Weeds, seeds and new(t) friends

This time of year is always a busy one, but they all are. It’s a time to juggle the last of the winter chores with the spring cleaning and getting everything ship shape for the start of the the busy boating season….oh, and they say there is a storm on the way.

Today, amongst other things, I’ve been doing a bit of weeding but down by the river that doesn’t quite take the usual form. The fight with invasive plants that have made their way here and are causing trouble is not just a summer problem. I’ve already cleared the floating pennywort again over the winter but in 2 1/2 miles the little aliens can easily find a place to hide.
It only takes a bit this size, some warmth and some time and these few leaves end up as a dense raft that could fill my punt three times over.

I’m trying not to take it personally but as well as the aliens invading I’ve got moles making a mess of my lock sides. Hence the seeding as well as weeding. In a few weeks time, if not sooner, I’ll be mowing again so I’ve been been using my ex-groundsman’s skills and in a few weeks you won’t even know they’ve been. Unless or until they come back. But that’s ok, they’re joyful creatures, if a little messy, and I’ve got plenty more seed.

And so to the newt. This little one found its way into one of my bags while I was litter picking. By that I mean that when I left the full bag for a couple of hours while I finished litter picking, it made its way into one of the creases and hitched a ride in my van….not that I snaffled her up with my litter picker having confused her with a crisp packet. It’s more of an excuse for a picture of a beautiful newt than earth shattering revelation. I found her a safe pile of logs to pop her under which is a far better place for her to hide from the storm than a tarp in the back of my van.

Reasons to be cheerful….

….(at minus 1,2,3)

The chilly weather of late can be a great reason to snuggle up in front of the fire and forget about the outside world but there is a lot of things you only get to see when temperatures hit the icy end of the spectrum.

You can see weird and wonderful icicle displays over the weirs.

You can appreciate the arachnid works of art that are usually easy to miss.


Plants that could pass for weeds take on a higher level of beauty.

And best of all, when you have the icy river to yourself, you get to see birds that can often be missed. Today’s foggy grey backdrop makes the reds of the woodpeckers, pinks of the jays and yellows of the great tits even more vibrant and easy to spot. The complete lack of leaves means the large families of long tailed tits have nowhere to hide and are one of those birds that you can’t help but be cheered by the sight of. Today is saw my first binocular-free snipe as one flew within 2 metres of me at Newark Lock. (I feel that since the fabulous Pixar movie Up, I feel I need to explain to the ornathalogically challenged that Snipes do exist and are neither mythical, non-existent nor the brainchild of an American animation studio. They are an actual, beautiful, relatively common brown bird with a long bill that favours water meadow, marsh and estuary habitats.) When the local lakes are frozen over I have a pair of beautiful tufted ducks that come to visit and take advantage of the ice-free water to feed. They aren’t as used to people as many of my feathered visitors and don’t like to come close,  hence the ropey shot….although granted it is better than the non-existent shot of the snipe that took me by surprise. That’s one of the great things about nature, however well you know somewhere, it can always surprise you.

Marching off the mince pies

  Frosty but festive – this year I’ve added a little seasonal (if not tasteful) cheer to the bridge!
 This Christmas we’ve been blessed with some fantastic, if frosty days. The last few have been the heralds for heavy rain and therefore disturbed nights on the weirs, but not so 2016. The lovely bright weather has meant that we are even busier on the towpath. I still see a few of my regular walkers and lots of the boaters enjoy spending Christmas aboard. Being a seasoned boater I can vouch for the fact that a boat is one of the best places to wake up on Christmas morning. 

On the whole though it’s new faces and once a year visitors over Christmas. I like the fact that we’re an important part of some families’ traditions. Growing up in Dorset we always had a seaside Boxing Day walk, paper hats and all. For many generations of families round here the river is where you bring your visitors to saunter, route march or meander off the possible excesses of the season. And of course all are equally welcome. That is not to say that some of the residents don’t look forward to the time they get the river back to themselves, but maybe some of the one off visitors this year may end up being regulars of the future.
 

Last minute pre-Christmas chores

The run up to Christmas is busy for most of us and that is especially true down by the river. I always like to make sure my mooring lines and lock sides look their best for the Christmas visitors and myriad obligatory photographs. I managed to take advantage of the brief dry window before the predicted wet and windy weather and give my mower a good run and cut Pyrford mooring line and lock. I spent much of the time behind my mower trying to calculate how far I’ve had to walk, as I often do to pass the time. I used to know exactly how far I had to walk behind a marker to line a rugby pitch, mower to stripe a bowling green and how far round my cricket boundaries were. But that was a lifetime ago. Now I have the luxury of a step counter to check my sums. I wasn’t far off, it turns out I mowed 4.18 miles.

  
The sheep are never as pleased to see me as the cows, which is always disappointing.

  
Magnus, Muriel and Mo the swans clearly aren’t impressed by my bridge decorating in an attempt to ramp up the Christmassy for everyone. (That’s Mo in the middle, the only one of the cygnets to make it this year)

  
I actually have my first Christmas Day off in the 6 Christmases since I got here which is great, but means that I am running out of time to get everything done. That, and the fact that we’ve got storms predicted in the next few days and no doubt trees down as a result, it’s not shaping up to be that peaceful a Christmas season. The Chinese curse of hoping you live interesting times might well apply. It might not be peaceful but it will be interesting but that’s ok by me.

Neighbours paying a visit

Part of the job of looking after the river involves knowing what we’ve got so we can manage the landscape accordingly. To that end I’ve recently added another toy to the box. I’m trialing a trail-cam and it’s already getting some good images. So far I’ve just been setting it up in the garden so I can keep an eye on it, with the plan later of setting it up further in the wild where I know we have badgers and other wildlife and where I’m not sure what we’ll find. You just strap it to a tree and forget about it.

(!gnore the date..I’ve not worked out how to change it yet!)Fox dinner.JPG

This clearly shows what I already knew. Foxes and rabbits are visiting at night, although we’re clearly a bunny down after this midnight feast. And I’m pretty sure he knows I’m watching him!

Fox Watching.JPG

I’ve also got a few nice daytime shots….

Green.JPG

But to be honest, the majority have been more like this! My dog Tilley clearly also wants to know who’s been visiting her garden.

tilley-night

For those of you with an interest in wildlife I really can recommend getting one. Mine has only been out a couple of days and has already given me an insight into what’s been going on without me knowing. They are worth a try if you’re nosy like me and don’t cost a great deal anymore . (Mine was recently purchased cheaply from a national supermarket that shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say it was one of those shops where people in posh cars hurry to shove their produce into bags from an establishment they deem more prestigious and suitable for the neighbours to see.)

Enjoying the autumn colours …while they last

This year has been the best I can remember down by the river for autumn colour. The trees have not only put on a colourful display but a long lasting one. We’re almost in December (yes I know, I’m not organized either) and yet all of the trees down by the river have some leaves left and many are in still in their full, spectacular autumn best. The dry weather (until the last few days), cool nights and sunny days all create the best conditions for the best displays.

The science of it is fascinating. Briefly chlorophyll, the green pigment that creates the usual summer leaf colour, is made in much lower quantities when the days shorten. This means the sugars and other substances present in the leaves all year round (that give us the reds and yellows) become visible. With a dry spell these sugars become more concentrated in the leaves and so colours even more vivid.

trees-autumn-colour

With storm Angus due to arrive in Surrey over the weekend I took one last autumn photo expecting the wind and rain to put an end to the display but it is still going (fairly) strong. Even on a grey, rainy day when I haven’t slept for more than 2 hours in one go for a 2 nights straight due to the angry weirs, it’s still a joy to see the trees. Over the last couple of days I’ve seen them by torchlight, first light, moonlight as well as soggy day light and in all their moods they cheer mine.

That’s not to say I don’t love them when they finally shed their leaves and make spectacular shapes against the winter skies. That’s the great thing about nature, there is always something to look forward to just around the seasonal corner.

Working from home…..

…..all the rage but nothing new.

  Tidy tool shed tidy mind?  Think I’m in trouble….

Working from home might be a new (and very welcome) change for those used to being tied to the long commute and office politics surrounding whether you put in for the leaving present of someone you don’t recall ever meeting, but on the river it’s nothing new. The lives of my spiritual predecessors since the 1650s ;the Wharfingers, Lock Keepers, Weir Keepers and past Lengthsmen were very much tied to the river, as mine is today. The Wharfingers looked after the loading and unloading of cargoes, safe passage of working boats and the charging and recording of their cargoes, no doubt among many other things lost in time. For that they needed to be on hand and know the river, its moods, the boats and the characters along the river and came to know its wildlife. All things I strive to do in my job today. 

  Not sure what the collective noun is for a group of Windlasses…  

 Granted, many of the tools I use today would be foreign to my counterparts of old but many remain unchanged. The windlass, well know to all canal boat users today, is the essential piece of kit for adjusting water levels. My particular set of weirs at Walsham have remained unchanged since they were installed in 1884. They were probably not much different before that, and that continuity is part of the joy of this place. That’s not to say that I’m not looking forward to our fancy new water level gauges that will replace (or more accurately probably join) the marmite lid I use to see if the water levels need adjusting. And I certainly wouldn’t want to give up my chainsaw (called Matilda – it’s a long story) or petrol strimmer (although my scything course was good fun) and the only horse drawn boat here now is purely for pleasure trips. It’s all about knowing the river then you’ll best know how to look after it.