Elizabeth Rogers meets two carpenters who have worked together for more than 30 years after joining the Environment Agency as apprentices in 1985.
WHILE personnel such as lock keepers are the public face, having contact with boaters on a daily basis, behind the scenes are the teams whose craftsmanship ensures the smooth working of the locks and other structures on the river.
In the operations team that covers the Upper Thames, from St John’s Lock at Lechlade to Whitchurch, are its carpenters. Richard Wicks and Michael Yearwood are responsible for fabricating and maintaining everything involving timber along these stretches and sometimes also farther afield.
Both began their careers as Environment Agency apprentices following a course in carpentry and joinery at Reading Technical College for five years while also gaining practical experience.
This is the work that they had always wanted to do. “My first thought had been to go into carpentry and to have been able to do so working on the river has been a bonus,” said Michael. “All the sites where we work are attractive, and even after all this time I am still finding out new things.”
Richard already had a background that involved life on the river. “My parents had a boat, which was moored at the bottom of our garden, and I have been boating for as long as I can remember,” he said.
“The river becomes part of you. Wherever I visit I want to go and see the water there. It is the first thing I like to look at.”
Michael and Richard were both brought up in Reading and attended the same school. Being a year apart in age they had not known each other well there, but soon recognised one another when they first met up on the course.
The winter months are particularly busy ones for the operations team, for that is when a great deal of maintenance work is carried out, when the river is free of most of its traffic.
Each year the Environment Agency has an ongoing works programme. Investigations identify the need for repairs to structures such as lock chambers, the appearance of wear on the rubbing timbers that protect from impact by boats and to inspect the condition of the concrete.
Any repairs and refurbishments are programmed during this quiet period, Richard and Michael dealing with anything involving timber. This winter’s programme includes removing, refurbishing and replacing the four lock gates at Kings Lock, on the outskirts of Oxford.
The carpenters, with other members of the operations team, work at the agency’s depot at Osney, on the city’s western outskirts. It is a nine-strong team that also includes construction staff, electricians and crane drivers.
A lock which has recently received maintenance is Grafton, between Lechlade and Faringdon. “We build the gates and fit them outside at the location,” explained Michael. “That is part of the job that I enjoy, doing a piece of work from start to finish. Seeing it right through makes it a really enjoyable experience.”
A structure which the pair have not only seen right through but have gone back to, in order to keep it fully refurbished, is Old Man’s Bridge, a few miles downstream from Grafton, on the way to Rushey Lock.
Twenty-three years ago they built the footbridge that spans the river there, and they recently went over to carry out a few repairs.
Such sites may be away from easy access by roads, so the carpenters and other members of the team often need to travel by boat to reach them.
Michael and Richard remember useful experience during their apprenticeships, when they helped the boatbuilders who looked after the agency’s own boats. They can be called upon to use their skills in many
Emergency situations involve everybody being ready to help out where needed and in incidences of flooding the carpenters become involved, helping to erect barriers and with whatever else the situation requires.
There may be damage to a footbridge or other structure at other sites that needs emergency repairs because of safety risks. These may not be on the team’s own stretch but they may be called on wherever there is a need for their skills, such as helping to construct a fish pass on a stream near Watlington.
There have also been times when their expertise has been called upon from the River Lea, where contractors were having difficulty in fitting the tailgates of a lock. Michael and Richard helped to solve the problem.
“We have also had occasions when we went down to the south coast to deal with flood water,” Michael remembers.
From the historic to the most modern, there are timber elements to structures. The paddle and rhymer weirs have been replaced at some locks by the lighter, easier to handle, glass fibre equivalents, but at smaller locks such as Iffley, on the outskirts of Oxford, and Rushey, near Faringdon, some if not all the timber elements are still in use.
A recent task included repair work on the historic bridge at Hurley, near Marlow, large enough for horses and possibly carts to cross.
When building anything new they work from solid blocks of raw timber, of traditional hardwood, from which they create structures that are made to measure perfectly.
Has the work changed over the past 31 years? “It is much the same,” says Richard. “Even when we make the lock gates we make them in exactly the same way and in the same detail as we have done since we started.
“Some of the tools are a little easier to use. Power tools make a lot of things easier. But we deal with all the same things, and go out to many of the same kind of incidents.”
James Spicer, Michael and Richard’s team leader at Osney, and his Environment Agency colleagues agree that the contribution they both make to keep the river management systems working smoothly is immense.
For when timber structures need repair or refurbishment, who better to turn to than the people who made them in the first place?