Thursday 5 March 2009

Houghton Lock on a winter's evening

This is not about being in Canada as such - it's actually a photo that takes me right back to my childhood. However, if I wanted to make a tenuous thematic link I would say that one of the nice things about living away from the UK is that you can really appreciate the nicer parts of it when you visit as a tourist. And, of course, unlike a real tourist you have all sorts of background and memories to give your holiday that extra meaning.
I lived in Cambridgeshire for the second half of my childhood. This is the lock on the River Great Ouse at Houghton, the favoured twin of the village we moved to in the late 1970s. I spent many happy days playing on and around the river, swimming, boating and exploring the reaches, meadows and islets that are formed by the river and its floods.
The lock itself was a great way to supplement my pocket money. Every fine weekend in the summer it would be in constant operation with boats going up and downstream, carrying the great and good of the district in a gin-fuelled haze. Operation of the lock was manual, requiring the winding up of the large sluice gate you see here and the opening of swing gates and paddles at the other end. I would offer to do this work, borrowing the key required for operation from one of the boats. Nine times out of ten they were more than happy for me to take over while they stayed aboard and stopped their drinks getting warm. For each boat that passed through I would get a few coins and sometimes made five pounds in a day. This seemed like a fortune. My paper round only used to pay 3 pounds a week and involved getting up at 7am, 6 days out of 7, and riding 2 miles round the least densely populated part of the village with a heavy bag full of the daily outpourings of Fleet Street on my shoulder.
I took this photo on a December evening during our most recent visit to the UK. I got to take my sons and show them some of the places I used to play when I was a boy. As I sat and wrote this today, my younger son came into the room and said 'That's where we went for a walk by the river in the dark.' It's nice to know it made an impression.
Several years ago they widened the lock to allow more boats to pass at a time. They also electrified the sluice. I wonder whether Houghton's current generation of 10-year olds are making more or less than I did?
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