CRUISING the length of the Basingstoke Canal, as we did a couple of weeks ago, takes me back to my early years of boating in the 70s and 80s.
There are shallow patches, sudden faults affect the gates and paddles and there is a slight atmosphere of pioneering about the whole thing. What is different is that when you phone up because of a problem a Ranger appears promptly and sorts it out, doing what ever is necessary himself, without having to wait for a 'contractor'.
What's more they are not obliged to wear lifejackets—they have them available but it is up to them whether they wear them or not. Funny how different organisations interpret health and safety differently. Generally, it was a very pleasant trip and more people should try it—the access arrangements are more generous than they used to be and more visitors would be welcome—so far there have only been about 30 this year.
The only serious thing to look out for is some very low bridges on the top pound, which are not obviously marked and could cause serious strife if you have much on your roof. Apparently the level of the top pound can vary by as much as a foot, which is probably why I don't remember the bridges from our previous trip.
Disappearing lock keepers
Back on the Thames the whole lock keeper system seems to have fallen into disarray. Until recently you could rely at this time of year on every lock being staffed by a full time lock keeper or relief, plus a paid 'summer assistant'. As a result the lunch and tea breaks were covered and you knew that someone would always be there from 9am until close.
Not any more. There seem to be no paid assistants and they are dependant for help on volunteers, who are fine when they are there, but cannot be relied upon in the same way as paid staff. As a result, locks can be found on 'self service' at any time—this included Chertsey on a fine July Sunday afternoon. I don't mind operating the locks myself, but when there are several boats in the lock and some of the crews are not obviously competent, or even sober, who is responsible in the event of an accident? I raised this with one lock keeper, who said: "I don't know; we'll find out when there is an accident."
The worst problem occurred at Marlow. When we arrived there was a queue and two boats were stuck in the lock because the 'public power' had failed. They had phoned the emergency number and the lock keeper eventually appeared. He and his volunteer assistant had been on their lunch break together, because the assistant was not qualified to work the lock unsupervised.
We then had a demonstration of what problems can arise when a descending boat caught on the 'knuckle' in the side of the lock and the keeper had to do a quick stop of the sluices to prevent major damage. Yet this lock is considered safe for members of the public to operate, although the public power panel does not have a 'crash button' in the way that CaRT locks in the north-east do.
This sorry saga continued at the next lock, Temple, also unattended, where the public power again failed with boats in the lock. Another emergency phone call produced a volunteer lock keeper from the next lock, Hurley, who said he was in charge of both them that day because of staff shortages. It is quite clear that the Environment Agency is cutting too many corners and there is going to be a serious accident in a Thames lock before very long, unless it gets its act together.
Another thing that seems to have disappeared from the Thames in recent years is dredging. There were some bad spots last time we came this way, but it has definitely got worse with more and more buoys appearing to warn of shoals, some of them stretching as far as the middle of the river. There was a classic set below Abingdon Lock (see picture) and the lock keeper was fed up with having to do weir work simply to get boats off who had ignored the warnings—hence the notice.
An enduring mystery
Last time we came up the Thames we saw attached to Sonning Bridge what appeared to be a GPO post box.
This strange occurrence was even reported in the national press. This time the same or a similar one has appeared on the Great Wall of Tilehurst, which supports the GWR west of Reading. So far the national media have not picked it up, but they have had other things on their mind. The picture also shows the new masts for the electrification of the line, about which there have been protests at their appearance. I can only agree; they seem to have been deliberately designed to be as ugly as possible.