It all began about three weeks ago when yellow signs appeared warning about a road closure. Then men in red overalls appeared on the bridge that crosses the big dyke near our farm. The following weekend the bridge closed and early in the morning a large truck could be seen driving towards it, carrying what looked like massive concrete girders. I’ve always been a big fan of civil engineering, ever since we built the first semi-floating building in Britain (the Flag Fen Museum, which sits in a lake on 660mm of styrofoam blocks). I’m also very nosey. So I grabbed a camera, ran into the barn, climbed into our ageing Fourtrak and headed towards the bridge. Just outside our gate I took this shot of the big truck being unloaded. It was very cold and I think my hand was a bit shaky, so I apologise for the focus, but it does capture the atmosphere quite well.
When I got to the bridge I could see that unloading was well underway, but these were not girders. They looked more like very thick paving blocks.
Then I spotted a chap wearing hi-viz, but armed with a large Canon SLR. Cameras are always a good way to start conversations with photographers, so I asked him about his lens – and we got chatting. It turns out he was making a video for the company who had supplied the blocks. One of their vans was parked beside us: The Pontoon and Dock Company Ltd. I assumed they were there in their dock-building capacity, although the nice man making the film repeatedly mentioned a pontoon. Still the penny didn’t drop: I didn’t get what he was trying to tell me. So I decided to head into Long Sutton market to buy some mussels for lunch. They were delicious (with our home-grown onions, shallots and garlic). After lunch, I decided to follow the video man’s advice and returned to have another look. And I have to confess, I nearly dropped my teeth when I saw this:
The ‘concrete’ blocks had been lifted from the bridge and were now floating on the water. People were walking around on them as if they were strolling through a shopping centre: the ground beneath their steel toecap safety boots was as firm as a car park. By now a breeze had go up, but the pontoon remained completely stable. It was most extraordinary. The video man came up to me, smiling and I apologised profusely for being so thick. Concrete! I don’t think I have ever felt quite such a dickhead.
While we were talking, one of the men walked to a corner of a pontoon, produced a long hook, which he caught around a loop of blue rope and used it to pull another pontoon closer. It was that easy.
Underneath the bridge I could see men were adding a few blocks to a larger pontoon to fit it closer to the concrete piers that supported the bridge. They did this with stout plastic or rubber clips that fitted into sockets in the blocks comprising the pontoon. Some of the clips were still lying on the deck.
I returned at the end of the day to see that the surface of the South Holland Main Drain had largely been paved over. If I hadn’t seen it happen with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Finally on February 7-8th we were hit by storm Eric which threatened to bring severe gales, so I wanted to see how the pontoon would cope. In actual fact it fared far better than I did. The gale was so fierce that I had a great deal of trouble holding the camera still. It was almost impossible to stand upright. By now the crew had fitted railings and were rigging up sheets of green mesh on the Heras fencing, presumably to act as a windbreak. Gaps that the pontoon was unable to cover were filled in with scaffold planks. The surface of the dyke had been converted into a platform, from which they could work on the underside of the bridge in complete safety.
The water in the dyke was very choppy, but the pontoon remained dry and completely stable. It took me several attempts, but eventually I managed to get a picture that wasn’t too shaky. Then I had to head off to Peterborough for a meeting. It was so windy that I decided to avoid the main roads and soon found myself passing through the little community of Holbeach Drove. The land south and east of medieval Holbeach was drained after the middle ages and in many villages the parish church wasn’t built until the 18th or 19th centuries. Often the villages feature abandoned windmills and drovers’ inns, which are mixed in with the cottages and houses. They have a peculiar charm – a sort of Wild East feeling. As I reached the edge of Holbeach Drove (towards nearby Shepeau Stow), I passed the rather humble-looking workshops and offices of Rock Construction Ltd. Everyone locally takes them for granted, as they’ve been around for so long (since 1978), but they’re very well-known in the country at large, having designed stages and sets for the likes of The Clash, Wham, Pretenders, Grace Jones, Meatloaf, Dire Straits, Public Image Ltd, Cliff Richard, and Bucks Fizz. I wondered if they knew about pontoons? You could easily fit a full symphany orchestra on one. And what about archaeologists? A pontoon would certainly have come in handy at Flag Fen and it would have been an absolute godsend on some of the Scottish lakeside excavations, or those digs along the Thames, east of London.
I’m sorry, but I still haven’t quite recovered from the shock and excitement of first seeing the pontoon that afternoon. In our heart-of-hearts, I think we’d all fancy a quick stroll on water.