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Boulters Lock keeper celebrates 40 years on the rivers

A lock keeper who has celebrated 40 years in his profession has seen good and bad days in his job – but he loves his work.

Ralph Tompkin, 68, works to ensure boats travelling along Boulters Lock are safe and moving in good time.

He has been on the rivers since he was 28, when he left engineering to take up the profession.

“I enjoy it thoroughly,” he said.

“I love meeting people, I love helping people.

“I love seeing people with a bit of a down look on their face, or stressed look, and I do something and their lip breaks out into a smile.”

As well as making sure river traffic moves smoothly, lock keepers watch for incidents and ensure the safety of boaters and pedestrians.

“It can be a dangerous place if you don’t treat it with respect,” he said.

“If you don’t, people fall in.

“Then they need somebody who is experienced in extricating people out of the water immediately on hand.”

He has been called on to help people who fall in from time to time, but believes his experience of Boulters Lock – where he was worked for 29 years – has allowed him to take precautions that prevent people from going in.

Ralph is also an asset in emergency disasters. He recalled a flood in Gloucestershire where emergency services were not able to get to flood defences because the roads were blocked.

By being on-site, a lock keeper can help respond to such emergencies.

Ralph lives opposite the lock in a home the Environment Agency acquired, instead of the old lock keeper’s cottage.

“The Health and Safety Executive decided it was no longer to be used, for one reason or another,” Ralph said.

On bad days, Ralph has experienced boaters swearing at him or trying physically harm him.

“You just have to bite your lip in those types of situations,” he said.

But most of the time he is on the receiving end of niceties from polite river-goers.

He is usually at his busiest during the summer, when boaters are on holiday – but that is usually when they are at their happiest.

“You get to make some quite good relationships with the boaters. They ask you how the children are,” Ralph said.

“It is just such a lovely job.”

Ralph was born in Rinteln, Germany but grew up in Nottingham. He worked on locks in Oxfordshire for much of the 1980s before settling in Maidenhead at the end of the decade.

He lives with his daughter, 36-year-old Maria, who he believes would also like to get into lock keeping.

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