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Riff-Raff Diary For February

Published on: 14 Mar, 2013
Updated on: 14 Mar, 2013

Riff Raff Cottage and Weir

Riverbank tales from our local St Catherine’s Lengthsman/Weirkeeper

by Robert Craig

When not operating the weirs during February I have been spending time on those jobs that needed to be carried out prior to the beginning of the nesting season (1st of March), such as cutting back overhanging limbs and vegetation. 

Along the banks of the navigation there are some very attractive large clumps of snowdrops to be seen and the many alder trees are festooned with catkins. The alders thrive in marshy places, such as riverbanks – in Ireland it was thought to be unlucky to pass an alder on a journey possibly because they grow in boggy places.

Snowdrops by the Wey

Snowdrops by the Wey

A broadleaf deciduous tree, the alder timber is very resistant to decay under water and historically has been used for water pipes, small boats and piles under bridges and buildings. Venice in fact is built on alder piles.

The timber was also used to make clogs, being light and good at absorbing shocks.  An important local historical connection is with the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills where Alder was the favoured timber used to make charcoal which, when mixed with sulphur and saltpetre, made gunpowder.

Alder catkins by St Catherine's Lock

Alder catkins by St Catherine’s Lock

Willow was also used for this purpose and the valley in which the mills stood had an abundance of both.  The gunpowder would be brought by horse-drawn wagon from Chilworth to the wharf at Stonebridge and then transported by barge to the magazines at Woolwich, Purfleet, and Barking Creek.

This trade continued until 1921.  Just upstream of Broadford Bridge near the moored boats you can still see the gunpowder store raised on its staddle stones, designed to keep the powder dry.

Just to round off whilst typing this I can see a pair of common buzzards soaring above the meadow upstream of St.Catherine’s Lock; the sun is on them showing off their markings.  More common now there is also a good chance you will see one whilst walking by the river.

See you by the river.

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