Feeling Christmassy

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....

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!

…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!

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.


Funny jobs for frosty days

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!

Family tree

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. 

New ‘company car’…. River style

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 ┬áland 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)

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….