Thursday, 25 March 2010

Rocking along

Those of you that read this blog regularly will recall the posting "Ten men went to mow" about my time on the Kent River Authority in the 1960's on Sheppey, today is part two, about the rock pitching days. Some of you that have walked the seawalls of The Swale might have pondered the rocks that are set into the seaward side and how they got there, this will illustrate how.

Around the Island and the southern side in particular, the seawalls were faced to some degree with rocks in order to protect them from tidal erosion. The saltings along the Swale were continually, and still are, eroding away, and where they did it then allowed the sea to eat away at the seawalls. As a result we spent a lot of time each year facing the earth of the seawall with rocks of Kent ragstone. It was the most hazardous and physically demanding of the work that we undertook at the time.
To get the rocks in place along such an isolated stretch of seawall the KRA had its own little tug which towed a small, twin-hatched barge, with a crew of two, the barge skipper and his mate who had responsibility for the barge. The rocks were collected from somwhere near Allington Lock on the Medway and then towed down at high tide to where they were needed. On arrival, the barge was towed and nudged in as close as possible to the seawall and then left to settle on the mud as the tide dropped, the hatches were uncovered and the tug disappeared off to return the next day or later. Immediately that it was possible we clambered aboard the barge to commence the unloading. By today's standards and in reality, even then, the discharge methods were both archaic and dangerous, a fact that was recognised after I left the company by the installation on the barge of a small crane.

The rocks had come direct from the quarry and as well as being rough-edged, came in all shapes and sizes, from very small to some that required the efforts of three men to lift them. And lift every one is what we were expected to do, and then great effort, "simply" throw them over the side into the sea or mud and thereby create a new rock stack in the mud alongside the barge. We would split into two groups, one in each half of the barge, although below deck the two halves joined as one hold, and at first, despite the physicality of it and the cuts and bruises to fingers, arms and legs, it was reasonably easy because we were level with the deck. On a hot summer's day, when just shorts were being worn, the splashback as rocks hit the sea was really appreciated as a cooling agent.
As the rock level in the hatches began to drop, the exertion to unload the rocks began to increase greatly and for a while you had to throw the rocks up into the air to clear the barge's deck and over the side. Given the size of some of the rocks this was impossible and bloody dangerous, so as soon as possible we would hang a small platform on the inside of the barge's hold. This enabled a guy to stand on it at a comparable height with the deck and the others, as they got lower into the hold and eventually on to the floor, would put the rocks onto this platform for the person(s) on it to throw them over the side.
Incredibly, if we started a barge at around 07.30 in the morning, a gang of around eight to twelve of us would normally have the barge emptied of up to a hundred ton of rocks by about 16.00 in the afternoon. We weren't capable of much else that day though and went home caked in dust and salt and with lines of scratches and bruises on both arms and the thigh of the leg that you used underneath each rock to get it over the side of the barge.

The next day would see the rock pitching commence and for this we would each have several basic tools, a spade, a club hammer, a string line, a length of wood as a level and a "punner". The punner was like a wooden log about three feet long, with a handle sticking out halfway along its length and one on the top. In this way you could use it to thump the rocks into the clay of the seawall. If these broke at any time we would often utilize the pulp logs that were being unloaded at Ridham docks by Swedish ships, spillage of which that would drift along the Swale. One guy took some of these free logs home one time to saw up and use on his fire but they burnt like a fire-cracker and he reckoned he was kept warmer by chasing the sparks around the room to prevent his carpet being burnt!

To get the rocks ashore from the stack, if it was out in the mud, we basically had to lay planks across the mud and then carry the rocks to the base of the seawall for chipping with the hammer into a roughly square shape. Working side by side we would each mark out a section of seawall 4-5 yards wide and begin by digging out a "toe" trench along the base of the seawall. Into this we would punner a base line of rocks and protruding from the mud by about a foot.Then from each of the two end rocks we would run a a line of punnered in rocks up to the top of the seawall, gradually punnering them in further until as you reached the top the last rocks were level with the soil.It was then a matter of in-filling this U-shaped section with rocks, starting at the base and using your length of wood as a level between the two upward lines of rocks. But it was not simply a matter of just throwing rocks down and punnering them in, each one was specially chosen by handling and where necessary chipped into a semblance of square before being punnered in. At the same time you quickly learnt from experience that each rock had its own naturally angled top that meant, when punnered into place, that they would continue the correct slope of the seawall, a rock placed the wrong way round would stand out like a sore thumb again the level.
On completing the section by reaching the top of the seawall you would then complete the job by hammering in all the small chippings, known as "corking", between the rocks in order to tighten them up and prevent them being washed out in rough tides.

It was back-breaking work that we carried out with much pride and rivalry to achieve the best and most level sections and could be very cold in the winter with freezing winds blowing for days on end. Some mornings we would even have to light fires of driftwood on the base of the wall in order to unfreeze the mud in order to be able to pitch into it. These fires would often be kept alight to keep us warm as well and to dry out our pitching gloves during tea breaks. Basically these supplied gloves were made of rough leather with staples across the fingers for grip and during the tea breaks we would leave them round the fire on upright bits of stick to dry out. Unfortunately if you left the gloves too close to the fire and for too long, you would often return to find a pair of shrunken, mini-gloves that a child would struggle to get on. Those winter months were really hard and taxing out there.

The other side of the coin were the summer months and Spring tides. With a high tide covering your work on the seaward side of the wall to almost the top for a couple of hours there was nothing else that you could do, we were "washed out" and enjoyed the opportunity to simply sunbathe or better still explore. We were normally along the seawalls of Rushenden, Elmley or Harty, with huge ares of marshland to wander over, rabbits to catch and kill, Moorhen and Coot eggs to collect and boil over the fire, etc.

Really hard but happy days that I have rarely bettered for both enjoyment and education in the year round history of life and nature on Sheppey.

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