Things you never thought you’d be able to say…

I spent Saturday evening on a boat with a steel band, covered in Christmas lights cruising through central Guildford in the dark.

I think I am one of only a very few people who are able to say that. Maybe I should explain. Last weekend saw an illuminated boat pageant rounding off the Wey River Festival at Dapdune Wharf and the Croydon Steel Orchestra were the stars of the show. If you ever have a chance to catch one of their performances I highly recommend it, they are fabulous. They had been performing to the earlier crowds on one of our workboats that had been expertly converted to a floating bandstand by our talented Maintenance Team just for the occasion. As the evening wore on, we headed to Millmead Lock in the heart of Guildford in order to turn round and set the boats in order for the illuminated procession back to  Dapdune Wharf. The unsuspecting final shoppers and early drinkers were treated to a floating concert while we waited for it to get dark so we could twinkle our way back through the town. 


Another unusual statement…

You haven’t lived ’til you’ve heard Bonnie Tyler and Michael Jackson played on the steel drums.

When the light level was low enough for our procession to gain maximum impact, Steve and the other skippers slowly chugged back under bridges full of people and a towpath full of spectators and followers. The bridges provided even better acoustics than the trees and buildings and we even had some happy bats following us along.

It was a fantastic end to a festival of boats, stalls, activities, food and thankfully sunshine for another year. Another highlight I’m told was the human fruit machine (I’m afraid I missed it as the Rugby was calling). My husband spent the day dressed as a monk. He and 2 other ‘willing volunteers’ provided much amusement and raised a good deal of money for charity with their antics.

Hopefully next year will be bigger and better.

Last night I was adjusting the weirs in my pyjamas and wellies… but that is another story.


Catching hornets

 It might not exactly have been the plan on what should have been my ‘Meet a Moth’ morning, but it wasn’t exactly unexpected either.

The last couple of moth traps I’ve set have seen more hornets than moths finding their way in. For that reason I’d decided that having members of the public join me to open the box and see what I’d caught before releasing them might not be the best idea. And it’s just as well. This morning this spectacular specimen was just one of over 30 hornets that had spent the night in my trap getting very grumpy. Whilst the particular types of light bulb used in moth traps are great for attracting many species of moth,  wasps, hornets and all sorts of little biting insects also find them irresistible.  


I’d checked the box a couple of hours after dark to see if it was worth leaving the light on and there was hardly a moth is sight, but plenty of hornets. I decided at that point that in fairness to the moths, I should turn it off so they weren’t all drawn to the trap and the hoard of hungry hornets. Otherwise they would not so much be visiting moths to be studied and recorded as an all-you-can-eat buffet, and that just seems impolite. Last week lots of moths made it ’til morning but there was also quite a large pile of wings, the leftovers of what had clearly been a midnight snack.

If you love bugs as I do you, you have to appreciate and love all of them however sting-y or bite-y they might be. Don’t get me wrong I’m a big fan of hornets (even if I’ve been stung a couple of times recently) but I had hoped to provide a little more data to the national moth survey this weekend. Never mind. 

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Autumn ….

There was definitely a bit of a nip in the air this morning that makes you remember those back to school morning walks. This morning though instead of a backpack full of books and marmite and cheese sandwiches, it was a bin bag, litter picker and secateurs.

As you can probably imagine, litter picking is not always the most glamorous element of the Lengthsman life. (Although to be honest, glamour is lacking in pretty much all aspects of the job, thankfully!) I shan’t  spoil your lunch by detailing the nature of the finds, but needless to say a large portion is always dog-related but that is a people issue not a dog issue.

Litter picking is however always a great oportunity to chat to people and dogs that you just can’t get when you are attached to a strimmer or on the other end of a chainsaw. Today I got to meet a lovely bouncy boxer named Gertie, a newly rescued beautiful Staffy cross ( I might be a bit biased, I have one of those of my own at home ), a spaniel, 2 collies, 2 Labradors and their respective 2 legged families. Chatting to other people who love the river is always a joy and the dogs were clearly loving it too.


I certainly wouldn’t have spotted this Speckled Wood butterfly having breakfast if I was strimming.

 I might not have taken a minute to notice the beautiful view. I choose not to see the heavens above Newark Priory about to open but a pretty and dramatic sky that isn’t raining on me….. yet! In litter picking, as in life, you have to look for the positives….

Counting buttterflies because butterflies count (and so do moths)

One of the great joys of summer for me is the arrival of colourful butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies. We get fantastic numbers here. While Winnie the Pooh might consider that ‘nobody can be uncheered with a balloon’ ( and I agree with him whole-heartedly) for me the cheeriest thing has always been the sight of a butterfly, beetle, damselfly or moth on a sunny day.

With that in mind ‘Big Butterfly Count’ time of year is always one of my favourites. This is the 5th year that Butterfly Conservation have been running the programme and last year over 44,000 people took part and submitted their results. Hopefully this year there will be even more. Butterflies are a particularly good indicator of environmental decline or issues. Their short lifespans and fussy eating habits mean that any problems are quickly shown up in a reduction of numbers in particular species or groups of species.

In my busy days of often noisy pursuits, taking the time to spend 15 minutes counting butterflies quietly in the sunshine is a joy. Granted it was partway through a litter pick of mostly beer cans and filled doggy bags making me smell like a brewery, and worse, but taking the time to focus on the wildlife despite the mess we humans make can only cheer my day. Feel free to do the same, I thoroughly recommend it! The counting finishes this Sunday (9th August) but they give you plenty of time to submit your results which you can then take a look at online when all the data has been collated. You can go old school (-ish ) by printing the sheet from the website and input your results when you get home or download the free android or apple apps so you can complete the whole process on the go.

Poplar Hawk Moth visiting my trap

If you are a moth person ( or just a general bug-hugger like me ) you are very welcome to join me on Sunday September the 13th to see what my trap has attracted overnight. Counting moths on national Moth Night is obviously a little more involved than counting butterflies in a field in broad daylight, but my home-made Skinner trap usually gets good results ( weather permitting ) and I can pretty much guarantee that you will be surprised what turns up. Moth trapping provides a fascinating insight into what goes on in your gardens in the middle of the night and the visitors you get that you probably never see. Poplar Hawk moths, like the one in the picture, are regular visitors and one of the most spectacular with a wingspan of over 7cm. If you fancy coming along just give the office at Dapdune a call to book your place ( 01483 561389 ) so I know how many cups of tea and slices of cake I need to prepare. I think  we are asking for a donation of a couple of pounds  to cover baking supplies but they can fill you in on the logistics when you call. The more the merrier!

The aliens have landed

Summers by the river brings many fabulous things, but also some unwanted floral visitors. There are several alien invasive species that we have to battle. They were brought to this country for their decorative properties and have been causing havoc almost ever since.

Floating Pennywort is a water plant that you could buy from British garden centres until depressingly recently to cheer up your garden ponds. It has now made the move to wild watercourses and made itself very much at home, and is taking over. The problem is it likes it too much. Just one small sprig or even leaf can soon proliferate into a huge dense mat that shades and smothers everything else.

Pennywort Newark

Another of our alien invaders is Himalayan Balsam. It was brought over from the Americas in the 1830s and was much prized for its beautiful pink flowers. The problem is that the explosive seed pods, when ripe, can catapult 1500 seeds over 7 metres. As you can imagine, the odd plant soon becomes a dense, rapidly expanding patch and it can colonise areas downstream of the original plant very quickly. A single plant can grow over 2 metres high and once they have taken hold, all native vegetation is shaded out and over-run.


While that might all seem like doom and gloom, and the presence of both can be a serious problem, the solutions are happily low-tech and chemical-free.

If you get to it early enough, Floating Pennywort can be removed with wellies and a 3 pronged cultivator. The trick (as I’ve found through a great deal of trial and error) is to get a good hold on the raft of weed and pull gently. If you are too vigorous or  impatient you will invariably find you separate a small portion from the main raft and spread the problem. If you loosen things enough, some will float away and start a new colony somewhere else. If you take it slowly however, you are usually able to coax the whole raft to the bank. Rather than transport it, and potentially cause a whole new problem somewhere else, it is best to let it sit out on the bank in the sun where it soon dries out and dies quietly in a corner.

With Himalayan Balsam the best tool is person-power … as much of it as you can muster, cajole or bribe into service. I was lucky enough this week to have a dozen or so volunteers to help me clear a couple of sizeable patches for the price of an ice lolly and a beer. In my book that is fantastic value for money, if I was on my own I’d still be there now! It is a very fleshy plant that spends all its energy creating height (and the best chance to distribute its seeds), not roots. That means that individual or small groups of plants are fairly easy to pull up, roots and all, there are just soooo many of them. Again a day or two in the sun sees them wither into a mass of innocuous dry leaves. The seeds only remain viable for a couple of years usually, so a couple of brave seasons of Balsam bashing can see pretty good results.

Even if you think you have ‘won’, I’m afraid that vigilance is the key with both of these and complacency is not an option. The fight goes on.

Commuting and traffic jams down by the river


Lots of things in the life of a Lengthsman are a little unusual, although after a while they become normal. Commuting with a wheelbarrow is one of those things. You take it a little for granted that if you are going to a site over half a mile away and you are going to need bitumen, brushes, gloves and a sandwich for later, the way to do it is with a wheelbarrow. Sometimes a punt also works as company ‘cars’ here are boat-shaped. It’s only the confused looks and comments from walkers and dogs (the latter tend only to look, not comment) that makes you realise that river normal might not quite be rest-of-the-world normal. Having survived a daily commute for many years in a van down the M1 to North London from Hertfordshire in my previous life, I can only confirm that ‘normal’ is over-rated. Bumping a heavy wheelbarrow down a towpath dodging the unpleasentnesses left by cows for half an hour might be a little physical at 7.30 in the morning but I know which I prefer.

Traffic jams here are a little unusual too. Those of you who aren’t canal boat regulars might not know that big heavy oak lock gates can be lifted out of position by careless boaters and they are from time to time. That means that nobody can go up or downstream through that lock until it is fixed, causing a traffic jam. If a boat going upstream is too far forward in the lock chamber when they fill it, the stem of the boat can catch under the gate and lift it off its ‘hinges’. Another thing that passes for normal here is that with the right low-tech kit a girl (or boy), a wheelbarrow and a willing volunteer can fix the problem (if the lock-gate gods are willing) in about 10 minutes. It shocks the crowd every time. So much so that the last time I did it a couple of weeks ago one of the boaters recorded the event for posterity lest he not be believed. Here on the river though for a Lengthsman it’s just another normal day at the office.

Newark gate crop (c) jon sims

(c) Jon Sims

Blink and you’ll miss it…

Pyrford Lock with the Bank Holiday sun trying to come out

Pyrford Lock with the Bank Holiday sun trying to come out

With the grass growing at such a furious pace, I sometimes feel the need to step back and remember how good it looks when it’s been cut. However briefly. Like today.

With Pyrford Lock being one of the busiest on the Navigation (it’s right next to a busy pub and on a popular dog walking route) you have to get up pretty early to get the mower, edging iron and strimmer working to not get in the way. With the lock being a popular spot for boaters, gongoozlers, picnics, bikes and dogs, however hard I try I always seem to disturb someone’s peace. On a day like this, with an ‘office’ like this a little bit less time in bed in the morning is really not a hardship and believe me I know how lucky I am.