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.

You can take the girl out of the park but you can’t take the park out of the girl….

…. to appropriate and misquote a phrase. One of my previous jobs was as a groundsman in the parks of Finchley and Hendon. I spent lots of my time putting straight lines in grass. Cricket tables and wickets, bowling greens (it’s much harder than it looks!) and posh the grass outside the town hall. As a result I developed a bit of a thing for nice stripy grass. It’s very satisfying to do and always makes me smile. Before you ask, yes, I do know how sad that makes me, I’ve made my peace with it.

Most of my job as a Lenghtsman is exactly the opposite. I make the river look wild, natural and as though I haven’t done anything at all, which is a skill in its own right that takes a bit of practice and lots of work. The lock sides and mooring lines however do need to be neat and tidy. That’s great for me, I still get to channel my inner groundsman some days while still being a card-carrying tree hugging conservationist. It’s the best of both worlds.


The flotilla is in

The passing of a flotilla of Canada geese is one of my favourite sights, and sounds of the navigation. I know for some the mess they make is a concern but they always make me smile. Their gentle honks aren’t anything but joyful. I always loved them from my time feeding them in Poole Park as a young child. The swans we’re taller that I was and pretty intimidating but the geese were always gentle. 

When you live on a boat, as I did for 15 years before I came to the Navigation,  the local bird life gets used to your routine. The swans will be there as soon as you are awake tapping on the side of your boat demanding food… with menaces. The geese however swim up and honk a bit which always feels like they are asking nicely. Consequently I have a soft spot. 

This flotilla is various sets of parents and this year’s young moving en mass to the golf course. The lovely short grass seems to be a favourite although they are usually polite enough to wait until most people have finished playing before they descend on the 12th fairway by the lake.

With my punt I am a flotilla of one and after a very soggy and thundery time of it today my punt is also now thankfully home. After 3 rounds of thunder and lightening and some very heavy showers I made it back safely, if dripping on the kitchen floor for a while. Many jobs need to be done from the bank, as you would imagine but this was one of many that definitely need my floating company car.

I managed to get over 3 1/2 boat loads of floating pennywort cleared. It is one of those satisfying jobs, especially when you can coax a large raft onto the punt in one mat. That said, you always know that if a couple of leaves escape you, and they always do, that the whole thing will be back, as I you’d never been there within a few weeks. Lots of jobs are like that here. If you take it to heart you’d spend all summer being depressed, but you can’t. I might be wet through to my socks, like my kind volunteer / husband, and I can almost hear the grass growing and pennywort spreading as I sit here but it’s still a great day to be down by the river. Whether you’re a Lengthsman or a goose.

My favourite sort of morning

A lot of the job of a Lengthsman can be noisy. I spend many an hour with a strimmer, following a mower or swinging a chainsaw. They are all essential in making the river the best place to visit (or in the case of the wildlife, live). While I love those parts of the job, there is also joy in appreciating the quiet bits. It can be sitting in the long grass with a camera waiting for the damselflies to show themselves, wielding a paintbrush when the bridges need doing or seeing what the night has brought to my moth box. 

To bug lovers like me opening a trap is  a bit like Christmas morning, or Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what your going to get. Today there were 50 odd moths of 20 or so different types which takes me up to about 150 species all together that have visited my trap (which leaves over 2400 British natives and visitors that haven’t yet!). I enjoy collecting the data. It allows me to see if we have any rarities and see if we can manage the habitats and foodplants differently to encourage more species to make themselves at home here. I also enjoy a good mystery and gaining an insight into the nocturnal visitors most of us never get to see. Having the opportunity to do that over an orange juice surrounded by books (another passion of mine) makes for a great what to start the day.

Surprising wildlife and visitors

I’m glad to say the Artistic Animals nature trail is a huge hit. ┬áThe fish bench had people queueing to use it even before it was in the ground! Even though some of Easter was a bit of a washout there were plenty of takers for the chocolate bunnies hidden as prizes for finishing the trail and finding all 10 creatures.


The biggest joy and surprise has been is that it isn’t just the youngsters who are enjoying it. Most of the requests for hints have come from┬ávisitors and walkers who have definitely left their school days well and truly behind them. There are a few that have been catching everyone out, but that was part of the plan. Activities in the outdoors should be an adventure. There are some that you can’t fail to spot but some that require a bit more attention and possibly a second visit. Hence the need for the odd clue. The mallard (above) hasn’t tripped anyone up yet.

All the fun of the nature trail has to be fitted in between the usual ‘day job’ of mowing, strimming, painting and weir keeping. Mowing the mooring line yesterday startled one of my favourite inhabitants, and me if I’m honest but no harm was done!