for once. We Lengthsmen can, from time to time, be a bit grumpy when it rains. The sleep deprivation of hourly weir checks through the night mean when it’s been wet, particularly for weeks on end, we aren’t always glad to see it. Today however I am more than pleased it’s finally here. The grass has started to get a bit brown in places, despite my care not to cut it too short. You can almost hear the trees and grass breathing a sigh of relief.
The biggest problem is that the dry start to the year follows 2 dry winters meaning river levels and ground water levels haven’t been topped up. While I’ve been able to keep the levels in the navigation steady the natural river is suffering. It’s the lowest it’s been in my time here. I’ve had to put my summer boards in for the first time in over 6 years. As well as being able to control the levels by opening and closing the 4 regular and 3 flood weir gates, I can insert boards between the piers of the bridge to restrict the flow. In the last week I’ve had to use 4 to keep more water in the navigation. This ensures boats still have enough water to move freely and the delicate banks aren’t damaged by fluctuating levels.
It might be low tech but it works just fine. It’s another of the things we do here that I imagine is pretty much unchanged since the navigation opened in the 1650s. I love the continuity of that. I’m the most recent in an extremely long, unbroken line to be keeping an eye on the weather to keep the river and it’s users safe. And I’m sure shortly if this continues I’ll be cursing not having been more careful what I wished for, like my predecessors before me.
… and other buggy starts to the day.
Being lucky enough to live by the river means this is not an unusual start to the day, but it still always makes me smile. The warm nights mean open windows and flying visitors coming in and making themselves at home.
The warm weather has led to a bumper year for damsels and dragons. I’ve had one new species visiting ( I’m up to 15 confirmed and hopefully rising ) and good numbers of all of them. The phone photo doesn’t do justice of the sight of over 40 male banded demoiselle damselflies warming themselves in yesterday’s sun ready for a day of patrolling their breeding territory and fighting off rivals. Every black dot you can ( almost ) see is the wing marking of a gorgeous bluebottle blue male waiting to impress one of the green females and continue his genetic line.
It’s not all just damsels and dragons at the moment. This pair of eyed hawk moths were clearly at home on the workshop door frame yesterday.
We managed to get off relatively lightly in last week’s storm but we’re still feeling the effects. On my length, amazingly, I only had 3 trees down which caused a problem, which were relatively quick and easy to deal with but on the navigation that is never the end of it.
Weirs, tumble bays and various other water control and engineering structures and fallen tree limbs and debris don’t mix. This time it was only natural debris (I’ve had to wrestle an ironing board off my weirs before now – no idea where that came from!) to deal with. I was covering for my colleague over the weekend at New Haw and there was so much tree flotsam that the lock gates wouldn’t open fully. A drag rake, and hour, a colleague and a chocolate biscuit later and I had managed to clear it. On my own length things weren’t quite so bad. You can just see the branches snagged on the weirs below the bridge but the force of water managed to deal with much of it for me.
The rain however never sorts itself out. I had had less than half of one of these weir gates open pre-Doris, but to keep the levels in the navigation steady and safe I had to open 4 and a half gates at its peak. That meant shutting the navigation to boats for a day or so as the strong flow makes boating unsafe. Even the process of putting out the flood boards is more involved than you might think. Now we are now hi-tech and have an instantly updated river conditions blog but we still put the low-tech red boards out to make sure all boaters coming to a section of the river in conditions deemed unsafe for boating know to stop and moor up. On my stretch that process takes over an hour as the 5 flood boards are up to 2 and a half miles apart and some only accessible on foot over muddy fields.
It’s now back to a much less angry 1 and a quarter gates so boats are moving and all is much calmer. That all means I’ve had a few of nights of setting alarms for every hour and a half through the night to keep things under control. Last night I only had to get up 3 times, hence my ability to (almost) string a sentence together! My fitness tracker had 2 nights when it didn’t even recognise that the catnaps between alarms were even sleep. Never mind.
The one lovely thing about the end to the angry weather is the safety inspection walk is often people-free so you get to see wildlife that usually remains hidden. I was treated to a group of 4 roe deer out in the daytime watching me from the other bank. Always a joy, however sleep addled.
Bad phone shot – sorry. I was too busy watching them to remember to take a decent picture.
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.
….(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.
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.
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.