but business as usual.
Today marks the 125th birthday of the National Trust. It kicks off a year of celebrations throughout all of our regions. We’re also celebrating our own milestone on the Navigations this year. We’re only a small team but thanks in no small part to Rob’s stirling efforts (he’s been looking after the Navigations since 1978) the Lengthsman and Lock Keeping team will have clocked up 125 years Trust service between us.
Current and future celebrations not withstanding, today it was business as usual. For me that was repairing some fencing, looking after the water levels and playing extreme Pooh sticks with logs trapped in the weirs.
Time, gravity and weather had all taken their toll on a stretch of fencing on the Pyrford mooring line. A couple of days ago it finally succumbed. Thankfully I had a willing volunteer, even on a Sunday morning, to provide a second pair of hands and we were able to return it to the (almost) vertical.
After that it was a trip to the weirs with a pole saw, windlass and drag rake. It’s not unusual for trees and other debris to make their way under the gates which can’t be extricated until the flow rate settles. Thankfully a bit of perseverance paid off and I was able to free it so now all the gates are happy again.
Lots of people I chat to when I’m operating the weirs presume some magic technology opens and closes the weirs remotely or that the water levels look after themselves without any intervention, human or technological. They are pretty much all astonished that the reality is a human being comes out to wind a set of weirs who’s components were cast up the road in our Worsfold gates workshops in 1884, at all hours of the day and night. Those who do know that it’s a low tech operation mostly presume that you can just come out and wind a windlass and the weir gates just do as they are asked and the levels always react in a predictable way. I can assure you that is not the case.
I can always hear the advice I was given the first day I got here, that it is more of an art than a science and I’d get the hang of it. Luckily over the years I almost have. I’ve learned the best way to get troublesome logs out of weirs and to get the water levels to where they should be whatever the weather and conditions upstream. I also have the added bonus of colleagues to call on for support and advice with over a century of experience between them to add to my measly 9 years. Something to appreciate, and celebrate.
We have not quite made it to 12th night yet so the Christmas decorations are still up. It did feel time to take the sandbags and Tree Dressing bugs in though. The skies are blue and the forecast promises enough dryness for me to be confident that the risk of flooding is definitely over for now. I usually bring the tree dressing decorations in on January the 1st but they were so popular I thought it would be nice to leave them out a couple of days longer. Thanks once again to the talented ladies who got their knitting needles and crochet hooks out to help cheer up the naked winter trees.
Happy New Year!
For us down by the river thankfully the angry weather has passed, for now. In the gap between that and what the forecasters are predicting will be an approaching cold snap, nature is making the most of things.
Every year I make a note of notable firsts. Things like the first snowdrop, the first butterfly (usually a Brimstone), first dragonfly. Last year January the 1st gave me my first bumblebee. This year it gave me my first hazel catkin. After the long winter nights it’s great to have a little sign that spring is on its way.
Despite being told that we are supposed to be in a lull between Christmas and New Year (which is a new one on me) it’s still all go on the river. Don’t get me wrong, I did get a break. The way the rota fell meant I got Thursday and Friday to watch bad movies and catch up on some much needed festive sleep. When I’m not working there is always someone looking after every set of weirs on the Navigation, 24 hours a day and Christmas is no different. This year I had to get up and check the levels 5 times overnight, which is by no means a record. The heaviest of the rains had already been and gone but things stay volatile for days and even weeks after. This year the sandbags were out at the cottage but thankfully they weren’t quite needed.
Now things are a little more stable and civilised with the levels I’m back out doing the other parts of the day job. Today that’s litter picking in the mud.
With the winter vegetation dying back to reveal discarded coffee cups and cans, lots of visitors making the most of the drier days and receding water levels leaving behind lots of debris there was plenty to find. I can usually calculate the distance I need to go to collect exactly a bagful so it’s as full as possible but maintains structural integrity long enough to hold together until I get back. Today I miscalculated. The handle gave way just before I got back to the bridge. Must have been down to the empty Liebfraumilch and cider or possibly the deteriorating quality of bin bags. Either way there was enough left to gather it together and make it home without losing any of my collected debris before I could sort it for recycling. As a rule most of our visitors are very considerate so it could be a great deal worse. With all of us doing our own little bit we can keep this place beautiful for everyone.
After all the recent rain, waking up to these skies this morning made me a little nervous. We’ve all been working hard day and night to manage the levels and ensure the rain water makes its way to the Thames as safely as possible. Thankfully the rain that might have come today didn’t. It was blue skies pretty much all the way. When you have done everything you can it’s nice when Mother Nature gives you a break.
The very high levels haven’t dropped here yet but my colleagues upstream assure me things have turned and are on the way down, at the moment. If you can’t tell from the picture, we’ve sandbags at the door just in case, not for the first time at Christmas. Fingers crossed we get the promised dry spell and things can start to return to normal. Not that there is really a normal round here.
I make plans and to-do lists all the time. However hard I try I just can’t stick to them. The reason nine times out of ten is the weather. I’m on the home stretch with the winter cut-back but I like to squeeze in a last mow before Christmas, so everything is looking its best for the visitors. It’s helpful to mow through and shred up the leaves so the grass underneath it doesn’t spend the winter declining under a soggy blanket. With that in mind, waking up to a frost free blustery meant only one thing. Time so give the strimmer a day off and get mowing. Early. Before the rain came.
It turns out that 8 degrees and 25 mph winds is about perfect. It was mild enough for the grass to be dry and blowy enough for the arisings to relatively quickly distribute themselves evenly about the lock side and mooring line at Walsham. As you can imagine, I spend a good deal of time keeping an eye on various forecasts so I knew I had a small window of opportunity before the rain came. As it happens Diefenbaker the mower and I made it back 5 minutes after the drizzle started and a good few minutes before the proper rain got here.
Luckily the winter cut-back can be done in any weather. It’s often better if it is soggy or very cold because you are going to get covered and stay warm anyway but at least there are less people and dogs to disturb. A few more mild days might be nice though…
I had planned to spend my day off doing some tedious chores. Not too disappointingly fate had other ideas. We’ve had a few power cuts recently, yesterday following an inch of rain and a dramatic bang from an electricity pole a few hundred metres away we were powerless again. This time only for a few hours but I decided I should still do something useful. Well, useful-ish and slightly weird. I spent the day making pipe cleaner wings for knitted dragonflies and making legs for caterpillars.
With December fast approaching I am getting ready for tree dressing season. I always love and appreciate our trees but following the successful dressing last year we are doing it again. I decided it would be cheerful to cover some of our trees with bug decorations. Our fabulous sewing group and some other crafty staff and volunteers are sewing, knitting and crocheting as we speak to add to the collection. I am fairly sure they are making a better, more artistic fist of it but I don’t think they are bad for my first ever woolly snails. I’m sure the trees will appreciate it even if the aesthetic benefit might be dubious to the bipeds.