Working Lives

Mariner, river inspector and after (1965-2008)

Location: Norwich

Mark worked as a River Inspector for the Port and Haven Commissioners and the Broads Authority. He talks about the day-to-day life on the river.

Life before the Broads Authority

I was one of those children who managed to leave school at the age of 14 because my birthday was in the summer holidays. But I wasn’t allowed to start work until I was 15. And I did become an apprentice mechanic with the General Post Office – some may remember it. But after a couple of years I did what I wanted to do and I went and joined the Army. Doing my initial interview with the Army they found out I was pretty good at Maths and had a liking for geography. So I became a Mariner. I was a sea going soldier serving on landing craft. And I did 12 years as a soldier in the Army.

Landing craft coxswain in the Army

The training, to become a landing craft coxswain, was in several parts. First of all you had to be a seaman and then an upgraded seaman and then you did navigation courses. I did three of those. I did radar observer’s courses with the Merchant Navy. We also had to delve into Meteorology and things like that.

I went around the world – mainly to the Indian Ocean to start with, to Oman and then Cyprus for, initially six months, and then a further 2½ years. And then over to the Caribbean, Belize and what have you. I went down there for a couple of years but they were broken down to six month detachments.

My daily routine as a coxswain was get up; ice cold shower because we had no hot water system on board for showers and that, a six hour watch and then another ice cold shower and then to bed. You got up again six hours later to do it all again. So six on, six off – because we were only a small, six man crew, on these vessels.

The vessels were about 100 feet in length and they weighed anywhere between 60 and 100 tons depending on what modifications they’d done to them and that sort of thing.

In Cyprus I was mainly concerned with air sea rescue – working with the RAF. And in Belize, in the Caribbean it was resupplying the troops down in what they call Battle Group South in Belize, on the border of Guatemala. In the Indian Ocean we were just mainly ship to shore supplies.

Our diet was very varied – we used to get, you’ve heard of people getting an adverse effect to curry, Gandhi’s Revenge? Well, we used to get Montezuma’s Revenge and Apollo’s Revenge depending on what sort of diet we were eating at the time whether it be Caribbean, Asian or Cypriot, you know, Greek sort of food.

I was in the Army for 12 years – I started off… you all started off as a basic seaman, deck hand, and you work your way up and I became a coxswain on various crafts, from 1974 to 1982 depending on where I was and what size craft I was on.

Life after the Army – joining the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven

I left the Army in 1982. I wanted a job obviously and the Army, how can I put it? The people who look after you after you leave the Services: all they wanted me to do was to be an insurance salesman. Well, I had no wish to be an insurance salesman. I saw the job of river inspector advertised and applied for it and was told to sit back and wait for a bit and then I got the interview.

The interview was with, initially, the harbour master who was Captain Forbes. He was a maritime, Merchant Navy captain. John Hart who was the rivers officer, ex army and Arthur Hindley who was the senior inspector, ex RAF. And it was quite an informal interview until Arthur, bless his soul, asked me, wanting a funny response as to how often I’ve been aground. So when I replied, ‘Hundreds of times’ his face sort of dropped until Captain Forbes the harbour master whispered in his ear that when you’re on a landing craft and you beach or ramp down you are technically aground. So I was giving the truth but that wasn’t the answer he expected. And then I received my start date and given a warrant to prove your authority on the Broads, as a river inspector and I thought mine was a joke at first because it was dated the 1st April 1982 and I thought it was an April Fool’s Joke. But it was the way it turned out.


It was the first 16 weeks. It was going round the various beats with the various inspectors who regularly patrolled those beats. Firstly to learn what areas they covered, what was around there, and then to get their views on how the job is carried out. Everyone had a different view: there was no two people ever the same. And it got to be quite interesting because I did have a quote from one of the inspectors on the south rivers called Don Edwards and he said a very major thing, which I still remember to this day, and which I still go by and that was, ‘not everybody knows everything but everybody knows something so between us all we know the lot’. And that’s quite true when you think about it. And his thing was if you get a problem, don’t be afraid to ask. We had two-way radios onboard and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask. Some people may think you should have known that and others are thinking that’s a sensible question – I didn’t know that and he now asked it.‘ And that came true when I heard Arthur Hindley, the senior inspector ask another inspector for advice. And I thought, well he’s not ashamed to do it. It’s something he needs to know: something he’s not sure of and somebody knew the answer and he got the answer.

We covered every beat on the Broads in my 16 weeks of training – they say it’s 200 navigable miles of river. But I found out there’s a lot more than what they say there is because every inspector shew me every nook and cranny of his beat and there were some places which holidaymakers don’t know about. Little dykes and little inlets and that sort of thing you know and I did actually find out that the rivers today are not what they were hundreds of years ago. I’m not talking about the making of the Broads but they believe they were peat diggings – but it’s actual rivers that used to flow around here eventually changed courses. Because they built, or they dug, what are, in reality, canals, not very long ones. Take for instance the River Bure when it comes downstream out of Horning. It goes downstream past the River Ant and past St Benet’s Abbey. Well, that is a canal. It used to take a sharp right and go right down almost into South Walsham Broad. And I didn’t know this. And the inspector on that beat says, ‘Look, we’ll go on the old course of the River Bure and we disappeared into the reeds and we were going through these reeds very slowly and all of a sudden we popped out. Good grief. It was amazing.

We were in boats about 30 feet, 26-30 feet with just the one crew. We were on our own. But we did have two-way radios for communication.

After 16 weeks all the new inspectors start off as inspectors on relief duty to give the regular inspectors, regular beat inspectors, days’ off. The vessels were manned seven days a week. So there were eight inspectors on a regular beat and there were four of us on relief duties. So we used to cover all around, every beat. We got to know the whole area.


Our uniform looked like a naval petty officer but without any badges on it, you know. It was, initially, a black jacket, black trousers, white shirt, black tie and peaked white hat. The black jacket was eventually replaced, shortly afterwards, shortly after I joined, by a navy pullover which was a lot more comfortable for us to wear. And the blue parka we used to wear: the waterproof parka was replaced by a jacket which the police used to wear. But it just said river inspector instead of police. We didn’t want any confusion.

Daily routine

I would arrive at the launch I was manning, be it in Beccles, or very near to where I lived by 9 o’clock, book on over the radio to say the launch was manned, and then head out if there was anything that need looking at particularly. A note was left by the previous inspector saying can you look at this, do this, do that. If there was none of that and there was no calls over the radio from the Rivers’ Office as to what I should do then you picked your own route on the beat. It was very hard to cover a whole beat in one day unless you motored non-stop so some people would do downstream part of their beat one day and upstream the next day.

Our day was nine in the morning until six at night and we had a packed lunch. We had facilities on board for making hot drinks but that was it.

Our job really was to enforce the bylaws made by the Port and Haven Commissioners which related to speed of vessels; condition of vessels; vandalism which could be quite…

Vandalism came mainly from people who had a gripe against the rules and regulations of the rivers. It was vandalism to our property, damage to our property, damage to other people’s property along the rivers. It was spates of people coming out of clubs and pubs in Norwich late at night, going down to the yacht station and casting the boats off. We did have a very high class vandal at Thorpe. We had these signs which were quite costly and they were very big and they said, ‘Free Mooring. 24 hours’ and it gave the Port and Haven Commissioners’ details. This high class vandal would take the sign off and put it upside down and bolt it back on again…

We had differences through the year. In the holiday season people used to come on the Broads and they’d never seen a boat before in their life. You had to give them a lot of leeway because it wasn’t like driving a car. They would biff and bang things and plough into things but you had to give them the benefit of the doubt a lot of times because they were only on there for a week and then they were gone again.

It wasn’t just about the bylaws – we used to do a lot of things like pulling them off mud banks and towing them when they were broken down. And if we found one broken down we’d contact, via radio, the boat yard and they’d come out and fix it or if they were stuck on mud banks, you know, try to give them a pull-off. If we couldn’t, then we had to contact another boat yard who had a more powerful boat to give them a pull-off.

One time involved an airline pilot who was on holiday on the Broads and it was in Horsey Dyke. Now, as you go into Horsey Dyke from Horsey Mere it takes a sharp left and you go down a long dyke and then a sharp right down to the mill or the water pump. And the holidaymakers when they go in there they moor up on the left hand side as you go in and then they’re advised to walk the cruiser round, turn around by hand rather than power as that dyke is very narrow. I went down there one day, right down to the end at the mill and I thought well, I’m not going to walk my boat round, and I just went to the after controls and I went out the stern, all the way and weaving round vessels and in and out doing a sharp bend there and a sharp bend there and I got right up to the mouth of the dyke and there was this bloke sort of stood there watching me with his mouth wide open and he said, ‘I wish I could do that.’ And I said, ‘I’ve been doing it for years you know’. I said, ‘what sort of job do you do?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m an airline pilot.’ I said, ‘I can’t fly aeroplanes…’

You were responsible for your own vessel. The water was carried in a container like a tank. You were responsible for leaving the vessel in a very clean and tidy state for the next inspector to come on: polish the brasses, washing down, make sure everything was stowed in its proper place.

When we did relief duties we weren’t on the same boat – we’d be on the same vessel for maybe one or two days but often not it was just a single day and they you’d move off and maybe another relief inspector would come on or the regular beat inspector would come back.

Regular beat inspector

It must have taken me about four years actually as a relief inspector. Then I became a regular beat inspector when I took over from the guy who ran the beat from Beauchamp Arms right down to Breydon Water and that included the River Chet down to Loddon and that was virtually reeds, reeds, reeds all the way down.

Life as a solitary river inspector

I enjoyed working on my own but we weren’t on our own all the time. When we were on our own that was peace and quiet. Often or not there’d be holidaymakers wanting to know things, getting into trouble, doing the wrong sort of thing you know, and that’s when it became hectic. When you got to be on your own as it is, with no-one around, that was peace and quiet. And that was very enjoyable.

Wildlife – from seals to turtles

On the beat I eventually took over we used to get regular people, people regularly come up to me and saying there’s a bloke on the bank down there asleep in a sleeping bag. Well, it wasn’t. It was a seal. Some seals used to come up between Breydon Water and Reedham and calve. And you didn’t go anywhere near them because if you went too near them there would always be another seal in the water and they could give your boat a heck of a bump. You’d think, ‘what I have hit?’ And that was a seal bumping you out the way. And then when I was down, doing the Beccles beat one day the Broads Authority had just started up and they started up an information centre down at Beccles. I went upstream towards Geldeston and I saw this creature and I thought, oh, ‘I’ve never seen one of those before’. So I poodled off back downstream, went in to see the Broads Authority and says, ‘Excuse me I’ve just been up to Geldeston and I’ve seen a turtle.’ And they said, ‘don’t be silly’. I said, ‘come on get in the boat’. So this lady got in the boat with me and we poodled back upstream again. There it is, right over there. And it turned out to be, what they call, a Green Snapper with the yellow bits on its neck and it had obviously been a pet which had been discarded because it had got quite big and it just sat there, brazenly, bathing in the sun. But as soon you moved, it was gone like a bullet. And apparently, they stay there hibernating in the mud over winter time. So they were regulars on the rivers.

Now, birdlife, you saw virtually everything. Some of the inspectors say to me, look up there, there’s a marsh harrier, there’s a sparrow hawk you know. And you got quite used to these birds, you know, especially the ones who used to be fed regular: the coots and the moorhens and that sort of thing you know. And we got -when it came close to the Broads Authority taking over they sent a couple of zoologists round all the beats with us and they got quite excited when they saw a sparrow hawk you know. That’s nothing new – they’re here all the time.

Incidents on the Broads

The incidents that stick in your mind are actually the gruesome ones. And that is body recovery. I did three. One was a bloke who had been out for the night in the pub, came back, slipped and as he went into the water banged his head so he was unconscious. I did find him a week later and you then have to call the police to come out and they will do the actual recovery.

The other one was very sad. It was a young lad who’d got married that day and he, his bride were on one vessel and the bride’s father, mother and brother were on another vessel. Now, the bride’s brother was an experienced competition swimmer from Wales and he fell into the water and got into difficulties. And the newly married groom went in after him and I’m afraid when the police divers did get to them they were at the bottom of the river and the young groom had his arm around his new brother-in-law trying to get him to the surface. And that actually turned out that this young lad, this swimmer, had a heart defect which no-one knew about and that’s caused him to get into difficulties. It was very sad.

On the lighter side of things there were quite a few funny incidents if you like. Whilst going round all of the beats you come across some characters as it is. And there was one, a gent who lived in Potter, on the river bank, in those cottages, chalet sort of things, and he did some work for the Broads Authority and his name was Robin. And they used to call him Jobbin’ Robin! And he had quite a garden which could be seen by people going passed on boats. And one of the things he used to have was this massive, great, dog kennel with this huge, great tail coming out sticking up in the air which he used to pull on wire to make it wiggle. He had also had a cannon on his river frontage and if someone was going too fast he’d stand there with a couple of bits of wood behind him and bang them together and when they looked up he’d say, ‘Missed him again. I’ll try next time.’ And he had a bit of string which used to go in the water and was nailed to his quay frontage and when people used to ask him what it was he says, ‘my pet – my pet otter.’ They said, ooh down there and he says, ‘it’s down there, quite happy’. They said, ‘can we see the otter?’ ‘Well, yes.’ And he used to pull it up and there used to be a kettle on the end. They say, ‘what’s that?’ He says, ‘my otter.’ They said, ‘that’s not an otter.’ He says, ‘makes the water ‘otter!’ And that was Jobbin’ Robin. Don’t know if he’s still around. He’s a right character he was.

And the guy I took over from when I became a regular beat inspector. His name was Tim Thomas and Tim had a right lemon face but with that twinkle in his eye which says, ‘I’m up to mischief.’ And Tim was going down the River Yare and there was a yacht tacking backwards and forwards so Tim does the correct thing and pulls right over and go right slowly and the yachtsman can then tack short six feet. But a lot of people think that there’s this saying, ‘Steam giving way to Sail.’ Well, only on open waters: not in buoyed channels, fairways or rivers. So Tim did the correct thing, pulls right over, going down slow and this yachtsman’s jumped up and down and saying, ‘steam gives way to sail. Steam gives way to sail.’ So Tim just keeps going and the yacht bounced off him. So this bloke’s waving his arms around, ‘don’t you know steam gives way to sail.’ So Tim slipped back his window and said, ‘well it didn’t, did it.’ And closes his window and carries on with that twinkle in his eye…

What else have we got here? There’s an old water pump on the River Bure called Oby Mill and it was bought by a person and I just pulled over and we had a little natter together and I found out his name was Richard. That’s all I found out: I didn’t sort of say who are you, where you come from, and all this sort of stuff. But our rivers officer at the time, he wanted to know everything, about everybody who’s moved into what property, you know, and so I got on the radio. I says, someone’s purchased Oby Mill and moved in there and it’s looking, it looks as if they’re doing some work on it. He says, ‘Dear Boy, did you get his name?’ I says, ‘well it was only a casual conversation. But his first name was Richard and he liked to be called Dick.’ ‘Well, that’s no good Dear Boy, was it? I want to know more than that.’ I said, ‘he’s quite famous actually.’ He said, ‘what you mean?’ I said, ‘well everyone’s heard of Oby Dick!’ And then there was this silence and this voice came back, ‘Stupid Boy.’

Sports on the Broads

There were designated areas for water skiing at between certain times. There were people who used to flout that. But we couldn’t do anything about that. We had no way of catching a blooming speed boat at all you know. And there was the area down on Oulton Broad which was always put aside on certain nights for powerboat racing and there were times when I used to go down and watch it and that was so fascinating because the fenders on my launch were massive great fenders: three foot across. And I used to put these over the side and got alongside a houseboat and the bloke on the houseboat used to make me some tea and chips what have you and we used to sit there. And these hydroplanes and these hydrofoils or whatever they call themselves, these powerboats, used to be going up and down, up and down, creating a lot of wash and he says, ‘you know why they’re doing that, don’t you? Because you’re a river inspector and they want to make your life uneasy for you.’ Well, I’m sat there with these massive great fenders over the side and they wasn’t going to affect me at all but it did affect them. They created so much wash that they used to nose dive into the wash and stall. Then they couldn’t go racing…


Fishermen were really nothing at all to do with us. So they were the job of the water bailiffs but they would always be discarding line and what have you which used to get entangled with swans and that. Swans used to swallow it and get lead poisoning before they changed from lead shot to this non toxic shot. And we used to call up Swan Rescue to deal with the swan which was in distress and they used to come down, hopefully find the swan, and be able to take it away and get it sorted out.

From the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven to the Broads Authority

This was before the changeover from the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven Authority to the Broads Authority and was when the Broads Authority was just starting up, when they were coming into being. About 77ish. The Broads Authority took over on the year I left in 89 but before that they were starting up information centres and carrying out projects like the damming off of Cockshoot Broad near Horning. That sort of thing. They were doing all this work before they took over as statutory authority.

This was a big change for life on the Broads. They wanted a cleaner Broads because a lot of the vessels which were on hire, and a lot of the private vessels, used to discharge into the rivers oil and what have you. Leak oil and all that sort of thing. And they wanted to clean their act up and I think they’ve done a good job actually. Done a very good job.

Over the seven years I worked on the Broads there were changes. There were changes because we got a guy who was employed as an engineer to look at hire craft and also private craft to raise the standard of them: to stop them leaking oil everywhere, to stop them falling apart, breaking down. And that took some time to begin with because some of the hire craft were in a terrible state and it was his job to get everything up to a good standard. So, there would be no pollution and what have you.

With the Broads Authority my job as a rivers inspector has changed considerably because I socialise with a bloke from Acle here who is, what is now called, a ranger. And that’s what the river inspectors became. They lost the uniform; they’ve lost the patrol boats: they’ve all gone. They now use made-up craft, work boat craft more than patrol craft. And a lot of the time is spent ashore rather than on the rivers. And we were on the river all the time.

I wouldn’t go back on the Broads. Because sometimes, as a river inspector, not so much now as a ranger, but as a river inspector, we did get threatened a bit you know. I’m going to come and see you…I’m going to come and find out where you live: that sort of thing. But some people took exception to being told what to do, or told that they were doing wrong. But there have been a few threats, mainly it was very enjoyable: watching bird life, watching wildlife, looking at turtles, that sort of thing. It was quite enjoyable, quite an enjoyable experience.

River inspectors. Mark at far right.

Leaving the Broads and on to Lotus, the Royal Mail and then retirement

I was led towards a job with Lotus Cars which paid some really silly money. I was making a lot of money. But I only lasted three years for them: I was made redundant in 1993.

With Lotus, I became a tool repairer which meant that you repaired the moulds which used to make the cars you see on the road. So you became a cross between a sculptor, a painter and an artist because bits used to break off from the moulds and you had to repair them and bring them back into the same shape as what they were originally. It was very different work.

After that, I went to work for Royal Mail and there I stayed until they retired me. I was there for 15 years until 2008. I was a PAF operator… postal address file operator. That was night-work and if someone sent through a letter which the sorting machines couldn’t read, the hand-sorters couldn’t make head nor tail of, and I used to use computer programmes to find out who it was going to and we used to get the letters which used to come from India and it was for India but they thought because it was the way it was addressed it was some place in England for some reason or other. And we’ve had those for India, Australia, also have to send them back and I did actually get a nice card off a lady in Australia saying ‘thank you for sending me my birthday card’.

I also did sorting as well. That was in the main office in Norwich. Nights. Always nights. I worked nights in the Army basically. Was, as I said, we had small crews in the Army. So being the skipper you had to take the worst watches and leave the other junior watch, give them the better day jobs if you like. I still actually prefer to stay up all night and go to bed in the day – It sort of becomes bred into you.

It’s always the same when you retire from anything and you become a retired person, people always come to you and say, ‘now you’ve got a spare five minutes, can you do this… now you’ve got a spare five minutes…’ and those five minutes add up into more work than you actually used to do when you were actually employed. At the moment I’m a volunteer driver for the Acle Voluntary Aid vehicle. I do that two weeks a month and that involves collecting elderly people from their homes, bringing them into lunch and activities and taking them home again. I have a regular escort for that who is a lovely lady, Wendy Kenny. We work as a team and we collect people from Acle here and people, maybe in Reedham, Upton, Moulton, getting them into the day centre for a meal and what have you.

And that’s every week. I joined the British Legion and I’ve become the Welfare Rep for this area. Thankfully I have help from another Legion Member in Reedham otherwise you couldn’t cope and that is looking after people who become injured and visiting them or attending to people who need help. That sort of thing. And also stuck with being a committee member on the local recreation centre, the social club committee: I’m a committee member on that and I do get called, quite often, if you look at my face, Father Christmas. When my beard grows a bit longer than what it is right now I have had calls from people saying, ‘ can you be Father Christmas? I says, ‘well I’m already booked up for that day. I’m already booked. Get your bookings in early next year.’

I’m also a bird recorder. It’s counting birds that are in my back garden, that come to the bird feeders, the bird tables and what have you. And that means that if, one day, I see a blackbird and the next day, as it’s done over a weekly period, next day I see two blackbirds I don’t see three blackbirds: I only see two. You count the highest number all the time as you don’t know if the same one is coming back again and again. And I’ve counted as many as 60 starlings. That was when the parents or the mums were bringing the youngsters out for their first flight and feed. And the youngsters had to stay on the lawn: they weren’t allowed up in the feeders otherwise it would be a heck of a scrap. And the mums used to take the food down so all I had to do was to count the mums and then double it.

The most interesting bird I’ve had was a Merlin which I haven’t seen for years. Tiny little bird of prey that used to take down sparrows and things like that and of course we do get regular sparrow hawks in here and you can always tell when they’re around. Everywhere goes dead quiet. There’s not a cheep, there’s not a bird in the sky. They know they’re up there somewhere, circling around, hunting. And I have had a pheasant in the garden: a cock pheasant. And it was set on by a cat one day. The cat came off worst. The pheasant’s legs have got these spurs at the back and it just went hell for leather at this cat. Woah, woah, woah…there were feet flying everywhere and there were chunks of fur coming out of the cat and the cat disappeared.

Mark Lockwood (b. 1950) talking to WISEArchive at Acle on 1st February 2017

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