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  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)


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.

A loss in the family


When you get the call you just drop everything and go. 

I might not know all Trust properties intimately but working here makes you part of a family and when one of you is in trouble you know you have to do what (little) you can. The River Wey team were just some of the staff from all over the region who joined the emergency services when a fire struck Clandon Park yesterday. As part of the salvage team we were able to help get some of the irreplaceable furniture and paintings to safety but unfortunately much was also lost. It is heartbreaking to see a much loved and important building reduced to a shell but obviously that loss is felt so much more by those who live, work and have loved the place for so long. Whatever you do it never seems enough.

It is a tribute to the place and the organisation that as I was leaving after 1 a.m another property team was arriving having travelled an hour to get there and ready to get stuck in.



Wild timing

This was going to be a post about finally finishing painting my 3 lock sides ( which I now have … Hooray! ) As you can see the lovely new white lines aren’t the main thing you see when you look at the picture I’ve just taken.

Following weeks of early starts, late finishes and lots of hard work to spruce up my locks for spring, the last splosh of paint hadn’t even dried before the local wildlife decided things were looking a bit too tidy. The mole hill started off as a tiny bump but has been growing throughout the day. The scuff marks you can see on this side of the river are from a badger’s search for worms, insects and leatherjackets ( the cranefly grubs not 1970s cop show attire ). 

While I can’t lie, I am slightly annoyed by the impeccable timing,  it’s great to know that I’m sharing my bit of river with some beautiful creatures. I’m hoping it also means that there are some mole pups and badger cubs being well sheltered and fed by their (clearly) active parents nearby. In the last few days as well as the evidence of badgers and moles I’ve seen. weasel casually crossing the path, rabbits enjoying the lock side grass, roe deer giving me ( and my dog ) a distainful look, foxes and squirrels in abundance  and something else small and fluffy has definitely found my bird food stash! While I appreciate that I’m very lucky where I live, I can guarantee that wherever you are you are sharing your space with more than you realise, if you only take time to look and read the signs.


Searching for Spring and springing a leak


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.

I know I should have grown out of it but..



… being the first set of footprints in the snow is still a joyful thing. It was a particular surprise today when I woke up at 4.30 to check the water levels, as the forecast had led me to believe that we were just due a bit of drizzle overnight. Growing up in Dorset I think makes you even more appreciative and inclined to get up at silly-o’clock to make the most of what you know is likely to be a fleeting visitor. I can’t claim to be the earliest riser on the Navigation as the Maintenance Team had already been at work for about an hour by the time my camera and I ventured outside. That said, at half past seven the 2 swans, 7 mallards, 1 wren and I had my bit of the river to ourselves. As the snow was still falling there weren’t any tracks to give away who else was around. I was heartened to see a bit later another 40-something, clearly old enough to know better, off out with a toboggan and no children. Some things you should never grow out of.