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!
That’s Christmassy feeling can be triggered by lots of different things. For some people it’s the dodgy Christmas songs in the supermarket, putting the decorations up or finally having a guilt free sherry or cup of tea when all the chores are finally done. For a Lengthsman, like at so many other times of year, finishing a particular task heralds the changing seasons. It doesn’t feel like spring ’til the lock gate beams have been painted, it’s not summer until all the locks sides and mooring lines have had had their second grass cut and it doesn’t feel like Christmas until the winter cut-back is done. So that means the Christmassy feeling starts for me today!
Facing downstream towards Newark Lock. Before….
The last few weeks have been a muddy, grassy slog strimming miles (literally) of towpath and river banks. It’s an annual event to tame the plant yobs to allow the interesting stuff to get a look in in the spring. It has the added bonus of widening the path before the really soggy stuff arrives allowing you to step round the worst bits, usually.
…after. The sun even came out for a bit!
Today I completed the last section. That doesn’t mean that there is any let up in the workload. Far from it, but it does mark a psychological seasonal milestone, even if the weather isn’t necessarily wintry. I think it’s the first time there have still been campion and dead nettle flowering for the cut-back but they are nice to see whenever.
Seasonal Lengthsman’s attire. Oh the glamour!
There isn’t much chance to do the festive things that most people take for granted so you have to take the ‘Christmassy’ where you can find it. Even the required Work Do is necessarily usually a tame and brief affair. There is a 50:50 chance that you will be on duty, and if you aren’t you’ll definitely be working the next morning. There isn’t much respite for Christmas itself either. The weirs can’t be left, last Boxing Day I was up a ladder putting an owl box up, but I guess not many people get to make new Christmas memories like that. I’ve no idea what this year’s new Christmas adventures will be and what new memories will be made but that’s part of the fun.
You might not think that cold mornings in November are the best for painting outdoors but that’s not always the case. Our main season for painting lock gates and bridges is, more sensibly, spring and early summer but with winter closing in I like to get an additional protective coat of bitumen on the poor lock beams. They take the brunt of the weather and use and have already survived up to 15 winters with hopefully a good few more to come.
With rain on the cards on and off for the next few days, cold and frosty might not be ideal, but it’s the best I can hope for. The fact that the Maintnance Team are replacing the lock gates upstream at Triggs was also working in my favour. While they carry out the physical and technical challenge of getting the new gates snugly in place we have to shut a section of the river, which means very little traffic and less boaters at risk of painty accidents. I knew that they were due to finish ahead of schedule so time was running out. That, and the fact that I had the luxury of a keen volunteer happy to lend a hand, meant it was now or never. You could almost hear the timber saying thank you while it bubbled and drunk in the paint.
Volunteer Robin hard at work
I could hear my horticulture lecturer disapproving slightly ( one of the many voices that pop into my head from time to time ) for cutting cold, soggy grass when another frost was due but I’m afraid needs must. Besides, the grass is so happy and vigourous at Newark Lock I can’t imagine anything short of a flame-thrower causing it enough stress to be a problem. I’m also resigned to the fact that the moles and the tufty old grass mean I’m never going to make it into a bowling green and as it’s a rural location too tidy would look out of place.
Tomorrow it’s due to be mild and damp….. perfect strimming weather!
Today seemed like a good day to remember one of our river family, albeit almost 100 years since he died. Alfred Wye grew up in Papercourt Lock Cottage, the son, grandson and nephew of a lock keeper. While I don’t underestimate the culture shock to all teenagers like Alfred ( and grown men for that matter ) arriving in the trenches of France, I can’t help but look at the idyllic place he grew up and try to imagine if somewhere could have been more alien if he’d landed on another planet. Papercourt Lock is quite remote even now, mains electricity only arrived in 2000, and it is likely he’d never strayed very far. Instead of returning to the river to possibly carry on the family tradition, he died and his last resting place is a military cemetery in northern France. He was 19 years old.
We planted a red oak tree in his memory today, opposite his old family home with the help of members of the Wye family of the 2 and 4 legged variety. We like to think that everyone who works, or worked, on the river are members of a family too, so that makes Alfred one of us. While it is lovely that he is remembered on the village war memorial in Send, it is important that he is remembered by us too and his tree will hopefully bring happiness to generations of people and in time a home to generations of wonderful creatures.
As you know, things down by the river have a way of their own. Things that in ‘normal’ life that are occasionally useful down here qualify as can’t-live-without like wheelbarrows, bits of rope that don’t look like they are long enough to be useful, caribinas and cable ties. Boats definitely also fit into that category, and this week I got a new one.
In the life of a lengthsman, they really are the land rovers of our profession ( other 4x4s are available…..). They are obviously a means of getting from A to B but also transporters of mowers, strimmers and volunteers to more remote locations, platforms for removing trees from across the navigation and cleaning lock gates and generally the best way to get about and see what is going on. In the past mine has also been a home to a toad, a pond dipping station and log delivery device.
Other boats in the Navigation fleet also transport heavy equipment and new lock gates to site, house a dredger for keeping the Navigation running smoothly and transport steel bands while covered in Christmas lights whenever required and generally keeping busy along with the Maintenance Team.
Boats like cars, motorbikes, chainsaws and people are all different. I haven’t come up with a name yet…the black ‘stealth’ paint scheme make her look a little menacing and very different to my old green one, we’ll have to get to know each other over the next few weeks.
(Thanks to Steve and his volunteers for the paint job and delivery and Paul for the building)