All aboard for all sorts

Removing fallen trees, repairing canal banks and fixing bridges: every day is different for the crew of Hertford, the Canal & River Trust’s work boat on the rivers Lea and Stort.

A person operating a digger in a section of canal surrounded by houses.

Photos by Julian Anderson

Words by Peter Watts

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As the three-person Canal & River Trust operation team pootle along the upper Lea aboard their royal blue working boat Hertford, it’s easy to see what apprentice Harvey Evenett means when he says he sometimes forgets this is meant to be work.

The ops team spend every day on the Lea doing maintenance jobs and emergency repairs – a never-ending roll call of fallen trees, overhanging branches, floating debris, collapsing riverbanks and infrastructure eroded by water and time – and the location is one of the things that makes their work so unusual.

Being close to water, even when at work, feels good for the heart and soul, and Evenett relishes the days he spends clearing litter from the towpath with volunteers. Today, it’s a clear, crisp afternoon in early spring and as the boat passes through the pretty town of Ware, the buds are starting to show. Swans, coots and moorhens busy about, preparing nests for impending parenthood. Few workplaces can be quite so idyllic.

“You are outside all the time,” says veteran skipper Richard Sales, when asked what he enjoys about his work. “I like the variety of jobs we do. You have to be able to do tree work, bank repair, litter picking, bridge repairs – all sorts. You are never stuck on one thing for a long time, so never have time to get bored. It can be horrible in the winter but you get to see the seasons come and go, and when the trees start to green you know you have the warm months ahead of you.”

The calm is broken when Sales spots a flotilla of errant wood on the offside. We’re just north of Ware, at a point where a series of studio-like summer houses lean over the river, almost kissing the mirroring coolness like a medieval snicket. Tangled clumps of timber have gathered, a mass of messy branches blown down in recent storms entwined with more formal planks of wood that once shored up the riverbank but have since broken loose.

Sales and Evenett’s colleague George Baker takes control of the boat, and adroitly keeps Hertford steady while Sales climbs into a crane mounted at the bow. Soon he’s removing huge pieces of wood, far larger than they appear from the surface. The wood will be stored in the hull until it can be used to create animal habitats along the riverside.

Sales has spotted both water vole and otter during his years on the Lea and Stort, another perk of the job. He’s worked for the Trust for 44 years, having started as an apprentice when the Lea still carried commercial traffic and needed a “top gang” and “bottom gang” of carpenters covering designated patches above and below Enfield. Now there is a single team for the whole river, and the work is broad in range but tends to focus on smaller fixes like daily housekeeping. Bigger jobs are undertaken by specialist contractors.

Hertford, their boat, is also a veteran. It’s an ungainly craft with two covered areas – a small back cabin, warmed by a diesel stove and perennially boiling kettle, and a larger area crammed with an exciting melange of weathered tools, scattered on shelves and workbenches. This opens directly onto a large hollowed deck, which contains debris hauled from the river and a small crane. The bow is square and flat, so Hertford looks like a hybrid of pontoon and floating tool shed. It’s not pretty, and the drone of the engine isn’t easy to love, but it’s perfect for the job.

The operation team is managed by Sandile Mthyiane. He explains how a team of length inspectors patrol the towpath by foot, noting work that needs attending to. Their observations are fed into a database, and Mthyiane sends the team out where they are needed. Next week they’ll be in Hertford but this week the focus is a bridge at Tumbling Bay, a large weir below Ware. The original plan was to fix a few broken planks but further investigation has revealed that much of the bridge’s floor is rotten. The team will spend several days constructing a new one from hardwood, a bigger job than the team usually deals with. Sales enjoys the variety of tasks his job involves, but admits he’s relishing the chance to get stuck into a longer-lasting project.

George Baker joined the operations team four months previously. He discovered the work can be arduous during winter months and is looking forward to the change in season. He’s an angler who grew up on the Lea in Broxbourne, catching his first fish in a stretch known as Kings Weir. He knows the river as only an angler can, seeing beneath the surface and recognising locations from the successes or failures he’s experienced there. As he steers, he keeps an eye open for new fishing spots while he marvels at the catfish, eel and carp that thrive in these waters. Baker has already been on a helmsman course, and handles the ungainly Hertford with confidence.

Apprentice Evenett still has his helmsman training to come. It’s one of many skills he will learn during his apprenticeship. “When I saw the apprenticeship advertised, it looked like something you could get a lot out of,” says Evenett. “I didn’t really know the river, but I am looking forward to learning more. I live in Enfield and it feels so different out here. I’m really enjoying the work.” And with that, the team head back to the bridge at Tumbling Bay to continue their never-ending project to maintain the Lea for all who use her.

We recognise that traditional canal skills are necessary to continue the vitally important work that we undertake on our canals. Our apprenticeship programmes help us to preserve these skills and to offer local training and employment opportunities to the next generation. Read more about our apprenticeships on our website.

Posted on 28/02/2020