as a leisure pursuit and it’s obviously a great escape from the rush and tear of modern society.

Alan Baker

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