As I was on a day off today I caught an interview with a lock keeper on Woman's Hour. It was with Annie Myers, who is responsible for part of the Bow Back Rivers area. It's available on the iPlayer here for a week (go to 32.59; it lasts until 43.16).
If you can't be bothered to listen to it, or if you're too late, I've transcribed it for you below.
(Jane Garvey) Now with the Olympics just under two years away, preparations around the park in east London are continuing. And the waterways are playing a big rôle in providing a transport link for barges which are carrying construction materials and building waste to and from the site. One of the people who looks after the network for British Waterways is Annie Myers. She's on the river Lee, and is one of just a handful of women who do this kind of job throughout the country. Louise Adamson went to meet Annie out on the water.
(Annie Myers) We've just come off the Thames, downstream from Limehouse, turned onto Bow Creek opposite the Dome. We're going to head up oh, wharf here, and then further ahead you'll see the entrance to what is a whole chain of navigable channels. Our first port of call from the Thames would be, er, Bow Locks, and from there we have Abbey Creek, we have the new Three Mills Lock. Since it's formally opened this is the channel from which our commercial barges which are taking all the materials in and out of the Olympic site, this is how they get onto the Thames and through the waterways system through to the Olympics.
Well, we've just passed Canning Town Station. Obviously it's quite industrial, but there's something very beautiful about this area because you can see all the large skyscrapers, but also we have the ecology park here. We have otter holts just up here, believe it or not. And it looks quite industrialised, and yet on the port side you can see the Dome; and on the starboard side we have reed beds and we have tree planting, so it's quite an interesting area connecting the two together.
(Flute and piano music)
I grew up on the Wirral, and obviously surrounded by water. It's always been there, that I have to be near water. We grew up giving pony rides up and down the beach, overlooking Hilbre Island, so, plus my uncle was working for 35 years at the docks, and my grandfather was always at sea, so there is some sort of familial link there. And then I had two different careers before I discovered that I might have the chance to work on the water.
We've arrived at Bow Locks now, which is one of the most important locks for the lower Lee.
(Louise Adamson) And is this one of the locks that you operate?
Yes, this is one of the main locks, this is our sort of permanent base for us here.
And what sort of craft do you have coming through?
Obviously we have all the pleasure boat users, mainly narrowboats, small motor cruisers, occasionally we have the rowing club coming through with rowing boats or kayaks, and we have commercial traffic, so we have a lot of hoppers, a lot of barges.
Because it's an interesting area, isn't it? I mean, we're standing here, we're near City Airport, we can hear the planes going over, we're sort of in the east end of London, there's lots of office blocks around, but at the same time I can see a swan coming towards us over there, moorhens, all sorts of wildlife. It's a real mixture, isn't it?
Absolutely wonderful. It's a lovely, lovely area, because you do have this mixture. You can vaguely hear the A12, which is right over in the distance, that leads to the Blackwall Tunnel. We have about eight pairs of swans on our stretch, as you see there are a couple of cygnets, they are nearly full grown now; there are the feisty coots; and we also have moorhens around; and ducks. Lots and lots of ducks that are breeding here.
I think we've got someone coming now, who looks as if they're going to want to go through the lock.
Yes, there's a skiff that's booked in for 1430 hours, so I'm just going to have to guide them through the lock now, and the procedures, and make sure they're securely moored before we operate the lock.
"Hello, good afternoon! You go over to starboard side, it's quite a high tide out there, I'll just put a line on your skiff, and then I'll lock up. We're having to work on the flood gates today. I'll just go and sort the gates out..."
We're standing in, I guess you'd call it the control room for Bow Locks, there's lots of dials and buttons. It's not like the old locks where you used to have to turn wheels and push the lock gates, is it?
Ha ha, no, not at all, it's all automated. As a woman it's not that that physical strength is absolutely necessary. (clonk) So we have to select "upstream", and then we have to go over to a different panel to get the tidal gates closed.
So it's all electronic, it's buttons that you're pushing that do all this?
Yes, this is actually all automated. Erm, the upstream tidal gates are now closed, so we have to go back to the control panel, (clonk) switch off the upstream gate, and on to the downstream set. So what we're going to do is, we're going to gradually open the penstocks, and what that will do is that will gradually lift the skiff up within the chamber.
"All the best, good luck with the race. (Laughter) Quite choppy out there ... all the best, bye."
Annie, we've come up now, we're standing on a bridge over the River Lee, and I know this bridge is very historic,and very unusual.
Well it's a very beautiful bridge that was completed in approximately 1850, the treads across were actually for the horses when there were horse drawn barges going from here. I don't know what the gradient is, it looks about 1 in 8, so it's actually quite steep for them, hence the, erm, grip slats. And the original stables are just behind us.
What does it mean to you to work in a place which is so historic? You do get a real sense here of this being a place where people have worked going back over centuries.
You can actually feel it. I don't know what it is about it. When you look back and read all about the people who have lived and worked on the waterways, all those centuries. There's always been some method since I think probably the thirteenth century to keep this tide at bay. You can actually feel the past here, Very important to us all today. It's a very wonderful legacy for us all.
So tell me about, what's your actual job here? Do you have a job title, what's your rôle?
Ha, well our official title is "Waterways Operative" but we're sort of ... well, I'm a Jill-of-all-trades I suppose because we respond to whatever is needed on the waterway, but fundamentally I suppose we are there to keep the navigation navigable, keep the towpath intact, do the lock keeping, do the weir management, weir clearance, weir control, and we do obviously the flood relief as well.
Is it unusual for a woman to do this job?
Well, it appears, it appears so. I don't know why it's unusual, I don't know why women aren't applying, I really don't. It's not like it's based on pure physical necessity. I mean a lot, if you look at a lot of our machines, they're mechanised, so it's not just about physical strength.
What about the people you work with, who I guess are all men. How does it work? I mean, do people accept you as just part of the team?
I think initially there was a wariness, they're not sure. They're not sure a woman can actually do what's required of them. Hopefully they accept you as they see as you can do the work. There is a certain amount of teasing involved in the job obviously, so I think a rubber skin and a pair of cloth ears help from time to time, to be honest!
Annie, where are we now?
We're actually at Three Mills Lock now, and as you see, there's a large lock chamber, and it was actually opened in June 2009, predominantly for commercial vessels at the moment. So the vessels coming in from the Thames will come up the creek, enter the lock, and they will be carrying, or they are carrying materials to and from the Olympic site. There's far more barges coming up, because we've got lots of rivers round the Olympic site, and obviously the stadium's on an island, and it's bordered by the Old River Lee, City Mill River, Bow Back River. And all that was opened up to the public before, and not very well utilised, whereas now it's erm, it's all coming to fruition, and eventually all these pathways will be opened up to the public, and the navigable channels for the boaters as well.
What then for you, finally, is the charm of this place? Because it's not obviously a rural location, we're in east London, you can see Canary Wharf over there, see the skyscrapers. What for you is the magic of working in this place?
I think it's the contrast. I mean, we're sitting on a lock island now, we've got all the wildlife going about their business, we're surrounded by water, we can hear all the traffic, muffled traffic in the distance ... It's just, it's just the diversity, the contrasts of the whole area. And you can see the developments going up all around us. It's changing so rapidly with the Olympics. Who knows what it will look like in five, ten years' time?
And what does it feel like for you, coming to work here every morning?
Oh, I don't get that, you know that typical cliché, the Monday morning feeling. I never have it. I never have it. And it's just fascinating watching people and animals ... and birds. Although it's work, and it can be busy and you can be tired, it doesn't feel like work.
(Jane Garvey) It does sound absolutely brilliant. That was Annie Myers who works for British Waterways in east London, and our reporter was Louise Adamson.