Searching for Spring and springing a leak

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It’s true to say that no two days as a lengthsman are alike and yesterday was no exception. It started off peacefully, getting myself organised for a guided walk. The plan was to have a nice sedate walk looking for horticultural, ornithological and entomological signs that spring was ( or wasn’t ) upon us in the week of the equinox. All went to plan with the sun kindly coming out and making our celandine, catkin and bumblebee hunting a pleasure on a beautiful Sunday morning.

My happy mood was overtaken by a rapidly sinking feeling ( if you’ll pardon the pun ) on hearing that we had a breach in the bank above Papercourt Lock. Working on a Navigation that is the one thing you don’t ever want to hear. The implication if it is a major breach is that boats could be damaged and that there is not enough water left to get our repair equipment easily to site. That is before you even consider the issues for wildlife.

I rapidly made my way back to the start of the circular walk with my very supportive walkers in tow and put out boards to warn boaters that they wouldn’t be able to travel above Newark Lock. By the time I made it there the potential disaster had been averted so all there was left to do was help with a few more barrow loads of soil to level the surface and deliver some hastily grabbed mars bars. The Maintenance Team had been mobilised and with the help of Chris the Lengthsman stemmed the flow with clay, soil and some carefully placed skill and brute force. It turned out the water had made its way through holes in the piling and scoured out some of the bank underneath the surface and suddenly forced a way out. Having the luxury of an in-house team who can deal with these issues at a moments notice means we can get to these situations before they become major incidents and operational and financial headaches.

Like I say no two days are the same. Today it’s back to painting and mowing, if all goes to plan, but I know better than to count on it.

You know you haven’t had enough sleep when…..

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…. you are talking to inanimate objects at 4 o’clock in the morning. To be honest the title could be the start of a book on the life of a lengthsman in the winter, let alone a blog post.

I found myself this morning cursing a windlass that was doing exactly as it should, but in my sleep-deprived mildly addled state I just couldn’t get it to cooperate. Don’t get me wrong, the weather is fairly calm now, but keeping the water levels within the required tolerances (at Walsham that’s only about 2 inches ) is always a 24 hour, 7 day a week job. Over the last few weeks most sleep has been grabbed in 1 1/2 hour chunks ( if you can have a chunk of sleep! ) and it begins to take its toll. I always explain the life of a lengthsman and weir keeper as having a baby that never grows up. It is definitely not sleeping through the night at the moment. The rain hasn’t been that dramatically heavy but when it falls on sodden ground, it soon makes its way into the navigation. That means that my colleagues and I are constantly glued to the weather forecast and twitching our metaphorical and literal net curtains, to check the water levels and see if the weirs need adjusting to compensate.

That is not to say that sleeping in your clothes and having to leave your warm bed for the cold, wet towpath doesn’t have its perks. I get to see stars, sunrises and wildlife that I would otherwise miss. However tired and grumpy I get I still can’t help but smile at the sight of every kingfisher, heron and frosty morning. That being said, if you see a baggy-eyed sleepy woman wandering along the towpath, please be gentle with me!

This is what an inch and a half of rain in 12 hours looks like….

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This might look at first glance, to those who don’t know the river here, like a peaceful scene but it’s not. The water is moving pretty fast and the river is definitely what I call ‘angry’. Under normal circumstances the small 4 – 6 inch drop in water levels in front of the bridge would be more like 4 – 6 feet. The navigation is usually considerably higher than the natural river where it splits here. At times like this, the weir keeping part of the job leaves me cat napping when I can between trips to the weirs to adjust the water levels every hour or so, day and night. The change in water levels between the Navigation and the natural river usually creates what a lot of the local children call a waterfall, with all the associated noise you can imagine of living within 50 feet of it. When the levels are high like this, it is almost silent.  

The river being this high does have some advantages. (I always try to find a bright side when there is one!..) Being up and about at anti-social hours means you get to see things that you might not otherwise. This morning it was a large group of Long-Tailed Tits in the forsythia in my garden that are usually just specks in the large oak trees opposite.