Caught by the River

Notes From the Lockside

13th July 2012

From Virginia Astley

I am spending the summer as a lock keeper’s assistant on the Thames. In the past this post may have involved cooking the lock keeper’s breakfast or ironing his shirts but my lock keeper is a very reasonable chap who makes me tea and tries his best to explain the black art of weir-keeping. Last week a man was wandering round the lock taking photos in the rain. He sounded Australian but seemed to know a great deal about the old river tugs. We got talking and he invited me to the pub at lunchtime and shared his memories of the river. His name was David and although he had emigrated to Australia nearly fifty years ago he had been born upriver at Shifford lock some thirty years before and his grandfather, also David, was the first lock keeper there, had opened the lock.Theirs was a river family and many of his uncles had also been lock keepers or boatmen. ‘My grandfather could punt across any river in any flow’ he told me as we looked out at the river with the white water tumbling over the weirs. The river had gone onto red boards – essentially this means to moor up as navigation is too dangerous when the current is so fast.

David told me how they used to eat everything: pigeon, rabbit, pike and eel. They had no well but drank the river water after straining it through gravel and charcoal. He remembers walking across the river when it was frozen. He tells of the dredger bringing up a Roman sword, now displayed in the Ashmolean.The flow has settled this week and we have had some wooden launches coming up river after Henley Regatta. Yesterday the Oxford team’s umpire launch came through, and The Devon Belle – one of the Dunkirk little ships- has been up. The last couple of days I have been based at the next lock down; there is a cormorant out fishing in the weir pool and the lock keeper is non too happy. He is a fisherman himself and explains what a threat the cormorant increase is to the fish stock. The coots nest is now uninhabited but there are no baby coots to be seen, we think the heron or pike got them. It’s bird-eat-fish-eat-bird out on the river.