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Wessex Waterways Restoration Trust

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A VIEW FROM THE CAB - By Larry Finnegan

   What view and what cab I hear you cry! Well, the view is not only  what is visually apparent but also my opinion (which, like belly buttons is something we all have) and what about the cab? This cab is not perhaps what you are thinking; that of a lorry, bus or taxi but is actually an excavator cab which, I opine is at least different!

   An excavator or digger if you prefer, might not be everyone's choice but who hasn't passed a worksite and gazed in awe at the skill and dexterity with which the machines are maneuvered often sat atop a huge heap of topsoil or lumbering to and fro with gubbins hanging from their booms. Well, I for one have and that is one of the reasons why I chose to learn to operate one. I should I  suppose for those of you who do not already know me; say that I am a volunteer worker with the Foxham and Lyneham Branch of the Wessex Waterways Restoration Trust and have been one of the persons who go out in all weathers on a Sunday and wield a shovel or slasher for hours on end dragging the derelict canal back to life before arriving home tired and hungry and ready to fall asleep before the Countryfile weather forecast can finish.

   Back to the excavator bit then. Rachael Banyard has one and has been our mainstay for years and has trained and had trained many volunteers both men and women in the skills of either dumper or digger operation and it was to her that I turned when the opportunity arose. That was some years ago and having qualified and receiving my operator's ticket I was eager to 'get out there' and prove my worth and not have to be the one out in the drizzle with a clay-logged shovel. The trouble is, excavators no matter what size they may be cannot just appear on-site at a moment's notice – No, No – they have to be transported at eye-watering cost which let's face it is prohibitive to a Voluntary Group working on a shoestring. But I digress dear reader. We needed a digger and Rachael's was not available so Gordon Williams (another of our volunteers) decided to buy a small one and trust me to use it and not bend it too much as he was the one paying the insurance premiums!

   The first time a novice, nay fledgling operator sits in the cab, particularly if it's been a while twixt passing one's test and the first job can be quite daunting but one struggles on manfully until someone says 'we need to change the bucket' (to a larger or smaller one) and at that point your credibility comes sharply into focus. Why so you may well ask? Well, diggers have two joysticks which are multi-functional and to couple and uncouple the bucket requires deft movements and all while a couple of macho blokes (who are of course self proclaimed experts) are watching you make a complete banana of yourself twitching the boom and stick all over the place trying to align all the various bits to make it connect properly.

    Now, if that aint bad enough, just wait to the fateful moment the decision is made to send the digger from the nice flat towing path down onto the canal bed to do a task. Having lined-up the excavator at right angles to the slope which from the cab looks like the North face of the Eiger, you have to extend the boom and stick to it's full extent down into the slope to act as a buffer to stop the machine tipping-over. That, dear reader, is what is lovingly called 'a brown trouser moment' and it occurs when the machine is tracked forward and passes the tipping point proving or disproving in a trice whether or not you have positioned the boom and stick properly – believe me, every time the maneuver is carried-out it is a stomach-churning moment and you still have to get the blessed thing out of the canal and if anything, that's even worse!

   Is it all worth it I hear you say, well I have to say that it most certainly is. Just like learning to drive a car for the first time with all those pedals, gear stick and wheel movements to learn you wonder when it is all going to become second nature and be carried-out without conscious thought but of course it does and it's at that moment when you see the cold, wet spade wielding volunteers working around you covered in mud and up to their shins in cold, stinking canal water and decide it's time to turn the heater up another notch!

 

BRICKS – By Ivor Stack

   I like bricks and bricklaying. I do, and have often looked-up at a brick wall  pondering whether it is perhaps an Old English, Flemish or Stretcher bond etc; but maybe that's just my own eccentricity. I should also begin by saying I'm not really Mr Stack but Larry Finnegan and am but one brick in the much bigger lock wall being built during the restoration of the Wilts & Berks Canal.

   As an aside, some time ago a group of us were clearing-out the Peterborough Arms Pub at Dauntsey Lock which is owned by a Partnership Canal Trust when I opined that the rear upper aspects of the pub (which used to be a farm house) must have been built by an under-training apprentice or a very mediocre bricklayer due to the wandering nature of the perpendicular joints (or perps to those who lay bricks). Now, before you say what a big head I must be to be so critical let me tell you that I too have built many structures and at times my perps would have been deemed bad enough to make a vicar swear!

   A while back a chance conversation between Gordon Williams (our Work Party Organizer (WPO)) and a certain Martin (Lord 'Stepping Stones' or ‘RAF’) Thompson gave our volunteers the opportunity to join-in with the Waterways Recovery Group (WRG) who were going to rebuild the long demolished Weymoor Bridge over the Thames and Severn Canal at Latton near Cirencester and of course we were keen to help out and practice our long unused skills. The bridge was to be a brick arch and be capable of carrying up to 44 tons and be completed in just 2 short weeks. As Gordon and I were available we signed-on and duly reported for work on 28 March 2016.

   To say that the re-construction work was challenging would be a massive understatement. The face work of the bridge was not only arched but batted (it leans back at a pre-determined angle) and had an oversailing course too! Each and every brick in the arch had also to be laid with a batter and was done using an Ad Hoc wooden gauge set to a precise angle. Building the lower portion of the arch proved to be a doddle compared to the middle and upper sections as the laying angle (batter) of say 10% gradually rose to near vertical. If that wasn't tough enough every bricklayer was required to kneel all day to work and my middle-aged knees and back like everyone else’s hurt proper bad!

   Despite the difficulties above mentioned, the resolute team of men and women completed the job and mothballed the site so the wing walls and parapet phase could be planned and costed. I am pleased to report that all the brickwork is now complete and the road re-alignment and bridge capping phase is about to start.

   Now, as I’ve mentioned, I have laid thousands of bricks over the years and still love the challenge of being part of a volunteer group such as The Wessex Waterways Restoration Trust which also offers the opportunity to work on other Volunteer sites with Partnership Trust projects and even if the work can sometime be knackering it is tempered by the thought that long after I'm laid to rest there will be locks, bridges and spill weirs with my DNA in them still standing for the enjoyment of those still living or yet to be born. And finally, if someone in the future with a critical eye for brickwork wishes to opine as to the alignment of my perps then they are free to do so – I'll only haunt them a little!

 

WEATHER by I.C. Winds

   What is it about our weather that fascinates us all? I am a slave to it and, because I love to take long walks on Tuesdays and Fridays always cock a sharp eye at the local forecast so as not to be caught-out in the middle of nowhere inappropriately dressed. Most of all though dear reader is that as a volunteer Navvy working every weekend for The Wessex Waterways Restoration Trust on the Wilts and Berks Canal at either Foxham, Dauntsey Lock or wherever else a Work Party is required I need the weather to be Clement!

   Good weather brings-out the best in everyone and I am constantly amazed at those who wander along the towing path or meander the myriad of footpaths in all weathers. Often they stop by to say hello and enquire as to when the canal will be open. I hold no illusions in this matter as I have heard the oft-quoted deadlines of a previous Canal Trust whip-by past my head like a sniper's bullet many times. No, my stock reply to these questions is that the Trust's new leadership is now in place and with their drive and commitment to see the project through to fruition do fervently believe that the young children that sometimes accompany such visitors will  duly benefit from my labours and blithely cruise the waterway and no doubt criticize the perpendicular joints on my brickwork!

   We, the small band of Navvies that turn-out each week have a saying - "It never rains on a Foxham Sunday" and you'd be surprised how often this maxim is proved correct. Even more weird is that sometimes we have been up to our hips in stumps to be pulled in the middle of winter and the rain has been sheeting down either side of us yet leaving us largely untouched. A while back I was acting as Banksman (safety watch) for a fellow volunteer from Royal Wooton Bassett and quite probably the finest digger operator I know when the sky in the South West turned almost Indigo; marching inexorably towards us whipped along by powerful winds. Richard Hawkins (for it is he who was doing all the dredging of the canal) was nicely warm and dry in his cab and merely watched with passing interest as I huddled into the tree line hoping to avoid the inevitable. But this dear reader was Foxham after all so I still had confidence in the old maxim and then, almost as if on cue the storm front moved left and right of us and vented its spleen on MOD Lyneham and the village of Christian Malford leaving us reasonably dry and within moments bathed in a brilliant sunshine that made the damp ground around us steam.

   Yes, I love the weather and all it's idiosyncrasies we experience in Merry old England (other countries are available) and wouldn't wish to be anywhere else except perhaps for the occasional sojourn to warmer climes to keep 'she who must be obeyed'  happy.

 

TREE STUMPS – By I Pullem

   Ok, I confess, that's not my real name but I do actually pull tree stumps out of the ground whilst participating in my hobby. Well what's your hobby 'Mr He Man' and how do you manage this herculean feat? Well, seeing as you ask so nicely I should start by saying I am really Larry Finnegan and but a small cog in a slightly larger gearbox that helps power the restoration of the Wilts & Berks Canal.

   My colleagues and I work under the Wessex Waterways Restoration Trust auspices and ply our skills not only in the Foxham and Lyneham Branch area of responsibility but also cast our nets slightly wider as some of our members regularly assist the BITM (Bit In The Middle) Branch and have assisted the MCC (Melksham/Chippenham/Calne) Branch of a Partnership Trust.

   But what about the tree stumps Mr Pullem? Ah Ha, I was just getting to them. You see, saplings or more precisely Sallow, a variety of Willow are just like those pesky dandelions in the television advertisement (Hello Mate!). Just when you think they have all been cleared and the whole operation moves off to do another important job for a while; someone will be bound to say 'I thought you lot were going to pull those saplings out of so and so area?'  I know what some of you are perhaps thinking. You are saying to yourself that old Mr Pullem is telling porkies and that trees don't grow that quickly and to a certain degree you're right – they don't. However, the intervals between the first pulling and the repeat pulling could well be a year or more (we do only work on Sundays remember) and these little critters can soon develop into a small thicket in the blink of the proverbial. Either way, if you don't keep-up with the maintenance schedule you can be sure of massive re-growth as sure as eggs are...... well. Eggs!

   In days of yore, huge teams of men and horses used to wrest tree stumps from the ground to open-up fields or build roads and canal routes but nowadays it's left to the small, aging band of men and women of the Trust Branches to do it. Our tool of preference for the job is the Tirfor Jack – a lozenge shaped device weighing in at some 15 kilos and comes with a long handle to operate it's mechanism. Basically, a steel cable is pushed through it's body end to end which is gripped by the internal gubbins and pulls the cable through itself each time the handle is pumped. One end of the lozenge is attached to an anchor (a tree big enough to withstand the strain and not be pulled over to bash you on the Swede) and the cable-end is attached to the stump to be removed using a shackle and chain. Sounds easy some may opine (but don't say it too loud near the poor sweating 'volunteer' at the pumping end if you value your health) but that's only the start of the process.

   There's more? Yup there is! If it's a small or medium size tree the operator can dispatch it with aplomb (other fruits are available) but if it's a somewhat bigger tree you can 'assessorise' and add a pulley which effectively doubles it's pulling capacity making it quicker, easier and considerably less paperwork than killing off the operator at the pumping-end and, because tree stumps don't just slide out of the ground as smooth as a choirboy's chin; the rest of the team need to be on hand to 'pick' or remove the ton or more of stinking sticky mud, stones and clay from in and between it's root system thus making it lighter to move and ultimately carry to the inevitable bonfire. One tree stump down.........next!

   "Why on earth do you do this to yourself Mr Pullem" I hear you cry? Well there are several reasons why and if you are still awake at the back I will endeavour to tell you. Firstly there's the comradeship of the small team that’s willing to turn-out each Sunday come rain or shine and the inevitable friendly banter it generates. Next there's the solid determination to get the canal restored so future generations can blithely meander along it's leafy towing paths or navigate it's watery length in the certain knowledge that they won't give a monkeys for the hard work done on their behalf by us. Or maybe it's just the look of fascination on the faces of the work party; after having wrestled a particularly tough tree stump from the ground and leaving a deep, welly-devouring hole ready for the unwary to plonk themselves into, spotting a brave little Robin darting-in from his nearby twig or hidey-hole to feast on the juicy worms or grubs left exposed by our exertions – priceless!

 

THE WONDER OF NATURE – AN EPIC TALE OF SURVIVAL

 

   Life is tough and one never knows what will truly happen until it does because as is often quoted "the best laid plans of mice and men" etc, etc will come into play just when one least expects it.

   What has that to do with survival I hear you ask!  Well, and this little tale can be corroborated by the person who actually saw it with his own eyes and related it to me, is truly an epic tale of survival against the odds.

   It all began when a group of like minded fools got together to help raise funds for the Wilts and Berks Canal restoration kitty by chopping-up the logs harvested from a local farmer's hedgerow who had generously donated them for that very purpose.  One of the group, George Schmidt was beavering away on a circular saw cutting cordwood into manageable lengths whilst another; Chris Poore (and the originator of this tale) was hewing the lengths into stove sized logs with a heavy log splitting axe.  I was off to the side sawing smaller stuff into bite sized pieces suitable for those with twee wood stoves.

   What happened next was astonishing.  Having put the cordwood through the circular saw, George tossed the log into the waiting wheelbarrow where it was duly picked-up and placed upon the tree stump ready for chopping.  With a mighty swing, Chris split the log in two and out popped a flipping mouse!

   Calling over to me Chris asked if I'd seen what had just happened and at that very instant the mouse gathered its wits and scurried off across the mud, puddles and sawdust to an adjacent wood pile and to relative safety apparently unharmed.

   Now, at any time the mouse could have picked an opportune moment to make itself scarce but it determined to hang onto its home until it became untenable and by the slimmest of odds managed to survive to tell the tale – isn't nature wonderful!

 

 

Larry Finnegan November 2018

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