The Life Aquatic: Diary of an Amphibious Mammal

“The really important thing to remember about water is that it flows. If you’re lucky, it flows where you want it to”IMG_2098

This sentiment was expressed to me by an old, wiry looking farmer many years hence as I was wading my way through a blocked stream wielding a chainsaw with a view to undertaking some aquatic tree surgery.

A fallen Willow, horizontal across the stream following the recent storm. Certainly not dead, perhaps a little inconvenienced but angrily putting forth new growth regardless.

IMG_2164.JPGAgainst its trunk, the water lapped and bubbled. Dropping the occasional water bound fallen branch and an obscene number of plastic bags.

“That’s true” I replied as I was forcing my way through whippy branches and overhanging  blackberry tendrils all with a view to inflicting some form of harm or torment about my person, seemingly offended at my presence in the water.

“I think that people used to be more concerned with keeping waterways clear” I continued.

“Yeah,” the wiry farmer agreed.” That was back when water was useful. Nowadays, all we want to do is get it gone as fast as possible.”

This statement has come back to me many times during my career. As I have found myself dealing with numerous other flow blockages or silting problems.

Time was, our waterways were a part of our industry. Not just in terms of connectivity and movement of goods and materials, but also the water itself.

Time was, water was our fuel. And its flow was as important to our industry as oil is today.

Our management of this flow was undertaken as a necessity to keep the water wheels turning and the jets mining.

Later, as alternative fuels were adopted and as infrastructure grew, our use of water as a fuel began to wain. As a result of this, many of the management systems and the flow control systems which would have been continuously managed and repaired began to fall into disrepair and perhaps more importantly, the men and women who understood the intricacies of managing these systems were forgotten and their valuable knowledge was lost as time moved on.

Later, nature did what it does best.

It reclaimed.

But the might of British industry was tough and endured.

A battle ensued between the relics of the Industrial Age and the natural world and from this epic war of resilient iron and silent insidious roots some of our most treasured landscapes have grown.

When I was a boy I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the Vallis Vale, near Mells in Somerset. Once home to the vast mills and machinery of the Fussels Iron works.

Back then, a stalemate existed between Iron and root. The industry still held fast, defiant and structured. But root and leaf had begun their slow digestion and reclamation. IMG_2122

So existed a fairy-tale landscape of high stone arches, populated with strong young Ash trees and feathery fern fronds. Crumbling walls filled with seeded valerian, licking harts tongues and ancient spleenwort.

Water filled tunnels feeding rusted iron pipes, carpets of moss and saplings, and dark iron slag soils.

It was a strange place.

A place where water, land and man existed together in a somewhat tenuous balance.

Now, the scale has toppled. Much of the stonework has fallen under the weight of those, now older tree roots. The iron has all but turned to rust and the splendour of that balance has receded. The war is over, But above all it is the water that has proved victorious. It has flowed as it saw fit.

Cutting new channels and rivulets, toppling all in its path, be it steel, stone or tree.

It has consumed and retaken and it has done it all unabated and undiminished, safe in the knowledge that it can flow where so ever it chooses and there is nothing that anyone can do about it.IMG_2173.JPG

This week we have been working on a landscape such as this.

A beautiful Mill pond, set into a landscape of fallen industry and slow reclamation.

The mill pond itself was once a part of a wider network of sluiced channels and water level controls designed to maximise and regulate  the flow of the water to gain the maximum efficiency of output for industry.

There would have been one or two wheels mounted within narrow channels to act as engines, driving cogs and belts and grinding stones for milling wool or for wheat and other cereal crops.

Our purpose here is to remove and replace a sluice gate which has failed and has become dangerous.

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The gate itself is original, however the surround is not. The surround is old and now rotten oak and the rot has led to fractures in the timber which have channelled the water into tight flows which have subsequently eroded and damaged the masonry beneath to such an extent that the incredibly thick and solid walls of the mill pond bund are now leaking.

This project has presented many challenges to us. Not least of which being how do we actually work in this environment? In order to remove and replace the gate surround, we must first remove the gate. This is no easy task given the shocking weight of such a solid piece of wrought iron.

Our only option is to build some kind of free standing structure over the gate and winch the gate upwards.IMG_2140

However, this involves us creating a solid base in the mill pond from which we can work.

This itself proves difficult given the large quantities of silt and deposition which has occurred in the pond base over the last one hundred or so years.IMG_2100.JPG

It looks like we will have to dig!

Working in this environment is slow and difficult. Everything is wet and heavy and one small step wrong could land us waist deep in sticky wet silt which is like stepping into quicksand.

With water, it’s always slow, steady and safe.

Once the base is constructed we leave the next stage to the professionals.IMG_2095.JPG

The weight of the gate and the height of the lift mean that a  very solid structure is required to be safe.

The boys at Frome Scaffolding have done a fantastic job and we feel very secure to IMG_2131.JPGundertake what is the most dangerous part of this work and actually, the sturdiness of the structure means that the gate itself lifts out very easily.

As the timber support come away we begin to get a clearer idea of the extent of the damage.

Water is insidious. It is a silent destroyer, flowing and consuming little by little. Inexorable and unstoppable.

Again the sage words of the farmer come back to me.

You cannot make water do anything it doesn’t want to. You can ask it nicely, guide it and hope for the best.IMG_2104.JPG

Beneath the rotten timber we find some badly damaged masonry. Years of water have eroded the stone and the mortar to a soft paste, perfect for infiltration by signal crayfish and other interlopers.

The masonry is so badly damaged that it has to be removed completely.
The cavity that is left is quite staggering.
We quickly re fill this with concrete and repair the damaged masonry.
Our next task is to build a former to seal the repair work back to the dimensions of the new gate surround. This will significantly increase the life of the new surround as it will eliminate the ingress of water behind the gate. Well, as much as it is possible to eliminate anything with water.
Once the former is removed and the surfaces are scraped back and cleaned, we are ready to fit the new gate surround.
This is heavy and dangerous work. We could not estimate how heavy the surround actually is but it is certainly one of the heaviest that we have ever had to fit.
Accidents happen, but life goes on.
After a full day of slow and steady work, the new gate surround is in place.
After a few days the scaffolding and the platform are removed and the new gate is put into use for the first time.
Our work is complete and the new gate is a success. Hopefully it will preserve this beautiful and picturesque remnant of an almost forgotten time for a little longer.

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