Volunteer profile: Canal Lengthsman

A Lengthsman’s Life

Cooling off….

A Lengthman’s life is varied and interesting. Not only do you learn to appreciate your little bit of the canal, there can be a gratifying sense of actually doing something about the maintenance of the canal and its environs.  I combine my lengthsman’s duties with walking my Springer Spaniel Poppy; she’s now 18 months old, mad as a box of frogs, and has in the last couple of months learned how to swim.

My length runs from marker 31.5 to marker 33. While it is only 1.5 km in length it encompasses both a rural stretch with open countryside on both sides, and an urban stretch through the east of Fleet.  So most mornings and evenings I’ll amble down the canal with the hound, keeping a weather eye open for issues and picking any litter. The dog if very good at finding and retrieving cans from the undergrowth but not so good at giving them to me – bribes are involved! One important aspect of the role is social – I’ve met lots of other dog and recreational walkers since getting Poppy (and our previous spaniel) and they are a useful source of information if there are any issues. Otherwise its just keeping an eye on things and calling in anything of concern. Of course at the moment we are all maintaining social distancing as well which makes for some interesting dancing around at the narrower parts of the towpath. 

To be honest while a lengthsman needs to keep his or her eyes open there is usually very little to report – while the canal up here is fairly busy, the canal users are mainly well behaved and pleasant. However, recently we had an example of rather stupid behaviour. Down between Norris and Pondtail Bridges  there was a stack of six or so large logs, the result of the felling of a large Leylandii tree. These had been placed against the fence by the tow path, to encourage the wildlife. They were not small, being sections of the trunk at least 1m long and about the same in diameter so probably weighing in the region of half a ton each. Having walked my length one Monday evening, on the following morning’s walk I was surprised to see three were no longer in position. Further looking found that someone had rolled them into the canal, with scant regard for the towpath side vegetation. Two were afloat close in the towpath, the third had floated across the canal and seemed to be snagged in the brush on the other side, and was doing a passable impression of a Hippo wallowing in the water. Presumably this was the result of some drunken idiots larking about the previous night, but while being an impressive example of the strength and ingenuity of people under the power of beer, this act of unwarranted and mindless vandalism not only represented a significant danger to boats but also set up a number of logistical challenges to the canals limited resources. Once I got home I emailed Cheryl, the Lengthsman co-ordinator and she told Mike back at Canal HQ, who arranged for the Patrol Boat to take a look.

Job done

Thursday lunchtime saw Poppy and me on the towpath waving to Dave and Jan who were crewing the little boat. All the logs had by now bobbed across the canal and were semi grounded on the non towpath side, pretending to be a small herd of water buffalo. One look told Dave that we were not going to be able to lift them out of the water, so our only option was to tie them to the bank to stop them getting away and heading down to the Wey and freedom – although I don’t think they would have made it through the locks. A busy 45 minutes saw the logs firmly tethered to a tree, and the Patrol Boat pottered off having done a great and slightly tricky job – and no-one got wet. Apart from Poppy who got bored and decided to hop in the canal for a swim or three. So a slightly unusual event in the life of a Lengthsman, but one that underlines the importance of the role in helping to keep the canal safe and working. 

Matthew Vale