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Locklines brings art to the waterways

  • Date: 8 August 2013
  • Artform: Visual arts
  • Area: National
LOCKLINES Gargrave Lock 87, Leeds/Liverpool Canal at Holme Bridge, North Yorkshire LOCKLINES Gargrave Lock 87, Leeds/Liverpool Canal at Holme Bridge, North Yorkshire, Porl Medlock

Locklines is an exciting new project that reimagines the iconic lock gate and brings art and poetry to the waterways.


In 2012, new charity Canal & River Trust, which is entrusted with the care of 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales, began a programme of contemporary arts in partnership with the Arts Council, to enrich the waterways, benefit the creative community and inspire new visitors to the canals and rivers.

As part of this wider programme and to mark the launch of the new charity, innovative project Locklines saw lines of poetry beautifully carved and inlaid into the balance beams of four lock gates across England. The poems were influenced by the canals, rivers and landscapes they run through and the gates were installed as part of the winter works programme, replacing old ones that were due for renewal.

Chrysalis Arts directors Kate Maddison and Rick Faulkner devised and developed the project in consultation with the Canal & River Trust. Acclaimed sculptor Peter Coates was chosen to collaborate with leading poets Jo Bell, Roy Fisher and Ian McMillan to produce the lock gates which can be seen on canals in Birmingham, Milnsbridge, Gargrave and Rugby. 


The project was a highly complex one, involving what was at times a difficult marriage of form and function. 'It’s a heritage waterway with functioning gates that have not got much leeway for anything that’s going to get in the way of that function' says Chrysalis Arts director Kate Maddison, who was tasked with having to create a piece of contemporary art on the working lock gates. "Had the artwork been happening around the lock it could have been much easier, but because it was happening actually on a lock gate it became constrained by the function of a lock" says Maddison.

Timings also posed a problem, since the lock gates could only be replaced during the winter months, when there is least activity on the canals. And there were also specific requirements about which lock gates could be used: "It was important we had a geographical spread, so we had to look at locks across the country, and then we had to look at locks which weren't in conservation areas…which would be picturesque enough…and then we had to pick ones that people passed by, so it was quite a difficult project in the end" admits Maddison.

How the challenges were overcome

Maddison, along with colleague Rick Faulkener, drew on their extensive knowledge of the canals to guide the project to completion: "Myself and Rick, we really know canals and we know locks and we know boats, and so even just in terms of making sure that the proposals that were considered were feasible on a canal and on a lock – in itself took a lot. We knew what was possible."

As well as Chrysalis' expert guidance, the exceptional standard of the artists involved also contributed to Locklines' success. Established poets Jo Bell, Roy Fisher and Ian McMillan gave the programme an accessible profile – and Roy Fisher’s work for Locklines was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry – while skilled contemporary artist Peter Coates utilised his traditional training in stonemasonery and architectural sculpture. Although logistically challenging – Coates had to travel over 4,000 miles to work on the various locks around the country – he admits that the work involved was "very much what I do".

Coates also collaborated very closely with the three poets to make the project work: 'There was equal collaboration between the four of us, although each of us worked very differently. Roy [Fisher] set the tone by providing me with a quantity of words to look at and see how I could make it work on the gates visually. Then Ian [McMillan] picked up from that and over a weekend gave me half of the content that appears on the gate at Gargrave. I said that was fantastic and could he expand on that.' The inscription on this gate reads: "Super High Way, Super Wet Way, Super Slow Way, Super Low Way", and was used by the Canal & River Trust as their tag line to promote Locklines.


Maddison is "very, very pleased" with the result of the project, but admits that we can’t possibly evaluate its effects just yet: "The shortest time span of this project is 20-25 years – because that’s how long a lock gate lasts. What will be really interesting, will be when those lock gates are renewed, whether the words and the concept of having words on those particular gates is then renewed. It’s quite likely that they’ll either decide to redo them, or they’ll take those beams off and do something with them. In 20-25 years' time, I imagine they’ll be considered part of the heritage of that lock. So that’s why you couldn’t evaluate the effect of it right now. Most people who will see it haven’t seen it yet."

Coates agrees: "It's a slow burner. But what I hope is that it makes people stop, take it in and give it some thought."

Peter Heslip, Director for Visual Arts, London, at Arts Council England who is involved in shaping the partnership concludes "the Locklines project continues a great national tradition of artists and poets who find inspiration in our natural surroundings. These commissions exemplify the type of activity possible as a result of the partnership between Arts Council England and the Canal & Rivers Trust".