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Our work: locks, weirs and lengthspeople

Lengthsman using chain saw to remove falled tree
Lengthsman, Emma and volunteer Jason clearing overhanging branches | © National Trust/Richard Cant

The waterway is probably one of the more complex bits of land and water that the National Trust owns and cares for. It is 20 miles in length but the average width is only about 20 metres. That gives us a boundary of over 40 miles running through countryside and urban areas, with something like 2000 neighbours to communicate with.

Set of cogs at Walsham weir on the river Wey
Set of cogs at Walsham weir on the river Wey | © National Trust/John Miller

Locks and weirs

Locks exist to allow boats to move up and down the waterway. Boaters are able to operate the locks themselves. Weirs are used to control the level of water in the Navigations.

When it rains, water drains into the river and makes the water level rise. If the water rises too much, it will overflow the banks, and cause flooding. When there is too much water in the river, opening the weir gates lets the water out and the water level drops. This needs to be done gradually so that the length of river below the weir does not flood.

There were 13 original sets of weirs or tumble bays built along the Navigations, and in the 1930s 15 new sets of flood relief weirs were installed to improve water management. Most of these are owned or operated by other bodies, the National Trust owns five weirs. If the weirs are opened as a chain reaction, the water in the river should stay level. This is one of the duties of the National Trust’s team of lengthspeople.

What is a lengthsperson?

This is a question frequently asked by visitors to the River Wey Navigations. There are six National Trust lengthspeople, who live along the river, often in the original lock keepers’ cottages.

They are responsible for the day-to-day running and management of a three to five mile length of the navigation. This includes the river, the towpath and any structures such as locks, weirs or bridges.

Because they live on site and are familiar with their length of the river, they develop a wide knowledge of the flora and fauna on the river as well as the history of their length.

What does a lengthsperson do?

The answer to this depends very much on the time of year. During the winter, managing water levels by operating weirs can take up most of their working hours and beyond - water doesn't stop rising or falling during the night. The team may be up all night checking and making weir movements.

In spring, the bankside vegetation starts growing, so strimming is in order, and the structures need painting. Later on a full force battle against vegetation takes place as the team successfully maintain a path for visitors to enjoy the river and for boaters to moor up. This used to happen automatically by the constant brushing of horse ropes against the towpath as they towed the barges.

Late summer or autumn storms will often bring down trees which block the waterway and lengthspeople need to remove them if they fall from National Trust land or arrange this with neighbours if the tree belongs to them. Protecting the waterway from invasive species, such as floating pennywort, himalayan balsam and signal crayfish is also high on the agenda.

One of the best ways to understand what the team does is to browse Emma, National Trust lengthsman’s, blog which is full of detail and pictures which show what it is like to work along the Navigations.

The water

The National Trust owns the river bed and much of the towpath. To help protect the Navigations, the National Trust works closely with others, including English Nature, the Surrey Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency have responsibility for the water and within their remit fall water quality and flood alieviation. We work with them on projects such as fish passes.

Lengthsman Emma in punt, clearing overhanging branches
Lengthsman, Emma and volunteer, Jason, in punt, clearing overhanging branches | © National Trust/Sarah Crawcour

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Puffin on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

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