…. 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 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.
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.
I’m glad to say the Artistic Animals nature trail is a huge hit. The 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 visitors 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!
The set of skills it takes to be a Lengthsman are pretty varied. As well as the expected countryside management skills, I often have to draw on other tools in my (limited) box. Today it’s arts and crafts. I’m afraid as my old art teacher would tell you, I’m not a natural, but that isn’t stopping me.
I am putting together an animal trail with sculptures and artworks representing creatures you could see for real down by the river. Our Maintenance Team is made up of skilled engineers, carpenters and metal workers, and as it turns out they are also a creative bunch. I already have an owl, stag beetle, otter and more and now I am adding my bat and kingfisher to the menagerie. Or attempting to.
If I’m honest my kingfisher is a bit ‘penguiny’ at the moment and my first attempt at a bat would definitely have trouble getting off the ground. I’m not being defeated though. I put the bat on a drastic diet and he’s looking better.
Don’t worry, it’s not finished yet, but he will be hanging from a tree near you before Easter!
In the campaign by the Keep Britain Tidy group they remind dog walkers that there is no such thing as the dog poo fairy. On this 2 and a half miles of river there is. Me. I don’t get to wear a pink tutu and wings (although I suppose I could if I wanted to but I think I’d feel a little silly) and it doesn’t disappear at the wave of a wand but I do do my best to keep everything clean and tidy for visitors.
My litter picking efforts routinely consist of collecting far more bags of dog mess than anything else and this morning was no exception. There were the usual decoratively placed at head height variety, the slung in the bushes to make it really awkward to collect variety and the common or garden just bag it and leave it where it fell variety.
In addition dog mess there were also the usual beer and pop bottles although I don’t know what sort of recreational walk requires a full sized bottle of port, that was a new one on me. There is always at least 1 cigarette lighter, although I particularly enjoyed the bold design choice of a carrot in a chef’s hat on today’s offering, and whoever designed those squidgy protein sports ration packs clearly had no idea how sticky and unpleasant they get when they’ve spent a little time in the undergrowth. In another first though today, I can’t remember ever collecting a cycle helmet before, but it made a nice makeshift carrying basket for the bottles that were too heavy for my bag. There was an added bonus that walking along with my collection I got an eerie impromptu beer bottle orchestra sonata from the wind to accompany my journey!
Happy New Year to everyone! It’s been a bit of a damp start but that seems to have been a bit of a pattern over the last few years. I was very glad of the rota falling kindly giving me New Year’s Eve off. I’m not sure if it is me getting older or the lack of sleep the weir-keeping has allowed me over the last little while, or both, but the chance of a night when I could actually sleep right through without having to set my alarm every hour or two was something I wasn’t going to waste enjoying myself. Bah Humbug. The ever increasing number of fireworks did mean that my slightly neurotic rescue dog made sure I didn’t miss all of it anyway. Bless her.
The period between Christmas and New Year was unusual in that I had a lifted lock gate to deal with, which is usually a summer problem. Someone had managed to wedge their boat under the gate when they were filling the lock and the raising boat took the gate with it. It’s the large-scale engineering equivalent of lifting it off its hinges, although they don’t have hinges, just a collar, hollow quoin and socket. Repairing it is a much lower-tech operation than you might imagine. It just takes some sash clamps, a bottle jack, some timber blocks and a little bit of know-how. In case for any reason you find yourself aboard a boat in about to do the same, please don’t panic. There’s no need. If you are aware of what is going on all you need to do is stop the water coming in by closing the upper paddles and let some water slowly out. There is no need you should ever get into that situation if you use the jolly yellow pins at the back of the lock chamber for your stern line. That’s why we paint them every year to remind you!
Lock gates are not supposed to look like this!