In the days before hard hats, safety boots and Risk Assessments, we used to call it "Just one of those days"
A Suffolk Tale of Woe in 1990
Characters involved: John; the sawmill manager. Vastly experienced, never wrong and possessing an embarrassing vocabulary when roused. Dave; the harmless, willing, but highly accident-prone driver of the Landrover.
John had bought a Walnut tree from a lady who ran a riding centre 10 miles away. He was under pressure to remove it. John had checked out the location once, but in order to be completely confident, he returned to measure the width of the field gateway for access by the mobile crane. All was well.
The plan was for John to drive the mobile crane and to load the butt onto a 3-ton trailer pulled by the Landrover. I was to bring my Range Rover with a second trailer so that we could collect another Walnut nearby. It would make an impressive convoy.
In case of problems, we decided to take our winch in its heavy canvas bag. Dave went to put this in the back of his Landrover, but as he lifted it forward he caught his shin a painful blow on the trailer drawbar – he said that he hadn’t seen it. (John said later that we should have abandoned the whole trip at this juncture.)
Unaware of events which were to befall us later, the convoy rolled out of the yard onto the main road. I was leading the way and checked my rear view mirror, only to see the mobile crane belching clouds of dense white smoke as it just made the brow of the hill. This smoke did not bother Dave in the following vehicle – he knew the road well. Not so aware was the elderly driver of a Mini Metro coming from the other direction, who saw a white wall confronting him and turned on his headlights. I never did learn what befell them, but his wife looked very scared when they passed me.
The smoke eventually cleared and the convoy proceeded without further incident to the farm. The trailers were parked to one side to allow John to drive through the gateway. Dave went forward to open the gate catch and caught his finger in the spring mechanism. No problem. But from my perspective there was a problem – when I looked up I could see that there was no way that the crane was going to fit through, because not only was there an overhanging Holly tree, with a bushy and venomous top, which would obscure John’s view of the gatepost, but it was also a greasy surface in the heavy rain. But I assured myself that John knew what he was doing.
John squeezed the offside bumper through and instantly realised that the other one was not going to fit – and was liable to demolish the gatepost. He braked hard and the crane slid backwards, hooking itself neatly onto the post. (See photo)
He turned off the engine and we could hear the diabolical language coming from the cab. John needed to get out to see what had to be done, but he could not extricate himself because the Holly tree had enveloped his window and door – and the other door was very temperamental. Just at this critical moment, the owner’s husband arrived on the scene and began haranguing us about compensation for his gate etc. I glared at John and we bit our tongues.
I grabbed a chainsaw and cut away the top of the prickly Holly tree and released the fuming John who was clearly embarrassed at his misjudgement of the width of the gate. The obvious remedy was to detach the rails from the main post. So whilst Dave hammered them off, I vaulted over the gate to view the situation from the other side.
But on that day my gymnastic skills fell short of perfect and I landed heavily on the lower rail which cracked loudly. The owner went daft. He now wanted new rails as well as posts. I gently explained that we were doing our best – and that we would get on better without his presence. He departed and we got on with the job.
Clearly we would have to dig out the main post even though the ground was rock hard. After half an hour of hot, hard work we finally succeeded and John triumphantly drove the crane into the field and over to the fallen Walnut. We unloaded our chainsaws and prepared to reduce the tree in length for transportation. John selected his best saw and began the cut in a pretty innocuous place when he hit a bunch of nails under the bark, ruining the chain. The language was not good, but at least the owners were out of earshot.
Using a second chainsaw, I then made a cut in a different place, only to hit more nails and spoil that chain. John took the saws away to replace the chains and burned his hand on the hot metal. I took an axe to ensure that the bark was clean and free of nails for the next cut, only to hit the tree a glancing blow which directed the axe into my shin. I joined Dave in The Limping Parade.
Eventually the cross-cutting was completed and it was time to lift the sections away. John climbed into the cab and released the wire rope for Dave to hook it around the log with the iron “C” hook. We moved aside as the winch pulled it in, but the log caught onto another piece of the tree causing the wire rope to flick off the jib pulley. This jammed solid, leaving the log dangling helplessly. John went daft.
After a great deal of cursing, the wire was freed from the pulley wheel and the log dropped violently, bouncing and hitting Dave in the legs. The second piece was at a better angle and lifted well. Dave was told to be on the alert this time. When the log was in position, I released the wire and its heavy hook. This swung back and hit the non-attentive Landrover driver with a pronounced “clang” on the side of the head. I enquired if he was alright and he muttered something about his woolly hat saving him.
With the log correctly suspended from the crane jib, John began reversing the machine across the bumpy meadow towards the gate where the trailer awaited. Dave ambled slowly in front, unaware of the swinging log – which proceeded to hit him in the back knocking him to the ground. John’s comments from inside the cab could not be considered constructive...
Eventually John manoeuvred the log over the trailer whilst Dave directed him to drop the load onto the bearers which he had positioned. When it was down, he reached forward to disconnect the wire, but found that the log was indeed resting on the bearers – but the self-same bearers were resting upon the tops of his shoes – and because his feet were jammed tight in his winkle-pickers, he couldn’t move an inch. I came to his rescue with a crowbar – and ended up jamming my gloves in precisely the same way as Dave had achieved with his size 10s. John climbed down from his cab and released my hands without a word being spoken...
All the timber was now loaded and it was time to drive through the gateway and then reposition the posts and rails. As a precaution, I took photographs of everything “before and after” because I had visions of a High Court judge listening to the proceedings...
Dave bent down to dig some spoil from the post hole, unaware of the post dangling from the crane above him. (You can guess the outcome, but suffice to say that his woolly hat came to his rescue again.) Surprisingly, the owners expressed satisfaction at our repairs and we were allowed to leave without further ado.
The plan had been to collect another Walnut log from a site a few miles away, but I simply couldn’t face another disaster, so I bade farewell to John and Dave and watched them head back to the sawmill – all the while thinking that the Landrover would probably drive into a ditch and John would land up on top of it with the mobile crane...
When I returned to my office an hour later, I thought it prudent to phone John to see if everything had gone to plan. His reply was guarded – although he admitted that they had arrived back without incident. When pressed, he explained that, after a cup of tea in the canteen, they unloaded the trailer and prepared to take a pile of Oak boards back to the cabinet workshops. Apparently, Dave had selected the wrong gear and backed the empty trailer straight into the canteen wall, ripping out all the boarding and hooking the water pipes onto his bumper as he drove off.
John was just getting out his hydraulic jack to replace the broken gate post when my call came through – and, oh yes, could I phone for a plumber?