One of the saddest comments I’ve heard on the river this year was from veteran lock-keeper Derek Tomlin who spent a day on Lady Lucy for his 70th birthday in June.
Derek told us that numbers of private pleasure craft using the locks were falling , and falling so fast that it was putting the viability of the Environmental Agency’s budget for locks under pressure.
The river is financed by the licences that all manner of boat owners pay to use it and if the numbers of boats falls, so does the capacity of EA to maintain it’s excellent support for boaters.
Anything that can be done to help private boaters is helpful.
But we are putting private boats off.
As I have found from the five days on the river over Henley, the private boater does not get an even break.
Yesterday, one lock-keeper decided to post pictures of Lady Lucy wedged against the 70 tonne steel boat Hampton Court, in Hambledon Lock. The post was accompanied by a warning to boaters
“Lady Lucy wedged in Hambledon lock: this is what happens when somebody charges into a lock without permission”.
The post has now been taken down by the lock-keeper. The lock-keeper was not present when I entered Hambledon lock and did not know that I had been invited into the lock, had gone in very cautiously and had positioned myself where I had been asked to go.
I had more than permission to enter the lock, I was invited into the lock- had I refused to go in – I would have disobeyed an instruction. There are fines issued by lock-keepers for doing that. I have a threat of such a fine from the lock-keeper who posted the Facebook warning. The Facebook post has been taken down by that lock-keeper, the notice of fine withdrawn – as I had a reasonable explanation why I did not pass through the lock on a previous day.
I am not blaming the EA for misjudging the situation, putting myself, my passengers and the boat in peril. I know it was a mistake at a busy time in hot weather and these things happen. In retrospect, we should have backed Lady Lucy out, but you only do things like that if you are told to do it. I was not told to back the boat out of the lock, the decision to empty the lock was made by the Duty Lock Keeper and clearly it was the wrong decision.
I don’t know how many people read the lock-keeper’s post, but by the time it was brought to my attention , late in the afternoon, there were 57 comments. Presumably some of the offensive remarks made to me on the river yesterday – notably from EA officials, were influenced by reading the post.
I assume that the fine – (issued ironically by Facebook Messenger) and the post, were withdrawn for the same reason, they were based on gossip and not on what actually happened,
It is very odd that the Environmental Agency allows its lock-keepers to use social media in this way. Surely it must realise that it creates fear in boaters that turns “pleasure” and “leisure” into worry and fear. Would you want to risk being wedged in a lock for doing what a lock-keeper told you and then be hung out to dry on Facebook by another lock-keeper, who had only river gossip to go by?
Would you want to be issues with a notice of a £50 fine on Facebook messenger – based on hearsay and not on fact?
The bigger picture
As small pleasure craft like mine reduce in numbers, so the big boats of Salters, Hobbs and French Brothers prosper. I have noticed how Henley is now almost exclusively the preserve of the commercial boats. I have a great relationship with Hobbs, Salters and French Bros. but some of the smaller commercial boats are not so friendly.
In particular, the boats advertised on this website, seem to have decided that Lady Lucy should not be on the river. When I was finally released from Hambeldon yesterday, the captain of Fringilla lobbied Simon Sheperdson, who has charge of the lock, not to allow me through.
My boat, that openly advertises on eventbrite to people who have never had the opportunity to come out on a wooden boat, is an anathema to this fleet of boats.
This obnoxious behaviour, displayed at a time when everyone was traumatised by a very dangerous situation, is typical of the intimidation I get from Fringilla.
The EA needs to look at the bigger picture. If it allows and condones the behaviour of its staff in peddling the gossip put around by those who want to drive boats like Lady Lucy off the river, then it will have shot itself in the foot.
It will have been the cause of the demise of private boating, which has for decades, been its means of financing itself.
There is place for Fringilla and Lady Lucy on this river but if the balance between commercial boating and private boating is tipped in favour of the commercial boats by officers of the EA wittingly or unwittingly frightening boaters away, it will be a sorry matter for the river.
If you would like to come out on Lady Lucy, you are free to do so. When I mean “free”, I mean “free”, I ask only that you bring your own food and drink!