Elizabeth Rogers met non-tidal River Thames harbourmaster Andrew Graham and his successor Barry Russell before Andrew’s retirement.
AS THE River Thames waterways operations managers, known as harbourmasters, ensure a seamless flow for the users of its water, so too has been the phasing of the change of the personnel who undertake this role.
Andrew Graham, who retired in August, was joined by his successor Barry Russell several weeks in advance so that Barry could become fully knowledgeable of the many aspects of his new position before the handover.
Having spent the whole of his career working in various spheres of environmental management, Andrew started off by gaining a degree in environmental science. His first appointment was as a countryside ranger in widespread locations throughout the country.
“I have always been involved in outdoor activities,” he said, “it is very varied work – and you get to know the seasons all right as it is all year round, not limited to just spring and summer.”
His first role with a waterways environment was when he joined the then National Rivers Authority, forerunner of the Environment Agency, as recreation officer, based in Reading.
“I was dealing with water-related recreational activities, on the River Thames and other places closely around. It included working with the recreation departments of local authorities,” he related.
“There was a grant-making fund, a small grant scheme to which people could apply for funding for activities. One that was supported was the Bruce Trust, which provides boats for people with disabilities, enabling them to enjoy being out on the water.”
In 2000 Andrew returned to the Environment Agency’s head office in Reading, to roles that included becoming operations manager for the Upper Thames. In 2014 he took charge of the whole length of the river.
“Things have changed a great deal since I first joined the water authorities in the 1990s,” he said. “But the principles are still the same, the basic management, the management of water levels, the operation of locks and the provision of other essential services.
“We have to ensure that at the locks there is enough power for boaters to operate the gates when the lock keepers have gone off duty for the day. These aspects remain the same, but the changes have been very considerable in the aspects of the office management.”
Flooding was an issue into which he and the Environment Agency staff were very much drawn in July 2007 when torrential rain particularly affected the Oxford area, on the Upper Thames.
“This was a time of the year when there was a lot of boats on the river. Some people had to be rescued, or supplied with food and water. Some of our lock keepers were marooned and had to be kept supplied. We had to move people in the Osney area of Oxford, and further downstream in Mapledurham and Henley, out their homes.”
Droughts bring different problems, and Andrew pointed out the necessity of ensuring that supplies for water extraction are maintained, that the wildlife is not affected, and that navigation can continue.
On a lighter note, he has many memories of unusual and sometimes amusing incidents including the mistaken identification of wildlife.
There was a report of ‘There’s a mongoose on my lawn’ that he recalls – the mongoose was in fact a squirrel. More genuine were the reports of a capybara, probably an escapee from a private collection, that was sighted in a variety of locations but never reported as found or recaptured.
This year has bought more than one change in Andrew’s life, as he has recently got married and he and his wife have been looking for a new home into which to move.
On the day that we spoke, Barry Russell had just been flown back from Ascension Island by the RAF – not on Environment Agency business but in his role as a member of the Territorial Army Reserve, in which he serves as a Major commanding some 30-35 reservist soldiers.
“We get sent all over the world on engineering consultation matters, such as those relating to water supplies, bore-holes,” he explained.
Barry is a graduate chartered engineer who joined the Environment Agency in 1996. “I went through the various processes of training and progressed through various posts with the agency,” he said.
Like Andrew he became operations manager for the Upper Thames from Lechlade to Reading, starting in 2012 before being appointed to his new role with responsibility for the whole length of the river.
He too has been involved in dealing with the flooding issues that have arisen, not only those of 2007 but those more recently in 2013 when the Oxford area once again bore the brunt of many of the effects.
These events have led to the proposal for and now positive progress with planning of a relief channel to divert flood waters away from the city.
“We have been working with Oxford City Council on a £120 million scheme to protect Oxford. Work has already been going on to carry out site investigations, but the channel is not likely to be dug for at least a couple of years.”
Barry too sees the lighter side of his work. One such incident was while he was out with a patrol-boat during the Henley Music Festival and found its progress blocked by the large gathering watching a performance by Sir Elton John.
“But it was all in good spirit, and there were no incidents. Everybody was enjoying themselves,” he said.
Away from work, he has a busy family life; he and his wife have three children. Although lacking the time nowadays to be much out on the water just for pleasure, he says that he was a member of the Royal Yachting Association when he was younger.
As they were preparing for their handover, Andrew reflected on the future for waterways management. “There is a continuing pressure on funding. The public sector is under pressure all over,” he concluded. “But we continue to do what we can, to provide the best service and maintain our high standards of management.”