New Year’s Day 2019 was crisp and cold; the weak sun shone out of an impossibly bright blue sky – making it an ideal morning to investigate the Phoenix Green Annual Classic Vehicle meet.
At any other time of the year, Phoenix Green in Hampshire is more of a transit village than a destination. Lying astride the main A30 trunk road, two and a half miles north east of the town of Hook, its normally just another “A” road connecting Staines-upon-Thames with Basingstoke.
All of that changes on the first of January every year.
The main focal point of the village is the Phoenix Inn, a magnificent old building, dating back to the 1700s.
It is also the ancestral home of the Vintage Sports Car Club, which was founded at the Phoenix Green Garage, and is now a veritable mecca for classic and sports car enthusiasts and the vintage motorcycle fraternity.
This is the opening event of the year for the south-east England classic vehicle community, and attracts all sorts of historic vehicles, from military trucks to vintage and veteran cars. There are normally contingents from owners’ clubs, intermingling with private owners and collectors.
The event is in no way formally organised, and exhibitors and participants just arrive in the village and find somewhere to park. There is absolutely no Police presence, and vehicles of all descriptions are parked on the hard shoulder, the central reservation and the verges, and it all appears to run safely and happily.
We arrived mid-morning, and already the pretty old village was packed with vehicles, and there was a relaxed party atmosphere, as villagers and visitors wandered up and down, admiring the beautifully restored cars and motorcycles.
The Phoenix Pub is heavily involved in supporting the event, giving over their car park for restored cars and concours motorcycles to be displayed. They were also busy refuelling the spectators and drivers alike, providing mulled wine and hot food outside, in addition to serving meals and drinks inside the pub restaurant.
Having walked up and down both sides of the road through the village, I was a little surprised to have counted five McLaren supercars, each with a price tag of at least £160,000, an absolutely pristine Aston Martin DB6 with a provenance that valued it in excess of £500,000, £60,000 worth of Series 1 Land Rover, a drool-inducing Chevrolet Corvette in searing red which would purge at least £40,000 from the bank balance, and a wonderfully restored Scammell military truck with a street value of about £25,000.
Add in about thirty classic vintage motorcycles, and variegated other marques and models spanning both the last seventy years and the Atlantic Ocean, and the investment parked up haphazardly along the main road was in excess of £1,950,000.
This event is well worth a visit – unless you happen to be a motor insurance underwriter, in which case it would be best to stay at home.
Just in case.
So, better make a note in your diary for next year!
We have been hearing about it in the news almost every day, until it was supplanted by other issues. The run-up to BREXIT, the general election, floods, and now the Coronavirus pandemic have made us all temporarily dump the issue and public attention is now fully occupied with the control of the global pandemic.
The mainstream media have highlighted the drop in climate-change gases – a direct link to a significant reduction in both travel and manufacturing following global lockdown.
From a planetary perspective, the drop is not highly significant and as soon as lockdown finishes, we will probably revert to our old ways very quickly.
Having said that, I am hopeful that state governments will use the opportunity to consolidate some of the steps that have been taken to enable the use of alternative means of transport – making that small reductions permanent.
We have seen cities around the world banning vehicular traffic from city streets, together with enhancing cycle lanes and pedestrian routes, making it easier and cleaner to travel.
This is nowhere near enough, but at least it is showing that people can get around large cities safely without using a car or public transport.
All the media focus revolves primarily around the ever-increasing levels of air pollution that are triggering climate change, rising sea levels and rising temperature.
There is, however, an interesting health issue that lurks in the sidelines.
As a species, we rely on breathing air, from which we extract oxygen, and then exhale CO2, together with other gases such as Nitrogen and Methane, and some organic compounds.
In order for our bodies to function correctly we rely on our lungs to absorb oxygen and exhale the CO2 in the correct ratios.
The composition of the air that we breathe is 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and 1% Argon. There are also traces of CO2, and rare gases such as Xenon, Neon, Helium, Methane.
As we increase the levels of CO2 in the air, our lungs will be unable to exhale the surplus and this will be absorbed into the body, which will have an effect.
According to a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado in Boulder, The Colorado School of Public Health, and the University of Pennsylvania, evidence suggests that future levels of CO2 may severely impair our cognitive ability.
The study based its research on two scenarios; one, a world where human society reduces the amount of CO2 it releases into the atmosphere, and the other where we don’t – “business as usual.”
Alarmingly, even when we do reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we release into the ecosystem, by the year 2100, individuals would still be exposed to elevated levels (by today’s standards) of CO2 leading to a 25% decrease in cognitive abilities.
The reduction in mental ability is caused by an increase in CO2 in the brain, a condition called Hypercapnia. which leads to a reduction in brain/blood oxygen (Hypoxemia).
The result is a reduction in brain activity, decreased levels of arousal and excitability. On top of this, it induces sleepiness, and anxiety, the result of which is an impact on our cognitive functions such as learning, memory, strategising and crisis management.
This is easily understood. Who hasn’t been in a lecture room, classroom or meeting room, where our concentration wanders, and we get tired and disengaged. The result of excess CO2 released by a lot of individuals. The solution is normally to open a window to let in some fresh air.
But what if the air outside was not really fresh at all?
A report in 2001 (Robertson) argued that even slightly elevated levels of CO2 (720 parts per million) could cause lowered pH in the blood (acidosis) leading to restlessness, mild hypertension and ultimately confusion.
The report concluded that if we continue with “business as usual”, flagrantly releasing megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, by 2100 we could see our cognitive functions reduced by as much as 50%.
Unless we build on this virally-induced reduction in CO2 and continue to decrease global pollution, we may survive this.
If not, we, as a race, are doomed to become the joint recipients of the last-ever Darwin Awards.
Flying is a serious addiction. It needs feeding, and a sufferer will need to get a regular fix if he or she is to remain happy. Denying any aviator their flying fix will result in massive mood swings, irritability, loss of sense of humour, and a restlessness that is impossible to shift.
Having passed my written examinations for my ATPL in the UK, I needed to build my flying experience, and amass a considerable number of hours in a relatively short time.
Working in Flight Operations for a major British Airline, meant that I had access to heavily discounted airfares, and in some cases free tickets and as flying light aircraft in the USA was half the price of flying in the UK, it made sense to go to America.
Readers of my previous posts will know that I learned to fly in Fort Worth near Dallas, however, I wanted to do my hours building in an area where I could partake of other leisure activities when not flying.
This left me with two choices; Florida or California. I did a lot of research on the two states, and their flying schools, and decided to go to Southern California, initially to Fullerton Municipal (KFUL) and then to Long Beach (KLGB).
As I had friends in Southern California, I frequently combined flying with chilling out in either Rancho Santa Margarita or Dana Point. This naturally involved drinking beer, shooting the breeze, and in some cases, shooting firearms on a friends ranch.
Which brings me to the point of this article. There is always one person that you will meet in aviation who is a true professional and leaves a lasting and indelible impression upon you, stamping their ethos onto your soul.
I met that man in February 2002, at Long Beach Airport.
I had landed at LAX the previous afternoon and planned my stay in such a way as to maximise my flying time. I booked a hotel near Long Beach Airport and drove there from LAX so that I could be at the flying club first thing the next day.
Walking into the flying club, I chatted with the ops desk clerk and told him that I wanted to book an aeroplane and an instructor. I had decided that I would use the hours building opportunity to do the differences training onto a new aeroplane type, and I was offered a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. I was told that Harry was available and that they would ring him for me to discuss times with him.
When the call connected, I explained to Harry what I wanted to do, that I wanted to convert onto a new type and to undertake my biennial flight review.
“Sure,” he said, “The airplane is booked at 1500, for a two-hour slot. So, meet me at the club at 1430, we’ll go through the paperwork, and briefing. Then we will go and sit in the airplane for an hour, going through the drills and talking about the performance. You gotta pay for my time whatever, but you only pay for the airplane once the engine is running, so better to do the classroom stuff on the ground, then we can concentrate on having fun and flying”
Putting down the ‘phone, I smiled. Harry sounded a nice bloke. He’d saved me a good few dollars, so I decided to invest in a new checklist, a chart, and other bits and bobs in the pilot shop.
When I say bits and bobs, I mean a new Noise Cancelling Headset and a RAM mount for my GPS navigation unit.
I read the club rules, signed the books, and reviewed the departure procedures and any long term NOTAMs that would affect me the next day. I decided that I would leave the route plan up to Harry, and just see what happened.
The next morning was gloomy and foggy, typical LA Basin weather, but if it was true to form it would have burnt off by about 1400, so happy days.
I grabbed a quick hotel breakfast, and glugged back a mug of coffee, and then drove to the airport.
Parking up, I walked up the stairs to the club, grabbed another coffee, and went and sat on the balcony overlooking the ramp. On the far side of the airport, the Sheriff Department’s helicopter sat forlornly on the parking, and I could see a C-17 being towed into the McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) hangar.
I killed the time reading the Pilots Operating Handbook for the Cessna C172 SP Skyhawk and chatting with the other students and club pilots. After a relaxed lunch of a grilled sandwich washed down with Sprite, I went back into the ops room to meet Harry.
Harry wandered in at 1430, carrying his clipboard, headset, chart and a small case. About my height, but with at least ten years seniority on me. He had a luxuriant moustache, which emphasised his happy smile.
We shook hands, and after a few pleasantries, went down to the aircraft, where he patiently went through the controls with me, paying special attention to the fact that this was an injected engine – different to the normally aspirated models that I had flown previously.
He conducted a brief questions and answers session with me, then briefed for the departure out of Long Beach. It was as I remembered, straight out, a left turn at the Los Angeles River, and down to the Queen Mary, where we would turn south.
The route was down to San Diego via Mount Palomar. Cool. I swiftly drew lines on the chart, and calculated times and headings, corrected with a quick call to 1-800-WX-BRIEF for an en-route weather briefing.
Then it was back to the aircraft.
Harry leaned back in the right-hand seat, looked across at me, and said, “OK, It’s your airplane, I’m just here for the ride.”
So saying, he looked out of the window, as I called Long Beach ground for taxi clearance, and requested a squawk for SOCAL approach Southbound to San Diego.
I frantically scribbled the clearance down, together with the Squawk; I was surely not used to the machine-gun-fast radio in the US.
We taxied out, number two to a Douglas DC-3, and stopped at the holding point to do the vital actions and pre-flight checks.
Once the DC-3 had departed, I lined up and asked Harry if he was happy and good to go.
“I’m good” was his laconic response, and I eased the throttle to the stop, and we accelerated down the tarmac, lifting off cleanly, and climbing away into the bright sunlight.
I smiled to myself. My prediction was correct – the maritime layer had burnt off nicely, and the sky was bright blue.
I changed frequencies to SOCAL approach, and they immediately had me identified on radar and cleared me to the south as filed. Crossing the LA River – which flows through a concreted canal, I rolled into a left turn and then left again to parallel the coast, gently climbing to my planned cruise altitude.
Interestingly, the Los Angeles River has been used in several movies, with probably the most famous ones being Grease, Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight Rises.
I could see Emmy and Eva the two oil platforms out ahead near the shoreline and some large cargo ships entering the Port of Los Angeles at Long Beach.
Harry seemed quite happy with my performance so far and once I had the aircraft trimmed out for straight and level flight, Harry came to life, as if energised by a switch in the cockpit.
He asked me to demonstrate several manoeuvres and spotted a number of areas where he thought I could improve my flying. Climbing a little higher, he had me stalling in every configuration, steep turns, timed turns, slow flight and practice engine failures.
At the end of each feedback session, he would get me to repeat the manoeuvre, and if I did it to his satisfaction, he would murmur “There ya go” If not, it was more practice required.
Having performed all of this he asked me to plan a diversion to Los Alamitos Army Air Base.
This made me work hard. The grilled cheese and ham sandwich and can of Sprite I scoffed earlier was conspiring against me, aided and abetted by the turbulence. I had to be head down in order to plan the divert (No Sky Demon moving maps then!), and I was grateful that the planning didn’t take too long, as I really didn’t want to toss my cookies in the aeroplane.
I rolled the aircraft onto my calculated heading and guessed at a wind correction, and we flew inland towards Los Al, descending at a pedestrian 500 feet per minute.
Harry leaned over and stared hard at my chart and the planned diversion, and then peered at the Direction Indicator. “That oughta work,” he said softly. After a few flights with Harry, I came to recognise this as high praise.
He leaned back into his seat, idly tapping his fingers on the glareshield.
“Hey, Y’know what would be good here… You done a talkdown before?”
I had never undertaken any Precision Approach Radar approaches, even during my instrument training, so this was going to be good.
Harry then said that he would take the radios and that I should concentrate on flying the aircraft.
I continued to descend, and Harry took control briefly and told me to put the hood on.
Once I was wearing the hood, he relinquished the controls. “She’s all yours” he grinned.
For the non-flying types that may be reading this, the “hood” is a smoked plastic visor designed to prevent a pilot from looking out of the windows, thus forcing them to fly using the flight instruments as their sole source of reference to navigate and control the aircraft safely.
I was now working at the extreme boundary of my performance envelope if I am honest. I was jet-lagged, and mentally tired, bearing in mind that this was my first flight for about a month.
Listening intently to the stream of instructions from the Radar Approach controller, I was constantly adjusting the power, rate of descent and heading. We were also getting lower and lower until finally the controller called “Radar Service Terminated”
Harry flipped my visor up, and there ahead of me was the main runway of Los Alamitos right under the nose.
“Will ya look at that! That came together nicely. Now, Go Around, and take me back to Long Beach, and we will have a coffee and a chat about what we should do tomorrow.”
The rest of the flight was almost routine, and I made a standard approach to Rwy 30 and an uneventful landing.
Switching to Long Beach Ground, we were cleared back to the flying club parking and as we taxied sedately back, Harry was giving me more feedback.
Pulling onto a vacant pan, I slowed the aircraft to a halt and performed the shutdown checks.
As the propellor jerked to a stop, the cabin became almost silent. I say almost, because the whine of the gyros spooling down and the ticking of the engine cooling reminded me that I still needed to secure the aeroplane.
We both got out, unplugging our headsets, and chatting amiably in the early evening sunshine.
Popping the control locks in, and removing the key, I made a final check that the master switch was off, before slamming the door and locking it.
I swiftly snapped the tie-down chains onto the lugs under the wings and walked around the aircraft tail to help Harry.
As I approached him, he held out something to me in his hand.
I took the item; it was a C90 cassette. I must have looked at him blankly, because he clapped me on the back, saying “Its an audio cassette, feller”
He reached back into the rear seat area and pulled out a small tape recorder. He had plugged it into the intercom jack in the rear cabin, so I had a complete record of the entire flight; his training, my responses, and the Air Traffic conversations.
He did this for every student that he took on an instructional flight. He made no charge for this. Not only was he an excellent instructor, from whom I learnt so much, but he was generous of spirit, and we flew many subsequent flights, where I was to enjoy his skilled instructing and excellent sense of humour.
His comedic muscle was well-developed. I remember that a few months later, I emailed him from England before my next arrival saying I wanted to do some interesting, longer navigation exercises, and he sent me a reply by email with a number of airfields to visit, together with web-links.
The suggestions were:
Las Vegas Muni, Santa Barbara, and the Chicken Ranch in Nevada…
I duly checked the links, to discover the Chicken Ranch was a brothel with its own airstrip.
I called him from the UK to explain that I didn’t think that SWMBO would be too enamoured of me visiting the Chicken Ranch.
He was roaring with laughter, as he said that he was thankful that I didn’t want to go there because his wife would be equally unhappy.
So, we went to Santa Barbara, but that’s another story.
Sadly, my mentor, instructor and friend died when his parachute failed to open at Perris Field in Southern California in October 2008.
After all these years, I still have four of Harry’s C90 cassettes, which I need to get digitised. I am sure there is still information that I can learn from.
Blue Skies Harry.
See you at the bar in the Big Flying Club in the Sky.
In September 2005 I decided that I needed a new flying challenge. I was stale. I completed my Instrument Rating a few years prior, together with my Multi Engine Rating, and Night Rating. I needed to rejuvenate my flying mojo. To do that I required a new challenge.
I was fortunate that I had been able to put some of the more interesting types of aeroplane into my logbook since getting my licence in 1989.
Through both training schools and friends, I had been privileged to sample the delights of many different aeroplanes. Reviewing my logbooks, I see many different types, from 1930s biplanes to Modern Hot ships.
Whilst I had flown a good number of tailwheel aircraft, and had handled them, I hadn’t completed formalised differences training which is required in the United Kingdom to fly one.
The necessary training was a short course consisting of a minimum of 5 hours flying time. Naturally, this was open-ended, and the number of hours required to complete the training is dependent upon flying ability and aptitude.
I flogged round the circuit at Redhill Airfield in G-BMKB, a Piper PA-18 Super Cub under the guidance of my instructor, Jim. Jim was a highly experienced tailwheel pilot, despite him being in his early twenties.
My general handling abilites seemed to be fine. Take offs were, shall we say, interesting in the early days, but with practice I could get the tail up and correct the swing nicely.
Landings however, were a different matter. My early attempt saw the little aeroplane leap back into the air like a startled Kangaroo, or slalom left and right as I wrestled with the rudder pedals to stop it chasing its own tail.
Jim normally sorted things out, and it wasn’t long before I could land the aircraft nicely in a three point attitude. I didn’t like wheeler landings – and still don’t, but I regarded them as a necessary evil.
I see that I completed my training in the minimum hours required, and have a nice sticker in my logbook proclaiming that I was comptent to fly more interesting types.
Towards the end of August in 2007, I decided that I would invest in a group-owned aircraft. A colleague at British Airways said that he wanted to get rid of his share in a Super Cub based at Redhill, and the price was right.
On a Sunny Saturday, I arranged to meet him and he would let me fly it prior to the sale.
I arrived at Redhill to find the aircraft sitting on the ramp outside the hangar.
I was walking towards the aircraft when I received a text message telling me that the seller was delayed by half an hour and that I should “Have a poke about and see what you think”
I did just that.
I opened the window and door, and had a good nose round the cockpit, which looked well kept, clean and tidy. It also had a radio and a VOR. Luxury!
I unclipped the cowling, and took a dekko at the engine, and whilst I was peering intently into the void I heard a voice say “Good Morning, are you interested in buying a share in Betty Boo?”
He looking meaningfully at the registration – G-BTBU
“She’s known by everyone on the field as Betty Boo”
I guess he was in his early sixties, with a mop of grey hair, and oil on his hands.
After a bit of general chit chat, he finally cut to the chase, and asked me about my flying background.
“Are you a shareholder in the group?” I asked. I wasn’t about to give my background without good reason.
“Yes” he replied, “I am. Been in the group for years”
“Well, if you must know, I learned to fly as an Air Cadet about six miles from here at RAF Kenley, back in the seventies”
He fixed me with a steady look, saying “I used to instruct at Kenley in the seventies.”
“What’s your name?” I asked
“I’m Stewart Rhodes.”
“Bloody Hell!” I exclaimed. “Dusty Rhodes! You sent me solo in 1976”
I shook his hand, but I could see that he was not convinced.
Anyway, I ended up buying a share in Betty Boo, and enjoyed flying her, after I had been checked out by Dusty Rhodes.
How weird. Small world?
Yes. The same man taught me in 1976 in a Kirby Cadet MkIII glider, and then sent me off again 31 years later in my own aeroplane.
Today should, by rights, be a good day for me to write an article.
Maybe words to titillate the senses; maybe to educate, entertain or inform? Or maybe an opportunity for me to be self-indulgent.
Why does today augur such good omens?
Well, for a start, it just happens to be the birthday of William Shakespeare, or so the historians think. The actual date of the bard’s birth is not recorded or documented, but his baptism was, and he was christened on 26th April 1564. It was normal to have baptisms three days after the birth, so I guess its a reasonable assumption.
Weirdly, William Shakespeare died on the 23rd April 1616. This is documented, so either way you look at it, this should be a good day for a struggling penman to bash out a few words.
Now, flashback to the early 1970s.
Confounding my father’s prediction that I would be an imbecile for the rest of my life, I did pass my eleven-plus exam, and made the cut to get into Grammar School.
English lessons with Mr Dobbins were dreary and dull, but at least he taught me the fundamentals of grammar, and spelling.
Even at that age, I was a voracious reader. My bedroom bookshelves housed the complete works of Issac Asimov (all read, I add), but I recall that I also dabbled with H G Wells, Jules Verne, E E “Doc” Smith and Arthur C Clarke.
However, nothing prepared me for the sheer, unadulterated hell of classes in English Literature.
Miss Briggs, my English Mistress, was a true hippie, complete with an Alice headband, long dresses and mauve tights. I think she knitted her own shoes.
But she was a nice soul, generous with her praise, and gentle with her frustrations at dealing with a totally disengaged class.
The english literature syllabus back then required that students were able to understand the context of the books studied, and could explain the use of metaphores, and allegories.
This meant that the works of the great writers were dismantled, sentence by sentence, line by line, chapter by chapter.
And then the probing questions and tests to establish our understanding…
“Mark, what did Shakespeare mean by his obscure use of the word and in this sentence.
After two years of dissecting Macbeth and Richard the Second, I was put off Shakespeare’s works completely,. So whilst I could (and still can) recite several speeches and soliluquies, I ended up leaving school with a deep seated loathing for Shakespeare, and a not much better opinion of the mediaeval writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Maybe this was a reaction against learning The Millers Tale and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in Middle English.
What the hell were our educators thinking???? My old school friends, with whom I still meet regularly, all left school with the same feelings.
It was many years before I came into contact with the Bard again; I was in my mid twenties, and had joined my local drama group. After gaining confidence and appearing on stage in a lot of very minor bit parts, I was finally being offered more principle or leading roles.
One winter evening, I went to a meeting of the players, to discover that the next play we were producing would be A Midsummer Night Dream.
My heart sank. Not Shakespeare…
However, I soon discovered that when read and performed as the great man intended it to be, it was truly joyous, and is a great piece of literature.
I have never managed to read any of his works as a book. I have watched and genuinely enjoyed some excellent performances of his work, so the cultural damage inflicted upon me as a kid have been repaired, but it has taken over four decades!
If they had required that I study Science Fiction, I would have probably passed my English Lit exam with an A+ rather than a C-.
The other thing of note about today’s date, is that it is Saint George’s Day.
For those that aren’t familiar with Saint George, let me briefly explain. St. George is the patron Saint of England. Not Britain. England.
The true history of St. George is lost in the mists of time, but he did exist. It appears from several accounts that he was a serving officer in the Roman army around 300AD. Legend has it that he killed a dragon that was slaughtering the residents of a local town. He was offered a monetary reward from the King, but refused to accept it, and donated it to the poor of the town.
This made him worthy of Sainthood.
There are accounts from 12th Century Genovese books that refer to Saint George’s colours being a red cross on a white background.
Other accounts tell of him fighting alongside the English Knights Templar during the crusades of the 12th Century.
In 1348 King Edward III of England incorporated the Cross of St. George into the English Royal Standard, and by the end of the 14th Century, St George was adopted as the Patron Saint of England, and the Protector of the Royal Family.
It has been this way for centuries.
Now, the English seem to have a reputation as a self effacing race. We don’t normally go in for self agrandisement, prefering understatement to get by. That and the much publicised “Stiff Upper Lip”.
So, it’s our Patron Saint’s day today. We are in lockdown. So none of our pubs will be open for the discounted English Ale, cheap Cider, roast beef sandwiches and pork pies . There will be no give-away straw hats, or plastic flags. No Public Holiday.
I’m sitting here in the early evening enjoying my back garden, listening to the birds as I mull over this article. My terrace is bathed in warm, golden sunlight, as Sol starts to dip majestically behind the trees lining the nature reserve.
I am so very fortunate. I have managed to make the right decisions – either by luck, intuititon, or skill, that have resulted in me living in a beautiful part of the UK. Or it could be SWMBO’s excellent judgement.
I don’t question SWMBO’s judgement – she is, after all, with me, so her decision making and judgement skills are refined.
I live in Hampshire which, like most of the UK, has a timeline of civilisation that extends 14,000 years into the past.
Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD 43 and shortly thereafter (in the larger scale of things), Winchester became the County Town of Hampshire.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the British concept of county towns – a county town was the ancient equivalent of of a capital city, but at county level. Traditionally, a county town is the most important or significant town in a county.
Winchester is not only the county town of Hampshire, but also a city in the truest sense of the definition.
In the UK, most people use the term “city” to describe any large town, but the status of a city was traditionally only given to towns that had a Cathedral – King Henry the Eighth establishing the first ones during his reign. To this day, the UK’s monarch has to grant city status to any town.
Winchester cathedral was consecrated in 1093, and is a wonderful old building, which seems to have history seeping out of its walls and emanating from its very fabric.
Winchester is about 24 miles west of where I live. It is a beautiful old city. It is where the ancient English King, Alfred had his royal seat.
The old part of the city, in which the ancient cathedral sits, is a maze of tiny cobbled streets and lanes.
The area in which I live is also historic. There has been a human settlement here at least since the 14th Century; the Roman army crossed the River Wey at Lindford, about 1 mile away, whilst en-route to battle in the west of the county in the early part of the the last millenium. The crossing over the local stream has been here since 1350, but the current bridge was refurbished in 2008.
So, we are in Lockdown.
According to Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), we are allowed to exercise once a day. So, this last Sunday, SWMBO and I decided that we would partake of some gentle exercise in the form a walk through the Deadwater Valley Nature Reserve.
It was a beautiful afternoon, with a light zephyr tousling the crowns of the trees as we left the house. A six minute walk up the hill took us to the entrance of the nature trail.
The trail is cool, the smell of damp sphagnum moss mixed with that wonderful, rich, loamy, peaty aroma. The sunlight pierced the canopy with spears of golden light, impaling the shy bluebells and forget-me-nots hiding on the floor of the woods.
We continue wandering, sowly, drinking in the scents of the woodland. The information board informs me that this is a home to Stag Beetles, Slow Worms, Sparrowhawks, Red Admiral butterflies, Nuthatches and Goldfinches – together with the occassional Roe or Muncjac deer.
We plod on, hand in hand, humbled by the sheer abundance of plants, insects and wildlife.
We see few people on the trail; those that we do are keen to ensure that we all comply with the two metre separation. Sometimes, we yield to walkers coming towards us, standing in the undergrowth so tha they may pass. Natural selection seems to ensure that next time we meet fellow walkers, they hold back for us to pass.
However, the social niceties are maintained, with many “good afternoons”. “please”, “thank you” and “have a good one” as we contine our walk.
The trail isn’t crowded by any means; we are in solitude for most of it – just us, walking, talking, laughing. Soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying nature.
We continued on, walking generally north until we reached the exit point, where the new housing estate starts.
Not wanting to just return on the same route, we decide to wander through the small town suburbia and re-enter the reserve a little further down.
It’s a relief to leave the road once more, lined as it is, with high density housing, and populated with bus stops, garage blocks and parking bays.
We re-enter the reserve, skirting the sticky muddy morass near the stile, and test the waterproof capabilities of our footwear as we stride on through the silty puddles that surround the more glutinous mud.
Looking at the tracks in the earth, I immediately deduce that the trail is used by mountain bikers, hikers, walkers, children and dogs.
Eat your heart out Sherlock Holmes. Go back to your flat Hercule Poirot.
Whilst the nature reserve isn’t large, we have never visited before, so I was happy that I had a fully paid up account with the Ordnance Survey, and had access to excellent charts.
Using the app, we quickly planned how we would return to the end of the park nearest our home.
Our route back took us past a picturesque pond, which, according to the information board, was home to Toads, Frogs, Herons and Dragonflies.
Sadly, we didn’t see any of them, but it has given me an excuse to come back again to check it out more regularly.
I would not necessarily have discovered this wonderful place if I hadn’t been on lockdown – so something good has come about as a result of COVID19.
My day today has been filled with catching up on various tasks around the house, so maybe tomorrow I will dig my bike out, and go and explore in a bit more detail.
A great way to do an hours exercise without having to go to the gym, which I find abhorrent at the best of times.
On a sunny and bright January Sunday I escorted my elderly Mother to her local church.
A confirmed Christian, my dear old Mum has been attending the same church since I was a child.
I attended this very church until I started work; I was confirmed there when I was about thirteen.
My Parents continued as paid-up practising Christians, but I lapsed over the years, perhaps because I came to realise that, in my own very humble opinion, most religions (with the exception of Buddhism) are possibly the root cause of most types of conflict – best summarised as “My God is better than your God, so I will persuade or force you to believe in My God”.
I reckon that over the centuries, this has probably caused more wars than everything else combined. So, I got heartily fed up with it and decided that whilst I do believe in a force of good and evil, I stopped subscribing to any belief system that punishes people for being human.
That’s not to say that I don’t believe in a supreme infinite being.
I don’t think for one moment, that the perfectly integrated natural world in which we live happened by some cosmic accident. That would be akin to me taking a 5000-piece jigsaw, and throwing the pieces into the air, and then have them all land in the form of a flawlessly completed puzzle.
Folks, that just ain’t gonna happen is it?
Somehow, I feel more connection these days to ancient paganism. My Great-Grandfather was a Senior Druid. The limited amount of research I have conducted into both my Great Grandfather and Druidism shows them to be cognisant and respectful of the seasons – the natural flows and rhythms of the planet. Living in harmony with nature, and looking for ways to co-exist with our fellow inhabitants of this lonely rock we call home.
I don’t go to church that much these days, mainly family “duty” missions – hatchings, matchings and despatchings.
Having said that, whenever I visit my dear old Mum on a Sunday, I willingly take her to morning service, as I know it gives her great pleasure, and that in turn makes me happy too.
I normally combine this with a pleasant and relaxed drive through the beautiful Sussex countryside, through forests and heathland, traversing the undulating folds of this green and pleasant land, passing through villages that were already old when the Doomsday Book was still in draft form.
The trip normally routes via a small farm where we stop, and collect a dozen fresh eggs from the tiny stall at the gate, leaving a couple of pounds in the honesty box.
The last port of call before home is normally into a pleasant country golf club that serves the best coffee for miles around according to Mater.
But back to the story…
Having attended Sunday school since I was old enough to walk, I have a relatively good understanding of the Christian faith and see that it gives a lot of comfort and support to a lot of people.
I, therefore, believe that I am not a total charlatan or hypocrite when I take my mother to her local church on a Sunday morning. In some respects, I find it quite cathartic.
So – coming back to 0830 on that January Sunday.
It was a beautiful, crisp, clear morning, with azure blue skies; sporadic fluffy white clouds, and a cool wind, stirring the bushes as I walked the route to the church, over paths and roads that were etched into my memory over fifty years ago.
However, the speed at which I walked them was considerably slower than way back then. Echos of my childish laughter bounce back from the weathered brick walls and moss-clad fences.
I now meander, rather than stride. Mum is now much slower since her falls and as it’s a beautiful morning, I am content to wander next to her, as she regales me with an endless stream of chatter, telling me all that has happened in her busy week.
I greatly admire my Mother. My Father was her rock, and when he passed away 8 years ago, I thought that the strain and grief would kill her as well. However, the old girl is made of much sterner stuff, and it wasn’t long before she bounced back.
However, I know the amount of grit and strength this demanded of her.
She now enjoys an active social life, working part-time in the church cafe, attending various church groups – and up until recently, driving every week to meet up with her “old ladies” (all, of whom were younger than she was!) in one of the local towns, a short drive away.
She is now a regular bus rider and travels all over the counties of Sussex and Kent to visit different towns and shopping centres. Far from becoming a hermit, I now almost have to make an appointment to see my own mother!
So, it was on this lovely day that we sat down in the small Methodist chapel, resplendent in its gleaming white paint.
I recognised many of the folk in the congregation. Some I knew from years ago; the parents of some of my contemporaries, now aged, stooped, wrinkled and infirm. Some were my age, in their late fifties or early sixties and at least one nodded to me and smiled a greeting.
I joined in the hymns – somewhat unenthusiastically I admit. I have never been a great fan of Charles Wesley, and this service merely reinforced my views that he should have been taken away and summarily pecked to death by ducks for writing such appalling dirges.
I have more affinity with the happy, loud hymns created at Gospel churches. They seem to know how to really enjoy their worship.
The service was officiated by the incumbent vicar. His sermon gave me the inspiration to write this article.
His lesson was actually quite interesting and contained one very important quote. He was referring to the offertory, and he made the statement “you are only giving back a tiny fraction of what the Lord gave you”
This fragment of his sermon stuck with me, and my thoughts kept returning to it, unbidden throughout the following weeks.
Yes, for the comparatively paltry amount of a fiver, which is what I furtively chucked into the collection plate, I have always been on the upside of the equation. I am fortunate in so many areas of my life.
I am relatively fit and whilst I am no Einstein, I do have a reasonable level of intelligence and education. I hold down a good job, and as a result, I live in a nice house in a beautiful part of Southern England, surrounded by nature and enjoy a good standard of living.
I have been so privileged, that through my accident of birth, I was born into an age of good medicine and healthcare and into a temperate and civilised country.
In addition, the country in which I live, has a decent democratic society, with a generally compassionate and caring nature.
I could have so easily been born into poverty and disease, or a totalitarian society with brutal law enforcement, where there is no such thing as individual freedom or a free media and press.
What value could be placed on these fundamental privileges?
So, yes, the old padre was correct in his sermon.
My fiver, will hopefully go to aid those so desperately in need of it; medical relief in sub-Saharan Africa? a school in the slums of Brazil? clean water in the hinterlands of Tanzania?
It matters not where it goes. I do know that it will be sent where it is needed most – and hopefully will make a difference to someone’s life.
Ask most men about the Woman’s Institute, and the chances are their eyes will glaze over, and they will mumble a few sentences about Jam making and Jumble sales.
Unfortunately, this stereotypical image is almost universal, and not confined just to the male population. Many women will also be dismissive of the WI, regarding it as “a bunch of little old ladies”
It’s a shame that the WI can’t seem to shake off this somewhat unfair picture.
Yes, it is true that many of the branches of the WI have a high percentage of older ladies, but this doesn’t mean that they are all in the final stages of decrepitude – quite the opposite in fact.
This was proved to me when SWMBO (at the extremely junior age of an early forty-something) joined our local branch of the WI. Within a few months she was involved in all sorts of activities, and for many years she was the editor of the county magazine.
She became expert at editing, proof-reading, composition, photography and graphics handling – not the sort of thing that one would normally associate with a member of the WI.
But the thing that really shocked me, was the day that she came home after one of her regular meetings, and sat down with me to enjoy dinner (Yes, folks, I really do cook!).
Over a forkful of home-made lamb curry, she said “Are you still interested in learning sword fencing?”
I had always harboured a longing to fence, having been fascinated by the swashbuckling of Erol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks in black and white pirate movies from way back in my childhood. More latterly Johnny Depp slugging it out in Pirates of the Caribbean caught my imagination.
In 2002, Pierce Brosnan gave a fantastic performance as James Bond in the movie Die Another Day, with a fencing match that developed into something much, much more. This four-minute sequence had me enthralled.
“Sure” I replied, wondering what would occur next
“Well……Denman College is running a fencing weekend in June, and I wondered if you would like to go?”
I must have looked a bit sceptical, because she followed this up with “Its being run by one of the English National Fencing Team coaches.”
“OK” I said, without giving it too much deep thought. “Count me in”
And that’s how I found myself driving up the A34 towards Abingdon, where Denman College is located.
Denman College was formerly RAF Marcham Park, until it was bought by the Women’s Institute in 1947. A large, elegant mansion standing in acres of wooded grounds, it enjoys an air of peace and tranquillity, and is now the home of the educational branch of the WI.
Normally men aren’t allowed into the premises, but as the husband of a member, I was welcomed enthusiastically by the lady in reception.
We were staying in a first-floor room in the manor house, which was reasonably well appointed. but decorated in the way your maiden auntie would have done her guest room – lots of velour and brocade. Not my taste, but comfy anyway.
Having checked in, we went down to the bar to enjoy a pre-dinner drink. As this is a women’s college, there is not a great selection of Boy’s Booze, but I was impressed to see that they actually had 5 bottles of Old Speckled Hen hidden in the bar chiller.
So, after quaffing 40% of the stock, we headed for the dining room, where we were treated to a fabulous meal, which I later discovered had been cooked by some of the ladies attending a cookery course.
After dinner, we met up with Monique, our instructress, who took us to the spacious conservatory where we were to undertake the course.
I studied my fellow students; in addition to Sue and I, who were the youngest amongst the class, there were about thirty women, whose ages I judged to be from early sixties to about mid-seventies.
I was just a little unsettled to discover that I was the only male on the course. Deep joy.
They appeared to enjoy varying levels of fitness, from the quite obviously athletic to the plainly lethargic, but all were incredibly enthusiastic and keen.
If I had any illusions that this would be an easy course, they were shattered when Monique announced that we would all be learning how to wear the protective equipment and how to hold our weapons – and the time was approaching 2130.
I have to make it clear here, that I have been a lifelong shift worker, and am normally at work by 0600. The alarm goes off at 0445 every day, so 2130 at night meant that I was fast approaching shutdown.
I was struggling to concentrate on the rules of fencing, which were complicated by the fact that the commands and salutations are all conducted in French. However, I did pick up enough to be able to correctly wear the glove, hold the sword, and adopt the correct stance for commencing combat.
At the end of the introduction, we made our way back to our room to get some rest.
Next morning, after a light breakfast, we assembled in the conservatory for our first real lesson in fencing. This was run as a series of small bouts between various students.
In order to ensure that opponents were physically matched, I was paired with Margaret, a tall slender woman in her early 60s.
We dressed in our protective clothing, and watched as others were shown how to lunge and parry.
When it was our turn, Margaret and I hesitantly adopted the correct stance, and then had an opportunity to practice attacking each other and defending. This was very useful, and gave an opportunity to get used to the weight of the sword, and the restricted vision the mesh helmet causes.
Once everyone had practiced in pairs, we were shown how the scoring system works, and we were trained how to judge whether a strike was a “hit” or a “miss”. Again, this would all be conducted in French.
The morning session ended, and over lunch, I found that the women involved were far from being “Little old ladies”. They were a feisty bunch, with wildly differing backgrounds, and far from feeling out of place, I soon felt one of the gang.
I have a sneaky suspicion that some of them were relishing the chance to hack away at me with a sword!
Fencing is quite a physical activity, so the course also included some modules on sports massage. Sue and I spent the afternoon learning how to give remedial massage to relax and release tired and aching muscles. This is actually very useful, and at the end of the session I felt quite drowsy and relaxed.
I should have known better! After dinner we re-assembled in the conservatory, and Monique informed us that we were going to practice some bouts using the electric scoring system.
This system relies upon a small button fitted into the point of the sword blade sending a signal to a buzzer when it is activated. Simply hitting the target triggers the light and buzzer.
The wires connecting the system are attached to a clip at the waist of the jacket, and then fed down the sleeve into the gauntlet, where it’s connected to a jack plug on the hilt of the sword.
As fencing is a very fluid sport, there is a lot of advancing and retreating, so to ensure that the combatants don’t trip over the cable, it is fitted with a spring loaded auto-retract system that keeps the cable taut at all times.
Having all had a chance to become familiar with the system, we packed everything away, and started to filter out of the room.
“Don’t forget – tomorrow, you will be fencing for real with electric scoring and you will be judging each other!” was Monique’s final comment.
I needed to indulge in a little more training, so I went back to the bar, and completed my stocktaking of Old Speckled Hen, and then headed for bed.
Sunday morning was fine and the conservatory was dappled in bright swathes of morning sunlight, interspersed with mauve-tinged shadows.
After a brief warm up period, we were put into pairs, and I found myself selected to fence against Julie.
Julie was much shorter than I, with a proportionally shorter reach when she lunged. I was inwardly relieved, thinking I should be able to place some strikes whilst staying out of range.
With these thoughts echoing in my brain, my reverie was interrupted by Monique’s strident voice calling “Mark and Julie”
We were already kitted out, so we walked out onto the piste, saluted the judge, saluted each other, and then donned our helmets.
On the command, we advanced and retreated, both making exploratory lunges and parries. I lunged, and was surprised with the ferocity of Julie’s counter attack and her parries.
Back and forth we pranced, until I felt a glancing blow on the side of my helmet. The buzzer squawked, and I heard Julie being awarded a point.
The next two bouts saw me successfully stitch two hits to Julie’s chest, but the final bouts were hers, as she first stabbed my sword arm, and then my leading thigh.
I removed my helmet, and saluted the judge, and then offered a salute to Julie, this salute being so much more meaningful as it was offered in genuine admiration.
Chatting to Julie as we removed the fencing jackets and gloves, I discovered that she was 74 years old, and the last time she fenced was as a senior-year girl at her Grammar School.
I was greatly impressed with these ladies “of a certain age” Some of them are no doubt “ladies who lunch”, and some are Jam-makers and knitters. However, they are all alive, and have a passion and zest for life that many youth club members would find difficult to match.
So, after my weekend with the “Silver Swordswomen” of Denman, I have come to realise that there is definitely something different about the WI – It’s not just Jam and Jerusalem!
Unless you have been living on the Cook Islands for the last few months, you will have heard of Corona Virus, now known as COVID 19.
The virus is officially a global pandemic, and is now rampaging across every continent, leaving a trail of dead.
Here in the United Kingdom, we are in a state of national emergency, and state-sanctioned lockdown is in effect, with only absolutley essential journeys authorised. All retail shops except those selling essential supplies such as food, maedicines and perhaps bizzarely, alcohol are closed.
The London Underground has shut stations across its network, and passengers figures are plummeting.
Working at home has been the norm for many workers. As a result, the economy is in freefall, with the retail and hospitality sectors being worst hit. Clubs, pubs, cinemas, churches, sports centres, museums and public buildings are now all closed for the immediate future.
The aviation and maritime sectors have been quick to feel the impact of travel restrictions, and many airports are struggling as flights have become virtually non-existent, passenger traffic stagnated, and many airlines now trying to mitigate their losses by flying freight.
Whilst the global shutdown is severely damaging both our manufacturing and financial economies, we are reaping some form of benefit; pollution levels have dropped across the planet, and air quality is improving.
It’s not just transport that contributes to atmospheric pollution – industrial and manufacturing activities have fallen across the UK and Europe as countries shutdown their economies to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
This shows that it is possible to stop climate change, but the societal costs are far too high to make this acceptable.
I do believe that when the virus is contained or burnt out, we will emerge from lockdown and social distancing as a changed society.
So, what may happen?
Many firms that up until recently were resistant to their employees working remotely will have seen that some of their “trust issues” have been proved to be unfounded and that staff have been as productive, if not more productive that when working at the office.
Bearing in mind the cost of office space, many companies may find the savings realised by using smaller premises make remote working desirable.
After a major pandemic such as this one, people may be far more cautious about personal hygeine, and become much more concerned to see that public areas are properly sanitised. This could have an effect on the practice of hot desking at work.
The travelling public will probably also need to see evidence that public transport is cleaned and sanitised far more regulalrly and effectively than currently.
The lack of public trust in the health security of public transport could trigger more car use, as people seek to protect themselves with more regularised self isolating. Even car sharing could become less popular as people choose not ot sit in close proximity with another individual on their commute.
Who can really say?
If thousands more people take up remote working, there may well be more economic pain ahead for public transport operators.
Railway and air journeys that used to be undertaken for business meetings may well now be conducted using video conferencing using internet platforms such as Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams.
Will our current level of communications network provision be sufficient to accommodate this?
Individuals that were reluctant to order shopping on-line, or use home delivery services prior to COVID 19 have now been using them out of necessity, and many of these people will now be sold on the advantages, leading to further decline of England’s high streets.
Individuals that were previously regular patrons of theatre and cinema will have become adept at streaming movies and watching “live” performances from the comfort of their own homes, using YouTube, Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The question is – will they return to the cinemas and thatres with quite the same degree of regularity as they did before?
It seems that the mainstream media have been focusing on the leisure and retail industries and whilst they do report on the struggle for our manufacturing industries, they do not highlight the underlying problems.
In the UK there is evidence that our contingency planning for a “Hard Brexit” triggered our government to closely examine our logisitcal supply chains with the involvement of the retail and distirbution industries, and this has surely helped ensure that truly essential items remained on the supermarket shelves, despite the media-induced panic buying.
The other aspect to this is the lack of resilience that our manufacturers have against supply chain failures.
Whilst numerous products are proudly made here in the UK, few are totally built here. Huge numbers of manufacturers import sub-assemblies, parts and components from overseas which are used to build their product.
The world’s biggest exporter, China, is, to all intents and purposes, the birthplace of COVID19, and also its primary exporter. The subsequent lockdown of the Chinese economy led to an abundance of British manufacturers struggling to obtain the raw materials, parts, components and sub-components needed to build and sell their own products..
This may result in a baseline realignment of our logisitical networks, and maybe re-initiate inward investment.
Who knows, we may see a slow transformation back into a manufacturing economy again.
This is a bit of a mixed bag then; at more localised levels the possible resulting drop in bus and train usage could lead to more cars on the road, each contributing to climate change. On the other hand, more people at home reduces traffic of any kind on the roads.
There are so many possible futures that could result from the aftermath of CV19, which only action at government level can establish.
This could be a great opportunity for each state to re-evaluate its’s strategies for handling pandemics, and may trigger new systems to increase the robustness of manufacturing bases.
Who knows, it may even give us the required impetus to design an improved model for society that will offer progress on controlling our nemesis of irreversible climate change.
The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”
It was my fourth week at work, and my first day working with the phone installation team.
It was early October in 1975, and I was enjoying my new life as a Trainee Telecommunications Apprentice with Post Office Telecommunications, now metamorphosed into BT.
Based out of my home town of East Grinstead in West Sussex, I had an easy commute and was enjoying the mid-October weather, which was mainly dry and warm.
As I was only sixteen, I was still living at home and enjoying all of the comforts that Mum and Dad provided.
Getting up on this particular sunny morning, I showered and pulled on my Levis, a check shirt, and my jacket, and rushed downstairs to greet the world.
My dear old Mum, bless her, had prepared me a bowl of cereals, and gulping this down, I gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek, grabbing my packed lunch as I rushed for the door.
Dragging my bike up the drive, I pushed and jumped astride it, nearly knocking down the neighbour’s nineteen-year-old daughter.
“Sorry!” I yelled over my shoulder, still accelerating down the cul-de-sac. Nice looking woman. Not interested in a kid of sixteen though, which was a shame as she was really hot.
The Telephone Engineering Centre was only just down the hill, right opposite my old school, and I zoomed down, eyes watering in the slipstream, arriving there within a few short minutes.
Swooping in through the open gates of the yard, I narrowly missed becoming a bonnet ornament for a bright yellow panel van which was just pulling out. Swerving, I dodged the truck, blasting through its sooty exhaust with inches to spare.
I carelessly rammed the front wheel of the bike into the rack, and snapped the chain around the wheel, locking it to the metal.
I noticed a door was ajar at the far end of the single-storey building, so, with a little trepidation, I walked down, and cautiously pushed the door open, and walked into the dimly lit interior.
“Ah…..you must be my new Youth in Training!”
I looked over to the corner, where the owner of the voice was seated – a slender man, in his mid-forties, whose mop of black unruly hair had been mercilessly bullied into a 1950s Tony Curtis style. On his lap, he was clutching a piece of equipment, whilst tightening something within it with a large, yellow handled screwdriver.
His rumpled tweed sports jacket was distorted by objects that had been rammed carelessly into the pockets, and his grey flannel trousers hadn’t seen a proper crease since 1953.
“Hello” I ventured, “I need to report to Mr Hudson”
“You’ve come to the right place then lad, as I’m Ben Hudson”
I shook his proffered hand, “nice to meet you Mister Hudson”
“It’s Ben” he chuckled, “no formality around here…..now, would you like some tea and toast?”
“Ben” I echoed. Bloody hell, a few short weeks ago, men of his age – my teachers at school, would have gone into meltdown had I addressed them in this way.
“Come on lad”, he said, placing the grey cased equipment onto the work bench, “Let’s go and grab some breakfast, and then we’ll head out.”
The restroom was full of sound – laughter, conversations, and odours of toast, coffee and cigarette smoke.
I followed Ben as he pushed his way to the kitchen counter, whereupon he dropped two slices of bread into the toaster.
Two minutes later, he passed me a plate with 2 slices of toast. “Butter is in the dish. We operate a tea swindle here which is 25p a week to cover tea, milk, bread and butter. Anything else you want, you buy yourself. You want to join, go and see Mitch, and he’ll put you on the list. Now, eat up because we have to get going.” So saying, he sluiced his plate under the tap and wandered out with his hands jammed into his pockets.
I hurriedly wolfed down the toast, and drunk the tea, (which I had to do really quickly to prevent the tannin from stripping the enamel from my teeth), then scurried after Ben, who was by now loading the back of his bright yellow Morris Ital van with plastic-wrapped phones, and cardboard boxes containing mysterious bits of equipment.
We got in, slamming the doors shut, and Ben drove us sedately out of the yard.
We meandered serenely through the sun-dappled lanes of West Sussex, the sleepy villages etching their historic lanes into my mind; Sharpthorne, West Hoathly, Danehill, Horsted Keynes, finally arriving in the small village of Scaynes Hill.
We parked up outside an elegant 17th century Manor House, with timber beams, and a patina of age on the whitewashed walls.
Grabbing a shrunk-wrapped telephone, a reel of cream cable and his leather tool bag from the back of the van, I followed Ben as we crunched our way up the gravel drive, with me clutching my small, virginal zip-up tool bag.
Knocking on the door, we stood in the porch, admiring the Elizabethan garden, resplendent in its autumnal colours. I idly wondered if they had a gardener.
At that moment the door was opened, revealing an elegant and stunningly attractive woman in her early thirties.
My eyes were immediately drawn to her magnificent breasts, snugly contained in a tight angora wool jumper.
My interest in her vaporised instantly as she spoke, haughtily, and with the arrogance that only the nouveau riche seems to have.
“I suppose you’re here to fit the phone….”
Ben glanced at me and agreed. “Maybe you can show us where you want it fitted? He asked.
She about turned, and strode off down the wood-panelled hall, nonchalantly indicating an open door on the left. “In there, on the window cill” she called without even giving us a further glance. I furtively watched her neat backside, as she sashayed off down the corridor.
We walked into the indicated room, which was bright, empty and airy, with a wood parquet floor. Ben smiled at me, and dumped his battered Gladstone bag on the floor, and tore open the cellophane packaging from the phone. Reaching into his bag, he tossed me the reel of cable and a small box of cleats.
Selecting a pin hammer from his bag, he explained to me “Secure the cable to the skirting board, using one cleat every pin hammer length. Put one cleat two inches from every corner you need to go around. Don’t nail through the cable. Got that?” I nodded. He continued “I’ll start in the hall. You do the room here. Leave me three foot of cable to hook the connector block to”
I gingerly unrolled a length of the cable, and commenced banging cleats in at the required spacing, managing to belt my thumb at least twice. I could hear the rhythmic thumping as Ben was cleating the cable to the skirting of the hall. He was moving at about three times my speed, so it wasn’t long before he appeared in the room with me.
He knelt down and started cleating as well. “Bit of a dry visit, this one” he murmured. “Snooty cow didn’t even offer us a tea” I grunted my response, and turned to see a small child, emptying the box of cleats over the floor.
Ben called through the open doorway to the boy’s mother, asking her to take him out of the room, as he was in danger of hurting himself.
She strode in, sweeping the child into her arms, and glared at us both as if it were our fault, before strutting out.
We turned back to our work, and I started hammering again. As I reached out to get another cleat, my hand struck something warm and wet. I looked around, and saw a Pekingese dog, snouting around in the cleat box.
I pushed it away, and it immediately nosed forwards and recommenced its snuffling. Ben also pushed it away, with the same result. He pushed it away – more firmly this time, but it was to no avail.
“Excuse me lady” he shouted down the corridor “Could you come and get your dog, it’s in the way”
There was no response from within the bowels of the house, so he called out again. Silence.
Heaving a sigh, he knelt back down, and once again started pushing the dog out of the way.
Each time it happened, he pushed the animal away more forcefully. I could see him beginning to lose his placid sense of humour. I smirked. It seemed that the dog wasn’t interested in me, so I knelt back down, and carried on bashing my thumb with the pin hammer.
I could hear Ben swearing at the dog, as once more it was interfering with his work. “Will you sod off!” I heard him exclaim. The dog didn’t sod off though, and it continued to push its nose just where Ben wanted to hammer.
I watched as this happened once more, and laughed as Ben finally lost control. He pushed the dog back, and as it advanced again, he tapped it smartly on the forehead, between the eyes, “for the last time, WILL YOU SOD OFF!”
The dog stopped in its tracks, froze, and rolled onto its back, quivered once, and then flopped over, immobile.
I looked at the dog. It’s chest wasn’t moving. “Christ Ben!” I exclaimed. “You’ve killed it!”
Ben looked shocked. “Nah. I probably stunned it. It’ll be ok in a minute”. I wasn’t sharing his optimism. The dog was dead. To make sure, I cocked my ear over its snout, and could detect no breathing.
“Ben……it’s definitely dead! Christ. What shall we do?”
My brain was already playing a film clip, featuring me getting the sack from an incandescently enraged manager.
“Don’t worry lad” said Ben, perking up. “I’ve got an idea”
He picked up the dead dog, slung it unceremoniously into his Gladstone bag, secured it closed, and said “follow me, and keep your mouth shut”
He yelled into the kitchen “Sorry love, we have to go back to the yard to get a tool. We will be back shortly”
A garbled response from the kitchen confirmed that she heartily disliked The GPO in general, and the Telecommunications division in particular, and bemoaning the quality of British working practices.
If only she knew.
We chucked Ben’s bag into the van, and we hurtled back to the yard in silence.
As we pulled into the yard. I asked “what tools do we need?”
Ben grinned, and said “A shovel lad”
Opening the back of his van, he passed me a large spade, and indicating the scrubby patch of woodland at the rear of the offices, he said. “Bury it”
“Bury it. Over there. Dig down two feet. Come on, hurry up. We need to get back. Consider it part of your training. Thinking on your feet!”
I miserably picked up the dog, which had already started stiffening up. I pushed my way into the bushes, and dug a hole, into which I placed it’s little corpse. I quickly shoveled the earth over it, and replaced the spade in the van.
Having completed my funereal task. We drove back to the customer’s house, and went back to wiring up the phone.
As we were finishing up, the woman came in, and cast her eye over our handiwork. “Does it work?” She asked, as if already convinced that it would be a major achievement if it did.
“Of course” replied Ben, as he nonchalantly started loading his tools back into his bag.
“Have you seen Lionel?” She asked
“Lionel?” We obviously both looked like drooling morons, as she explained to us slowly, enunciating each word slowly and precisely, as if to a six year old, that Lionel was her dog.
Ben furtively glanced at me, but we both shook our heads, as Ben innocently said “No, Madam, we haven’t seen a dog”
“Oh dear. I expected he got out when you went back to the yard. He’s probably in the woods by now”
“Without a doubt” I said, straight faced, looking at Ben. I could see he was trying very hard not to laugh.
“Yes, he likes to dig…..probably burrowing for rabbits”
“Oh yes…..I imagine He’s up to his neck in the mud” I said.
Ben had gone a strange colour, and was emitting constricted noises. I shuffled my feet, and said “Well…..cheerio then”
“Yes” she said, icily. “Goodbye”
She ushered us to the door, and with one final appreciative look at her wonderful chest, we were striding back down the drive to the van.
As we got into the van, Ben finally collapsed against the steering wheel, great guffaws of laughter filling the van.
“Oh my lord…..that was funny in an awful sort of way. Well done lad”. He wiped a tear from his cheek, and started the van, and we made our way back to the telephone exchange at Nutley for a cuppa and a bun.
And so ended my first day as an apprentice installing telephones in Sussex.