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This is the somewhat depressing face that the Big Lock pub presented to the world (well, the canal world, at any rate) during the early 1970s.
It's a tall and potentially impressive building, but was always rather overpowered by the milk factory/silk works which, as can be seen here, rubbed shoulders with it for many years.
A cobbled alleyway (actually laid with setts, which is a slightly different thing - see this posting) separated the pub and the factory, and still slopes up from towpath level to the road above.
The Big Lock is what the late Brian Curzon used to call a 'stack pub', built on two levels.
Until the end of commercial canal carrying in the 1960s the establishment also operated on two levels in a different way too, with a bar at street level catering for the inabitants of Webbs Lane, and a bar for the boatmen and their families at towpath level, seen here with its arched door and window on the right hand side of the pub.
It's possible that the opening hours of the two bars were split between daytime hours for the lower bar and evening hours for the upper one, to cater for the two different types of clientele. It was also the practice, before the pub was drastically altered in the 1980s, to open the bottom bar in the depths of winter to cater for the Webbs Lane trade, saving on heating and lighting costs for the much bigger bar on the top level.
The clumsily done and lighter coloured infilled brickwork next to the bar was where the shop selling provisions to canal users was situated.
It's tempting to think of this shop as something of a makeshift affair but, in fact, it was a real shop with plate glass windows and a central door, such as could be found in any High Street.
The Big Lock today is a smart pub-restaurant and a much more attractive looking building.
with a balcony overlooking the canal and a new downstairs bar and function room.
The essential features from the old building, including the ornate terra cotta work outside the boaters bar, have been retained.
From 1990 onwards the pub was a venue for the original Folk & Boat Festival and plays a similar role in the new Middlewich FAB Festival.
For a time, after fire destroyed the large factory building on the right and it was replaced by a modern single storey building, the pub dominated the area and looked a little out of place. However, now that modern housing has been built on the site of the old silk mill, on the other side of that steep cobbled alleyway, the old look of the area has been somewhat restored. A recent photo by Cliff Astles illustrates this, and can be seen here.
On the other side of the lock from the pub is a relatively new addition to the Middlewich scene, the much admired 'Welcome To Middlewich' sign.
|Photo:Salt Town Productions|
Until the early 1970s there was a lock-keeper's cottage on the other side of the lock which always seemed to lead a rather precarious existence, and you can read about it here.
The Big Lock - i.e. the canal lock - is interesting in itself. It's the only lock in the town capable of taking two boats, side by side, and the reason for this is very simple.
Originally it was possible for wide boats to come up from the River Weaver right into the centre of Middlewich to load salt at the Town Wharf, avoiding transhipment from narrow to wide boats.
However, when the aqueduct over the River Dane at Croxton was washed away by severe flooding in the 1930s, it was replaced by a narrow aqueduct capable only of taking narrow boats. In any case the potential of Middlewich Town Wharf was never fully exploited as trade was concentrated on Preston Brook instead.
The steel lock gates, which were installed in the 1960s, were unusual (and a little inelegant) but stood the test of time. They were in place for many years, painted in pleasing British Waterways black and white, but have now been replaced by more traditional wooden gates.
Daniel Preston: In the mid-sixties I used to go to that area with some of the lads and lasses from Webbs Lane. There was a rope swing, such as Tarzan is depicted as using, which we used to swing ourselves over the canal. I don't know what the rope was made of, but it was a stretchy material, so as you swung over the canal it stretched.
I can't remember what it was tethered to, only that it was in the area of the silk works. I think it was possible to swing across, let go and land on the other side of the canal.
Robert Shecklestone: In the late 70s I drank in the Big Lock when Freddy Dutton was the landlord.
Dave Roberts: So did I. I still see Fred and Clarice about the town. Very nice people.