Henry Grantham – The Lock Keeper Who Talked To Fish

Henry Grantham was tall and sturdy. He had a remarkable head of wavy lustrous hair and was rarely seen without his pipe and his faithful dog. During winter months he wore a leather greatcoat that reached almost to his huge boots. As lock keeper for the Buckby flight for nearly 40 years, he knew every inch of the seven-lock stretch. He toured the flight every day and was revered by leisure boaters from all over Britain, many of whom he had tutored in the art of lock management on their first solo canal outing. In keeping with his public relations role, he always wore a collar and tie.

He lived alone with his dog in a tiny cottage that has since been incorporated into the home of Mike (parish council chairman) and Barbara Lewis. It had only a small garden, so to grow his vegetables he took over the large patch of land alongside the canal by the bridge, adjoining derelict cottages now totally rebuilt as Canal Cottage, the home of Dominic and Andrea Mockett-Bradshaw.

The dilapidated building was where he kept his gardening tools and his long canal rakes, ice-breaking rods, hedging hooks, axes and other gear. When he needed fertilizer for the garden, he would dip a long rake in the cut by the bridge and extract a load of rich silt which rewarded him with exceptional crops. In the middle of the plot he built a small greenhouse from odd bits of plastic and old car windows.

Everyone knew Henry as a gentlemanly “character,” a never-failing help to neighbours and boaters. The only fault in his make-up would perhaps be noticed by strict temperance folk. Every day, people he helped through the locks would leave pints “in” for him at the top lock pub, and he would drink them all without apparent ill-effect.

One dark night, however, riding home along the towpath on one of the bikes he made up from a stockpile of ancient parts, he went straight into the canal. Apparently he climbed out and carried on as if nothing had happened.

After the closure of the Spotted Cow he shuttled between the New Inn and the White Horse at Norton. His constant moan was the cost of the beer. While standing at the bar he often took – and offered to companions — surreptitious draughts from a bottle of his homemade wine that he produced from one of his overcoat pockets.

His main hobby was making wine of every fruit and vegetable in season. Civil engineering workers from the M1 and the sewage works often called at his cottage for a late-night glass.

One afternoon he began to stagger wildly as he walked from his home and a bricklayer friend, fearing a heart attack, insisted on taking him to the accident and emergency department in Northampton. The duty doctor could find nothing wrong and was mystified until he learned of Henry’s hobby.

“How much wine have you got brewing at the moment?” he asked.

“Oh, about 50 gallons,” was the reply.

That explained it – the concentration of yeasty fumes from the fermentations in Henry’s little kitchen had temporarily addled his brain.

Henry enjoyed a natter with anyone he met. He had a mischievous sense of humour. One day he hung his mother’s old bloomers on the washing line to create gossip among locals who might think he’d got a woman staying with him.

One hilarious lunchtime he turned his shirt collar round as he stood at the bar of the White Horse. After listening intently to his forthright comments on the political inanities of the day, a stranger to the area reverently stepped forward.

“Vicar, I want to shake your hand,” he said. “It’s wonderful to hear a man of the cloth as much in touch with ordinary life as you are.”

He was a close friend of Doug Hill, another Waterways employee who was the local union representative for canal workers. One day when strike action was being discussed in the area, Doug arranged a meeting that was addressed by the legendary trade union chief and later European pensioners’ champion, Jack Jones, who was then a lowly union organizer. The meeting was held in Henry’s kitchen and the proceedings were helped along by samplings of his heady brews.

Henry’s other hobbies were darts, at which he was a formidable player and caring for and communing with the ornamental and native fish he stocked in the dilapidated side-pond of the lock near the main road. He planted trees and shrubs around the pond and introduced water lilies. The area has now been greatly restored as a miniature nature reserve, thanks to the efforts of Mike Lewis and other members of the Whilton and Buckby Locks Association. Near the pond Henry built a quaint mini-mansion for the use of local ducks. It had an open door, windows, chimneys and even a television aerial. Henry let it be known that he would shortly be installing carpets and curtains.

Every evening he would visit the pond and “call” his fish to their supper. He would talk to them as he fed them. It was an amazing sight to see them poke their heads above the surface in response to his call.

Henry was a natural ambassador for British Waterways, and won several prizes in their national competition for the best-kept locks. He would paint the parts of the bridge high above the canal without assistance, utilizing a long ladder that he thrust into the depths of the canal (today, under health and safety regulations, this job cannot be done without a scaffold platform erected by contractors). He also trimmed hedges and mowed grass along the entire flight.

After his death in 1989, aged 77, his great friend, woodworker Tony Forward, created a unique memorial bench for him at the bottom lock, using wood salvaged from the old wooden working boat “Forget-Me-Not” which was operated by the Grantham family for many years. The bench is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of public art in the parish. A fascinating history of the canals and the commercial boating era, written by Tony, can be read by opening the superbly designed notice board near the bench.

Henry was unable to read and write very well as he never went to school much. While pregnant with him, his mother was steering the boat in a lock near Leamington Spa when it bashed against the gates and jolted her so much that she went into early labour. He was born prematurely, weighing just two pounds. In those days, his chance of survival was slim.

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