During my 35 years working for British Railways, I spent some considerable time in the early 1970s on the High Speed Train Commissioning team and was on the train between York and Darlington when it broke the UK speed record in 1973, surpassing the steam record of 1938 set by that famous ‘Blue Duck’ Mallard – as it is known in some circles. The HST prototype reached a speed of 143mph! After this three year secondment, during which learned not only a lot about railway engineering but also about people, I went back to my previous job involving the maintenance and repairs of the Eastern Region’s diesel multiple unit fleet. This had already introduced me to personnel at both Cambridge Diesel Depot and also at Norwich and with my long journeys from York to these places, I became well acquainted with both the people and places involved.
It was in the late 1970s when it became evident to me that if I stayed in my then position at York, I would not progress my career. It appeared to me that the expertise I had gathered during my relatively long involvement with the HST project was not being recognised in the teams being created to manage the introduction of the newly-built high speed trains that were due for introduction on the East Coast Main Line from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh and beyond. I therefore began to apply for jobs elsewhere on the Eastern Region and was eventually successful in obtaining a post as Assistant Carriage & Wagon Engineer at Grosvenor House in Norwich.
The office, located above the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Prince of Wales Road, was relatively close to Norwich Thorpe Station. Responsibilities were such that I was to work for the Divisional Maintenance Engineer’s Carriage & Wagon Engineer and this included visits to depots at March, Cambridge, Norwich, Yarmouth and Ipswich. During my stint at York’s Chief Mechanical & Electrical Engineer’s HQ office, I had obviously met many of the people involved and so the transition to a new life and working colleagues in Norwich and its surrounding area for me was relatively easy.
Not so with my family – I had three youngish children at the time - and I lodged in Norwich through the week and returned home to south Leeds at weekends. Dorothy spent some time with me on a weekend or two in Norwich whilst we house-hunted. We looked in the vicinity of places with stations and within our price range and eventually found a property in Salhouse, on the Broads and with a relatively easy train ride for me to take me into work.
At that time, I’d owned my Aveling & Porter steam roller WHITE ROSE for some 15 years and the thought of parting with her, or leaving her behind in Yorkshire, was not something I could contemplate. So, she had to come too – eventually. In some respects, this was a blessing since a tall chimney adjacent to the shed in which she was housed at that time was not in the best of repair and recent bad weather was making it just a little unsafe – and the owners were making noises about terminating our lease on the building. It was a superb place to be just then for it was about five miles from home and was a former stationary engine house in a brickworks yard, used then merely for brick storage. There were two of us with rollers in the shed – with its white tiled walls and a huge pit in the centre where the engine flywheel once was - indeed a splendid and somewhat appropriate place to garage our rollers and all the other impedimenta – such as living van and trailers – that one tends to accumulate over the years of being involved in this preservation hobby of ours.
One of the problems at that time was that the Aveling needed a new smokebox and so that necessitated several visits to Leeds after we had moved home to Salhouse in the January snows of 1978 in order to sort things out. I was well looked after by Yorkshire friends during that period which, at times, required me to sleep in the living van in the shed on Saturday nights before returning to Norwich on the Sunday evening.
A knock on the house door at Salhouse early one evening soon after our arrival surprised me somewhat for it was the chairman of the local traction engine club who had read of our move in the NTEC’s magazine, Steaming and who had come to welcome me to Norfolk. I thought that was a nice, kind and friendly gesture and I subsequently attended rallies with the roller at Strumpshaw, Tunstead (Trosh) and on one occasion, the roller was low-loaded down to Henham – foreign country to me, a dyed-in-the-wool northerner from Yorkshire!
Later on in that first year, I was presented with the opportunity to visit Weeting rally in mid-July. Being the third weekend in the month, this always clashes with Masham Rally, the big event in the Yorkshire Dales to the north of Ripon to which I’d traditionally driven for some years, the 40 miles there and 40 miles back with the steam roller. Being on the doorstep now, so to speak and with Dorothy working on that particular Saturday, the three children and I decided to go to the rally at Weeting by train and walk up the hill from Brandon station. We unfortunately just struck it unlucky for during our walk, the heavens opened and down the rain came to such an extent that on arrival on the rally site, we were drenched and some of it was actually under water. What a splendid show of engines was to be found there though, and all virtually new to me. The problem was that despite having reasonable footwear on, the three youngsters then took some persuading to go to another event – in case it rained and it turned out to be as unpleasant for them as Weeting was on that occasion – and after that it was for ever known in the family not as Weeting – but as Wetting!
Eventually, having sorted out the smokebox problem with the help of one of my good friends in Yorkshire and got the roller all back together again, two low-loaders, kindly provided by another good friend, made the long journey down to Salhouse and deposited a steam roller, living van, trailer and all the other ‘stuff’ there for me to sort out and put away. The roller was to live, well sheeted-up, up the drive adjacent to the house and under the oak trees and I built a small lean-to shed at the side of the garage to accommodate most of the ‘stuff’ whilst the living van and water trailer lived in a friendly farmer’s field for a time until other arrangements could be made for them.
Soon after the day of arrival, I decided to drive the roller up the drive to its intended spot outside the kitchen window. The driveway was made of six-foot long concrete slabs that I had hoped had been bedded in properly and would stand its weight. There were a couple of potential problems before I could do this, however. The first was that the drive was up a steep little ramp from the road, and I was unable to take a swing around off the road and drive up this ramp easily due to the narrowness of the road. There was, however, an entry into a field opposite and a suitable gateway that could be backed into in order to give me a straight run at the ramp. That got over the first difficulty. The second more major problem was the fact that the house’s septic tank was right in the middle of the driveway just at the top of the ramp off the road. The width of the roller was such that the back roller, where most of the weight was, might just not pass over the septic tank cover on both sides and I therefore thought long and hard about how to get over this problem without landing myself – and more importantly - the roller, in the proverbial.
I therefore acquired a couple of long railway crossing timbers from work and chamfered the ends to give a reasonably good slope up which to climb at the end of the run up the slope from the road to the drive level and then to let the roller down gently at the other end and onto the concrete slab drive. I reckoned that once the front rolls were up the ramp and the chamfer and onto the timbers, they would hold them steady and the rear rolls, with both pins in, would climb them OK.
So it came to pass and on the appointed day, I made sure that no-one else was close, just in case there was a problem and a large descending and expensive noise happened. I steamed up and with plenty on the clock, I drove the roller from the gateway opposite, across the road, onto the ramps and up the two slopes - heart in mouth - that my cunning plan should succeed. Just when the roller got to the top of the ramps and onto the level sleepers, the whistle blew. What - I nearly messed my pants – talk about landing in the proverbial, it nearly came up to greet me out of the septic tank! I knew there was no-one else around – so why should there be a whistle very close by and virtually in my ear. It frightened me considerably and I swiftly came back to reality and down from the underside of the canopy to where I seemed to have jumped, to realise what had happened.
Adjacent to the right hand side of the driveway was a silver birch tree - one of several in the garden and one of its branches was overhanging the drive. This I had not realised or even thought about during my deliberations as to how to get the roller up the drive and close to the house so it could be sheeted up and winter there nicely. As I drove forward up the ramps, this branch had caught the chimney first, then the front awning support and had flipped past and the ends had got themselves entangled in the whistle cord – hence blowing the whistle! I stopped momentarily, untangled it and proceeded slowly down off the timber ramps and onto the concrete slabs and equally slowly up the drive, still shaking from my recent ‘ghostly’ experience. I can tell you that that tree was trimmed back somewhat before the following Spring when I did the reverse run to get the roller back down the drive and onto the road again!