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.


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.

Red Admiral rescue after its accidental adventure

However well you know a place and the wildlife in it, you will still be able to see something different every time you visit. Today I watched a butterfly ‘swim’ across the river. Definitely a first for me, and probably the butterfly too.

To be fair, it wasn’t by choice. I think I disturbed her from her early morning perch while I was strimming. She landed wing side up and by a process of wing flapping, wriggling and current riding she managed to make it to the other side and find some vegetation to cling to about 20 feet from where she went in. I have to confess my heart was in my mouth a little and I was contemplating launching the punt, maybe a slight over reaction for a single butterfly, but in the event she made it on her own. To the edge at least. Given that it was my fault she had had such a traumatic start to her day, it only seemed right to help her the last few feet to safety. It turns out that pole saws are the ideal rescuing device. They have a good long handle to (just about) ensure you don’t go in too and side on, a flat surface the perfect size to scoop a butterfly off its precarious reedy perch. After a few minutes drying off in the sun she flew off happily none the worse for her adventure and me with a close encounter that made my day. 

Making it across is no mean feat when you are less than 3 inches across!

Starting at silly o’clock 

When you do a physical job and the forecast is for very warm weather, it makes sense to get ahead of the day. I planned ahead and got organised last night which meant I could be on site from 06.30 to mow and strim the lock side at Newark. That way I could get the heaviest jobs of the day out of the way while it was in the low 20s not the low 30s. The added bonus is you get some spectacular views, and some friends to talk to.

Sun rays through the trees at Newark Lock

Spider’s eye view of Newark Priory

The cow’s and I have an understanding. When I cut foliage that I know they are going to like, I leave it somewhere they can find it and they don’t look at me like I’m a total fruitcake (all the time) and they forgive me for mowing and making a noise first thing in the morning.

Bobbing for bicycles

on a Friday afternoon, the way you do. Well, you do if you’re a Lengthsman. It’s a bit of a change of pace from smiling at butterflies and not what I’d planned for the afternoon, but that’s part of the fun. I always make a plan and a ‘To Do’ list but things very rarely go to plan, you’ve got to be able to roll with the metaphorical punches.

I got a call to say there was a bike under a bridge, clearly abandoned and dropped over the railings by its rider but probably not owner. It was reported to be in the perfect place and depth to snag an unsuspecting boat’s prop so it clearly couldn’t wait. As it was not on my length a boat rescue for the offending bike was impractical. It would take me well over an hour to get there so it was a case of loading up the van with the grappling hook and extendable boat hook and hoping my aim wouldn’t fail me. Plan B would have been waiting for Thames Lock to close and commendeering a punt and a Dave from there but thankfully it didn’t come to that. 

Bike wrangling kit

Somehow I managed to catch hold of the frame with only my second swing of the grappling hook. I would like to claim it was pure skill, and I have had a fair bit of practice over the years, but I’m afraid blind luck was probably the main reason. That and the lack of an audience. It always goes much better without an audience, otherwise I’d probably still be there now.


Second time lucky (yes I know my work boots are overdue a clean)

Regardless of the reason the rope gods were clearly smiling on me and all it took was a little brute force to get it back on terra ferma. Now all that remains is to find out if it’s been reported stolen so I  can reunite what’s left of it with its owner and if that draws a blank donate it to our local bike recycling scheme so it can have a new life somewhere else. Either way boats may safely pass without peril, which is a good couple of hours work.

The final pull to freedom

Waking up to wildlife

Always the best way to start the day. This red admiral butterfly was enjoying the sunshine this morning when I opened the curtains.  As they are cold-blooded they need the warmth of the sun to warm the muscles they need for flight. That’s why you don’t see many flying on the cooler days, they are saving their energy under a leaf somewhere.


That’s why I built them a butterfly beach. A little somewhere to warm their wings in the morning.


Loving the low-tech

imageIn a week where I learned more about Pokemon than I ever thought I needed to know (it turns out I have a gym right outside my house…who knew!) it’s nice to keep things old school sometimes. With the sunshine out, school holidays in full swing and a hedge to cut, I knew the towpath was going to be pretty busy. I shied away from the noisy, petrol hedge trimmer option in favour of peaceful, traditional old shears. It takes a bit longer but you don’t scare the dogs. With the volume of work to be done I don’t always get the luxury of taking the slower way but today I did and it’s nice every once in a while, even if it is more tiring.