Seasonal notes from Robert Craig, St. Catherine’s Lengthsman, River Wey Navigations

It is always enjoyable watching the transition from winter to spring on the river. I keep a look out during the first three months of the New Year for indicators, such as particular flowers, that herald the beginning of the new season. This was harder this year, given that the earlier mild weather kept plants such as meadowsweet on the river bank, primroses along the Railway Line Walk and gorse in the meadows in flower as late as December. Despite these unseasonal appearances, Lady’s Smock (or Cuckoo Flower) has appeared on time, telling me that summer isn’t too far away.

The beginning of spring brings some respite from a key part of my role as a Lengthsman for the National Trust – maintaining a navigable water level by opening or closing weir gates. With it being a wet month, January was spent mainly focusing on my weir keeping duties with some sixty-nine separate adjustments made. I don’t just operate the weirs, but also have to keep the weirs clear of debris. With the tail end of storms passing over the south of England, there has been plenty to clear, the most challenging of which were four large Alder trees. Clearing them was achieved by employing various techniques learnt over time using ropes, a polesaw and a long handled drag rake, whilst opening and closing the weir gates. Having floated the trees round to the front of the cottage, I was fortunate enough to have the help of our floating excavator, which was working at St. Catherine’s lock, to lift them out ready for me to cut them up (see above).

In between my weir keeping duties, the last few months have also been the time to finish any hedge cutting and vegetation clearance prior to the nesting season getting into full swing. With this in mind I have been working at various locations along my length of the navigation, mainly at Stonebridge Wharf. Beside the moorings at Gun’s Mouth, Stonebridge, there was a lot of encroaching vegetation to clear, mainly bramble. For some of the work I have been fortunate to have the help of the Wey Navigation Conservation Volunteers; it really has been the case that many hands make light work.

Around St. Catherine’s there is plenty to see at the moment if you like birdwatching ahead of the nesting season. There are the regulars now such as the Common Buzzards, which can be seen soaring over the meadows daily, and the Barn Owls quartering the meadows at dusk in search of prey. I am also starting to see Chiff Chaffs with their onomatopoeic call, not the indicator of spring they once were as numbers of them now choose to overwinter in this country. On the seasonal ponds in the meadows there are good numbers of Teal, Shovelers, Mandarin, Grey Heron and Little Egret as well as Moorhen, Coot, and Waterail. Atop the grasses there are handsome Stonechats and Reed Buntings to be seen, plus, if you’re lucky, the occasional Red Kite passing high overhead.

As I look ahead to the spring and the main boating season, jobs such as painting the locks and bridges are a priority. This can be tricky with the increased number of boats using the locks and having to work around the weather with the showers we get at this time of year. I recently had the most perfect day for painting that I can recall – sunny, dry and not windy. By the end of the day I had managed to paint the whole of St. Catherine’s lock. I hope to see you out enjoying the river during the finer weather in the coming months.