CARBON FIBRE - HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Carbon fibres these days are commonplace. Most households have some, whether they in a piece of sports equipment, a golf club or tennis racket, or part of a car or other machine. But they have only been commonplace since say the mid-eighties, and I think that the story of their development [in which I was involved in the early seventies] is interesting if not amusing.
It is said to have started with a meeting of engineers in RAE Farnborough [Royal Aircraft Establishment], who were discussing what was needed for the next structural material for aircraft. It had to be light and strong, of course, but above all, it had to be stiff.
If you load a piece of metal towards the maximum it will carry before it breaks, it will stretch by over 1%. Imagine an aircraft wing like an iron bar with the weight of the fuselage in the centre. If the bar is only thick enough just to carry the weight, the bottom edge will stretch and the top edge compress until the wing is U shaped. "What we need." they said, "Is something that is not only strong, but stiff, will not bend. The stiffest thing we know is the bond between two carbon atoms". We have lots of strings of carbon atoms about us, any fibre is one, but they all contain other atoms like oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen which weaken them. "Suppose we could remove everything but the carbon, we should be left with a string of carbon atoms, and that is what we want! Who can help?
Courtaulds know everything about fibres; Morgan Crucible know about carbon and high temperature; Rolls-Royce know about engineering. Let's get the three of them competing to make a process to create Carbon Fibre!"
At Courtaulds we started with our Courtelle acrylic fibre. This was carefully oxidized, then heated to about 1500 Deg C, then in short lengths in a tubular carbon furnace to about 2500 Deg C. That needed to be done in an atmosphere of argon to stop it burning. As you can imagine, this was very difficult and expensive. The furnace was a graphite tube about 5 inches wide by 4 foot long. Graphite is the only material that does not melt at that temperature. It was wrapped in graphite wool inside a water-cooled steel jacket and when we passed about 3000 amps along the tube, it got hot enough! Eventually we learned how to get a rope of the fibre through holes at the inlet and outlet of the furnace that were flooded with argon so that the whole lot did not burn up. We could then make the fibre in continuous lengths.
In spite of there being only about 2 parts per million of oxygen inside the furnace, the carbon tube would burn-up in about 70 hours and we should have to re-build the furnace. RAE Farnborough would order a few 10s of Kgms that we sold at a loss at about £250 a Kgm. In about 4 months they said. "That went very well. Sell us another 50 or so Kgms."
We would say, "Certainly, but we have increased the production speed, it is now stronger and we can make it in longer lengths". "Good Heavens! You have changed things. We will have to start the test program again! We obviously cannot use anything that has been changed since it was fully tested, for if it fails. something might fall out of the sky, but we can only afford a few more Kgm for testing."
Courtaulds could not afford to continue this very expensive research unless there was a real expectation of selling a much larger quantity at a more reasonable price. Then someone had a good idea. What needs to be strong, straight, does not bend, and will not cause a tragedy if it breaks? How about a golf club? It might be expensive but an enthusiastic golfer will pay a lot for a rigid club that might increase the length and straightness of his drive. The idea was taken up, and soon spread to other sports equipment. Our production went from laboratory scale, to a true small production plant with an output of up to several tonnes a year, and the price was reduced by a factor of 10.
At about the same time [late 1960s], Rolls Royce had developed a successful carbon fibre plant, with the intention of using the fibre in the fan blades of the new RB211 engine. Of course, to use carbon fibre you have to make a composite of it with resin and the strength and other properties depend critically on the way the fibres are aligned in the resin. The blades fitted the design and the engine worked. Unfortunately, when someone fired a dead duck into it, the blades proved to be too brittle and they broke. You could not tolerate that in an aircraft in flight!
The cost of unsuccessfully developing both the carbon fibre plant and the new engine broke Rolls Royce. They were only saved by being bought by the Government. Ironically, it was not too long before the layout of the carbon fibre in the resin was improved so that the blades were not so brittle, and now carbon fibre blades in aircraft engines, and in other critical parts, are commonplace.
It is also now cheap enough so that carbon fibre reinforced resin can be used in any equipment where lightness, rigidity and strength are at a premium.
The moral of this story, if you want one, is that high tec development is slow and expensive. You must be sure that you have a market into which you can sell your product at a reasonable price, while you are still doing the development!
A SUMMER HOLIDAY
Cast your mind back to June 2019 PC [that is Pre Covid] if you can remember that far! We were looking for our next summer holiday in a Great Rail Journeys brochure, our eyes were caught by The Waterways of Alsace and Lorraine. This started with a rail journey from London to Strasbourg where we had a night tour of the city and a night in a hotel. We would then join a canal-barge-hotel, The Madeleine, for seven days with only 20 other passengers. There was a full-time guide, all food and drinks were included. We would cruise down the Marne-Rhine canal for six days with a daily excursion to a town, or visitor attraction each day. The highlight was the Arzviller Inclined plane, where a whole section of the canal dropped down a 41% incline that replaced 4km of locks that used to take a whole day to traverse. There was then a visit to a crystal works and after visits to Savern and Lagarde, we would return by bus to Strasburg for a further night in a hotel before the return by train to Paris, then London.
Although it looked a bit energetic for people of our age, the idea was very attractive and we booked for May 15th 2020. We then needed travel insurance, expensive at our age, and to pay the balance of the cost in March.
Then there was covid! Someone started playing with traffic-lights and continental travel was almost impossible.
In April 2020 we were informed that our trip had been cancelled. We were offered, among other things, the same trip at the same price in 2021. We initially agreed, although the date was not May, but when it was confirmed, it was 3rd September 2021 and we were less certain that we still had the energy to cope with the excursions! However, we knew that if we cancelled we should lose all our money, so we held on. Several times during that summer we phoned Great Rail to see if the holiday was on or cancelled.
However, someone was still playing with the traffic lights and Great Rail could not tell us whether the trip was on or off. Eventually, 10 days before our departure date we were told the trip was on. Departure was from St. Pancras at 6.30 a.m., returning ten days later at 6.30 p.m. We were also told that if we did not go, we would lose all our payment which was over £4000 in total.
We said that we would go, and then we started to think.
We were two years older than when we made the booking. Would we still be up to the excursions?
Then we would need more travel insurance as the first lot had expired and spend a night in London before the trip, and probably another night before we could get back to Berrynarbor, so there would be the fares to London and back to pay for. Then we would have to have covid tests when we got home which were at a rip-off price of £100 each at that time. The total new cost would be getting on for £1000!
We phoned customer service at Great Rail and told them regretfully that we would cancel the trip. The girl there was apologetic. She was sorry that we would lose everything we had paid so far, and she did not think that was very fair. She would see if there was anything she could do.
To our delight and astonishment, she rang back in a couple of hours to say that all our booking fees would be returned to us, and then, because we had taken out the insurance only a few days before, we were able to recover that fee as well!
If you can't go abroad, what do you do? You have a Staycation! We decided that we would have a week free of most chores and at least one meal a day out, and do a few things that we had not done before.
We went to Endsleigh House Hotel where we were to meet my two daughters for lunch. Endsleigh, near Milton Damerel, was originally built by the Duke of Bedford as a hunting lodge, and is now one of three top range hotels in the Politzi group. It is famous for its extensive, beautiful gardens. Joanna, who lives at Chudleigh Knighton, was to drive to Bere Alston to collect Hilary and bring her to Endsleigh. Unfortunately, a motor-home overturned and caught fire near Okehampton. Joanna was stuck in a queue for 2 hours and had to go home. Luckily, Hilary was able to drive herself, so we had an excellent lunch. The weather was good and we were able to have a walk in the gardens with Hilary's young Labrador.
It was fortunately good weather, so after a walk round Wistlandpound, we joined Janet and David for an excellent lunch at the Fox and Goose in Paracombe.
We often have a snack lunch in the Imperial Hotel in Barnstaple, and we wondered what it would be like to have a formal dinner there, followed by a night in one of their best rooms. When we enquired, they offered us an ordinary room that looked over the car park. So we stuck to our request for a Prime room at the front of the hotel looking over the river and the leisure centre. We were told this room had everything - there was a box of chocolates, a small bottle of Prosecco, fruit, dressing gowns, slippers etc. It was very comfortable. When we went down for dinner, we were a bit concerned by the possible dress code, but we saw other diners in shorts, so we need not have worried! The meal was very good. The one snag was that the front of the hotel was flood lit with a big orange light that shone through curtains, which was not turned off until dawn!
Direct from a good breakfast at the Imperial, we drove to South Molton to the Quince Honey Farm. This had been started by George Wallace with two hives when he left the army in 1948. By the 1970's George's two sons were involved; they had about 700 hives and had moved the business into the old workhouse on the edge of the town. There they made other honey products, like soaps and cosmetics. It was necessary for them to grow again and they were able to buy a 54-acre site at Aller Cross, beside the Link Road. Here they have made a Honey Garden where plants are not necessarily pretty, but very attractive to bees. There is a factory building where the honey is packed, and a demonstration room, where protected from bees, visitors are shown the workings of a hive. There is also a big restaurant, an exhibition and a shop, so although we were there by about 10 o'clock, we were occupied until well after lunch.
We explored Hartland, and then went to the hotel on Hartland Quay for lunch. I was discomfited because as I enjoyed my prawn sandwich, a fellow customer was told that "There were no prawns"!
We went to the Dinosaur Park - a big mistake! It was expensive, grubby, the animals were poorly housed and the catering was a disaster! We made up for it by having an excellent evening meal at the Italian Restaurant in Ilfracombe.
We went to Compton Castle, a National Trust Property near Torquay. Originally built by the Compton family, the marriage of Joan de Compton to Geoffrey Gilbert, in 1329, brought the two families together, and the Gilberts have been adding, altering and renovating the castle ever since. Built as a manor house, it was fortified about 1530 because of the threat from the French who had attacked Plymouth in the 14th century. The owner at that time was Sir Humphrey Gilbert who was a half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh. Gilbert played a large part in colonising Newfoundland. The castle was sold in 1750 and fell into disrepair. The current scion of the family, Commander Walter Raleigh-Gilbert, bought back the ruins of the castle and restored it before donating it to the National Trust.
After the visit we found an excellent country restaurant at Stoneycombe, where we had a good lunch.
On our way home we passed Joanna's house, and because we had not met at Endsleigh House, we were able to call in with a cream tea to enjoy with her.
The moral of this story, if you need one, is that if you cannot get your expensive foreign holiday there are plenty of interesting things to do within easy reach of your front door!
I CAN'T COOK!
Most of you will know that I am married to Pam, who at one time was a professional cookery demonstrator. She even taught cookery demonstration at the Birmingham College of Food for two years until I dragged her off to Ireland.
With her for a partner, it is not in my interest to admit any skill with the stove! However, I was once a laboratory research chemist, so I can weigh, measure, mix and heat and follow instructions! Occasionally, if necessary, I have been known to provide scrambled egg with smoked salmon, or cheese and bacon omelette should the need arise, and I have an excellent simple recipe for Hollandaise Sauce.
Many years ago, we were living in Coventry and had joined a small walking and social group, about 20 people. When the members discovered Pam's profession, they requested a demonstration. Pam, who thought nothing of addressing say a thousand strangers in say Birmingham Town Hall, did not like the idea of talking to 20 friends and would not do it, unless I would join in.
Some of our older readers might remember the famous cookery demonstrator Fanny Craddock, and her husband Johnnie. She was known for her spectacular presentations and her constant denigration of Johnnie. What she was not known for was her strong [even foul] language, dreadful manners [off stage] and outrageous demands. On one occasion she was presenting in Birmingham Town Hall for the Gas Board and Pam was involved. Fanny demanded that the whole of the stage be newly re-carpeted to match her dress. When the demonstration was over the evening dress that she was wearing was immaculate, but the carpet had been ruined!
Pam agreed to do the demonstration if I took part as Johnny the stooge! She started with the theme of fresh Scandinavian food, savoury dishes and fish etc. Eventually she said, "Now for the desert, I will demonstrate pancakes!" That was my cue to stand up with a balloon brandy glass in my hand [with just a drop of cider in the bottom of it] and say, "For this audience, pancakes are not good enough! It has to be Crepes Suzette." The reply, "If that is what you think, you can do the demonstration yourself!"
It was, of course, all well-rehearsed. I made some very acceptable crepes, and flambéed them in a mixture of brandy and Cointreau. Just for good measure, I whipped up some egg-white and made a pavlova.
A few days later a neighbour came in to chat with Pam about the demonstration and was told, "Don't talk to me about Crepe Suzettes. For 5 evenings he stood in the kitchen talking to the cupboards as he practiced his Crepes Suzette. I'm b . . . dy sick of Crepes Suzettes!" The neighbour said "I know. I feel just the same about fish fingers!"
OTHER TALES - 4
The last Tale ended in the summer 1981. Subsequent to that, we felt that we should come back to the UK and in that December, I resigned from my job in Letterkenny. Courtaulds were beginning to contract and they had no suitable jobs to offer me in the UK.
Some of you will have read 'How we found Berrynarbor' and bought 30 Pitt Hill, [now Duckypool Cottage]. We had kept it while we were in Ireland and so it was our base when we returned to the UK. We were again very lucky to find that Middle Lee Farm was on the market, and were able to buy it. It was no longer a working farm [just as well, because I don't know a bee from a bull's foot!], but it had been converted, some 10 years earlier, into farmhouse accommodation with four self-catering apartments. Pam had trained originally in Home Economics, and I had become adequate at DIY. We had both been successful managers of one sort or another, so we reckoned that we could manage the business. So it turned out, and in the ten years we were there we converted two more self-catering properties. Pam joined the West Country Tourist Board as an Inspector, and I joined what was then The Small Firms' Service as a business advisor. That later became Business Link.
About 48 years later I was coming up for my 89th birthday and Pam asked me what I wanted for a treat. I said, "I want to fly a Boeing 747", simulator of course! She said, "That was to be your 90th treat", but I did not want to wait just in case I did not make it!
We found a flight simulator near Brighton Airfield and booked a session. I was asked where I wanted to fly to: I said "Nowhere, I am only interested in taking off and landing." After explaining the controls, the instructor switched on, and there we were, apparently sitting at the start of the main runway at Gatwick. He said, "Take off and climb at about 10 degrees until we are at about 2000 feet." Which I did. He then said, "Take a slow wide turn to the south, then on to the north." Which again I did, and there we were flying up the Thames over London. Then he said, "You see that little grey square on the top left of the screen, that is Heathrow. Descend, line up the aircraft and land on the main runway." I did and I am glad to say that he remembered to lower the under-carriage for me! We were only half way up the runway, so we took off again and did two more circuits and landings before my hour of instruction was up. I am now confident that I could fly a 747 anywhere provided that it is calm and there is no other traffic to bother about!
Just after my 90th birthday, I realised that although I had spent some hours in control of a light aircraft, I had never done a take-off or landing. These are the tricky bits where an error can be very serious! I went up to Dunkerswell Airfield, this side of Honiton, where there is a flying school. I confessed my age, told them what flying experience I had had, and asked If I could be in control of a take-off and landing. Rather to my surprise, an instructor said that he would take us - Pam bravely came too! We three got into a Cessna and he took-off, then gave me control. At his request, I climbed, descended, turned on to a bearing etc. When he was satisfied that I could control the aircraft he said,
"The airfield is a couple of miles to the east, descend, line up and land at the near end of the runway". We did, and although his hands were never very far from the controls, it was all my doing! As we were slowing on the runway, he said, "Open the throttle, take off, go round and land again." We did this twice more, then the fun was over. Back in the office, he paid me a compliment, "You did well. My mother is 90 and she could not do that!"
I went home satisfied! I now have a Microsoft Flight Simulator on my desk that I play with from time to time. It is much more difficult than the real thing!
Heathrow from the simulator
IRISH [AND OTHER] TALES - 3
There are a number of tales related to Pam's bakery in Rathmullan. Late one afternoon a man from along the coast came in and asked for a meat pie. "I'm sorry" said Pam, "We have sold out, but if you will walk on the beach for about three quarters of an hour, I'll cook you a quiche".
That was fine. We later learned that when he got home and told his wife that there was no pie, but he had brought a "kwtich or something"; she said, "That's all very well, but do I put tatties or custard with it?"
Pam made a very popular sweet called a vacherin. This was two rings of meringue filled with chocolate and almond flavoured whipped cream. There was a 'society lady' in Letterkenny, some 15 miles away. Every month she would hold a bridge party, and her husband had to drive 30 miles to collect a vacherin for her guests, and a further 30 miles next day to return the platter that it was served on. She never revealed the source of the sweet, until, we heard, she was asked for the recipe. Her son of eleven, not wishing to let his mother down, made something up. Unfortunately, it was not quite believable!
We were there during the height of the troubles, but in spite of the fact that the factory was part of an English company, and that 5 of the 7 top management were English or Northern Irish, we only once had trouble.
You might remember that there was a top IRA man called Bobby Sands. He was imprisoned and starved himself to death in protest. He was well respected in the Republic because he had never killed anyone. On the day of his funeral, the IRA ordered that every shop and every business in the republic would close. Our factory ran 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If it stopped, all the work in progress would fail, and it would cost thousands of pounds and literally days to clean it up and re-start it. All the shift workers on for that day promised that they would come in. On the day, they came in early, but 15 or so minutes before the shift change was due, a big black car with four 'heavies' in it and a black flag on the front, pulled up at the gate. The entire incoming shift, for their own safety, drove by and the staff had to shut the factory down.
That day, one of the local shopkeepers said to Pam, "Did you know that the IRA have told us all to close?" "Nobody has told me" Pam said, and she stayed open. At about 3 o'clock, a car with a black flag and four heavies in it drew up. All four of them crowded into the shop, which was very small, and trying not to feel nervous Pam said, "Can I help you gentlemen?" "Ach" said one, "You're English! Can we have four of them wee buns?" They bought them and left. Pam was very relieved!
When I was a youth, I was fascinated by flying. I always wanted to pilot an aircraft, but to be a professional pilot wasn't in my line as I was part of a family of scientists. Also, to be an amateur pilot was both expensive and time consuming.
For most of my life, I had neither the time nor the money to follow my interest. However, in my thirties, I did join a gliding club at Coventry Airport that was just a couple of miles from my house. I had only just joined when the airport wanted to become more commercial and threw out the club. That went to a small airfield some 30 miles to the east, a good hour away.
When I went, I would get there approaching 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning. You could not book a flight until you got there, so I was in a queue. At about mid-day, I would get towed up to 2000 feet and dropped off. There was no up-current, so I knew that after a couple of circuits, I would be down on the ground in seven and a half minutes. I could not book another flight until I was down, so that flight would be at about four o'clock. For two hours motoring and a day hanging around to get 15 minutes in the air, it was hardly worth it! I did join a week's instruction at the airfield, staying in some very basic accommodation, but I only got 7 flights, and never went solo, so I gave up!
During the last summer of our time in Ireland, a man with a Cessna opened an air-strip on the West coast of Donegal, near Bunbeg, about 35 miles from Rathmullan, and started to give flying lessons. Two or three times on a Sunday morning we drove there across a 'bog road' (very uneven surface and anything but straight or level) to get a lesson. Pam came too to get a lesson, but because the weather was so poor, by the time I had had my flight, it had closed in, and she never got her turn at the controls!
I think it was on the second lesson he said, "Go down to about 500 feet and fly along the coast line. We had a trawler sink, and we still haven't found all the bodies!" I did, but we saw nothing. I don't know if they ever found the others!
He was very hospitable, and after we were rained off, he would say "Come in for a jar." He lived in a converted railway station. The rails were gone, but the platform was still there. The ticket hall was now his kitchen, the general waiting room his lounge, the lady's waiting room now a bedroom and the gents' room the bathroom. On the platform there was a time-table for the local bus that was still timed to meet the trains that had last run in 1935! We would have a jar, always whisky, followed by a snack lunch and chat until late afternoon.
He gave me one of my best Irish stories. "I was driving home on a dark frosty evening," he said, "And I came round a bend to find a Guarda checkpoint demanding my licence. I skidded to a stop with some difficulty. Formalities over I said, "Sergeant, do you not think it a bit risky to have your checkpoint so close to the bend?" The sergeant looked back and he said "Ah, but it is a very straight bend!" And I looked back -- and he was right!"
[To be continued]
AN IRISH TALE - PART 2
Again, please remember that this is written about happenings some 50 years ago, and Ireland is a very different place now!
The factory, Lirelle Ireland Ltd., had been designed and construction started in the Republic of Ireland as part of the ambition of our then Courtaulds' Chairman to reduce the problems of the border and increase co-operation between North and South. The factory was promised relief of property tax on a sliding scale for10 years. Unfortunately, just after the project had been committed and work started, the price of oil doubled. The factory had been designed with two lines and about 750 staff, but it was decided to build only one line, with 350.
The project was never big enough to make a profit, and investment was limited.
Every day at 10.30 a.m., the six senior managers and the general manager [the Boss!] would meet in his office for a coffee. We would discuss recent happenings, difficulties, and what needed to be done for the immediate future. Socially, the boss was very pleasant, but in the office he became a 'four letter man' who would express his displeasure and requirements in no uncertain terms. I was unfortunate in that none of my areas of responsibility directly affected production, and I had only two workers of my own, so that if I needed work done, I was always at the end of the queue! However, there were one or two experiences that stand out during my time there.
There was at that time a customs border between Londonderry in the North, and Letterkenny in the Republic. We had not been there more than a couple of weeks when a colleague of mine had to go into Londonderry, and invited Pam to go with him so that he could show her where to go to shop, and where it was not too safe to go! They had a useful trip, but on the way back they were stopped at the Irish customs who demanded identity documents.
Pam had nothing other than her driving licence with an English address. Were they husband and wife? "No." "Who is your husband, where does he work?" I was phoned at work to be told that my wife was in a car with another man, and that I must make sure that my wife did not try to cross the border again without proper identification! After that, Pam always took the other route. There were two routes, the main road where the commercial vehicles went and were always stopped and a slightly longer,
quieter one that we usually used. The Republican post was on the up-side of a slope and the customs officers there were not nearly so fussy. Often, if it was raining, they would not come out for a single Irish registered car. As Pam approached the post, she would always switch her wipers on, and she was rarely stopped!
Most of the factory's raw materials came from the UK through Northern Ireland. One of my responsibilities was transport, and I was phoned by the Irish customs chief at the Irish Letterkenny border to be told that the English customs staff had gone on strike, and unless they had signed the lorry's paperwork, the Irish would not let them through.
"You realise that within 10 days the factory will be out of raw materials and will have to close?" I said.
"Yes, but that is government policy!" he said.
"Who is your boss?" I asked.
"I reckon it would be the Minister of Trade in Dublin Castle"
I phoned Dublin Castle, and to my astonishment was put straight through to the minister. He said that in the interest of cross border cooperation, the Irish customs could not be asked to "black" on their English colleagues. I reminded him that for generations, the Irish had been blaming the English for subjugating them, starving them, and forcing emigration.
"Will you let an English union for their own selfish purposes, put 350 good Irish men out of work, because that is what will happen?" I asked.
"I had not quite seen it in that light" he said. "I'll get back to you".
Within half an hour my phone went. It was the minister.
"The Irish Government has changed its policy." he said: "You will get your goods."
So, all was well! [I sometimes wish that we could change English government policy so easily!]
In 1978 there was a strike in Ireland that started with the telephone engineers and quickly spread throughout the whole Irish postal system. It lasted about three months and we were having to send a car, twice a day, with letters and parcels to a Courtaulds factory in Londonderry to get them into the English post, and to pick up our own post. Shortly after the strike ended, one of our security guards told me that he had chased 7 men from the grounds of a company house, who said that they were telephone engineers. I was furious. I phoned our local postmaster saying "Your country's communications are in chaos and here are 7 of your [adjectival] telephone engineers playing football at 10 in the morning."
"If they are telephone engineers," he said, "They don't report to me. Speak to the chief engineer in Sligo." Some 80 miles away! I did, and I did not mince my words. He heard me out, and then said, "I have spoken to the minister this morning and he has specifically prohibited me from taking any disciplinarian action that might only make a difficult situation worse. I have only one word of advice to give to you sir, and it is go and get a gun and shoot the b----- rs. Good morning to you!"
It is about that time that I thought of coming back to the UK!
I finally resigned at the end of 1981. About a year after that Lirelle Ireland Ltd. was bought up by an American company who moved the production to a more modern factory in South Carolina, and finally cleared the Letterkenny site. I might have got a job in America, but I doubt it!
The factory when in full production in the late 1970's
The factory 2012. All that remains is the gatehouse.
30 Pitt Hill was our English base, so we came back to Berrynarbor. We were very lucky that Middle Lee Farm, really a group of self-catering properties, was on the market and we were able to buy it.
Pam and I ran it for 9 years - but that is another story!
AN IRISH TALE
Please remember that this is written about happenings some
50 years ago, and Ireland is a very different place now!
Some of you may have read about how Pam and I found Berrynarbor. This is about how we nearly lost it again.
Only a couple of months after we had bought 30 Pitt Hill [now Duckypool Cottage], Courtaulds, for whom I worked, promoted me saying, "You will go to Ireland won't you!" They were building a new factory to make polyester yarn, called Lirelle, in a brand-new factory at a town called Letterkenny in County Donegal. I was to be one of six senior managers, reporting to a General Manager. Five of the other six were polymer production, spinning, engineering, personnel, accountancy, and I was site-services, that is Lord-high everything else - housing, transport, safety, security, communications, canteen, property etc., etc. - a Poo-Ba of a job that took a lot of getting used to.
Letterkenny was 25 miles or so west of Londonderry, in the Republic of Ireland, and at the height of the IRA troubles. We went to look, flying to Belfast and hiring a car to drive over the Glenshane Pass to Londonderry, then across the border to Letterkenny. This was on a dark, wet evening and six armed masked men jumped out of a hedge and stopped us to demand identity documents. Fortunately, they were a British Army patrol and we went on our way! In spite of this, I accepted the job, and we kept 30 Pitt Hill to rent as a holiday cottage.
When we came to buy a house in Ireland, we found a delightful cottage, Rose Cottage, on the edge of a village called Rathmullan on the shores of Loch Swilly, within yards of a beach that would rival Woolacombe!
When we were negotiating the purchase, I asked, "What are the rates?" The only reply was, "T'is best you don't ask". We eventually found that the cottage had belonged to a local hotel that had put its rates onto their bill. When they sold the cottage to the present occupiers, they had simply crossed the item off their own bill, and the council had not thought to put it on another, so the cottage had not paid rates for about 3 years! When it was eventually sorted out, and we got a bill for a year, I was cross as we had only been there for 8 months. Pam said, "Look at it." It was for £36. The cottage had been last rated in 1922 at £2 and not updated. The rates were now £18 in the pound. Modern Letterkenny houses were paying hundreds, so I kept quiet!
This was the late '70s. In Ireland then, there were only two telephone directories, one for Dublin and the other for the whole of the rest of the republic. Our phone was Rathmullan 74. It didn't have a dial, just a handle to turn. I would occasionally pick up the phone on my desk in the factory. I would wait for about a minute for one of twenty ladies in the Letterkenny exchange to say, "Number please" and I would say, "Rathmullan 74 please". A minute or so later another voice would say, "Rathmullan" and I would say "74 please". She would then say, "Oh no, Dr Parke. Your wife has just gone out with Mrs. McCarthy, I'll put you through to 68."
Our house was at the end of the drive of one of the best hotels in Ireland. They also had a number of self-catering cottages, as did another hotel a few hundred yards away in the same village. Looking for an occupation, Pam put a notice saying 'Open' at our front door, and started selling home bakery to the visitors. News travels fast in a village, and before we knew it, she had queues at the door. Eventually, the strain on our old cottage electrical system became so great that it collapsed, and we had to get emergency help from the factory electrician.
Pam then found a holiday home for sale in the village. It was two up and two down. The front bedroom had a double bed and a cot, the back one a two-layer double bunk bed, so the house, which was only about 10 feet wide, slept up to 7! We understand that granny had the inside lower bed at the back! After stripping the house and building a lean-to extension at the back, Pam was able to buy second-hand ovens, a huge mixer, etc., and she had her home bakery, The Buttery.
She trained a number of local girls to work in the shop and was very flattered when one of the older girls married, moved to another village at the far side of the county and opened her own Buttery on the lines that Pam had taught.
There was a habit in the village for having a wake after a funeral. It could be a dry wake, or a wet wake, but there would always be lots of food served. One day a lady came to the shop and said to Pam, "Aunty is sinking fast, she will not last to the end of the month. Would you ever make me a big cake for the wake?" Six months later the same lady came in and said, "Aunty recovered so we ate the wake cake, but she is very poorly again. Would you make me another wake cake please?" Aunty recovered again, she must have been a tough old bird! The next request was "Would you make us a lot of wee buns for the wake please?" We understand that they were properly used this time!
In our second year there, Pam celebrated her 40th birthday, and I could not think of a suitable present. She had always wanted a dog, so I bought her a golden Labrador puppy. Because of its origin, it had to be called Seamus - not a clever thing to do. If you shout "Seamus", anywhere in Ireland, every other Irishman will turn and say, "Yes"!
We were both busy and had neither the time nor the skill to train Seamus properly, so he was always a handful. One Saturday morning Pam was in her shop and I wanted exercise, so I took the dog on to the beach. Usually, if there were three couples there, it was busy, but today was the annual Apprentice Boys' March in Londonderry. Anyone who could escape had come to our beach, so there were dozens of families there. Seamus ran amuck, scattering sand, stealing towels and sandwiches. I yelled at the top of my voice, "Seamus, sit!". Unfortunately, I got the sibilants wrong and for once in his life, the dog did what he was told. It took me a long time to live that one down!
When Pam and I had been in Ireland for two years, we became treated as Irish residents. That meant that our UK driving licences were no longer valid in the republic. We had to take driving tests. I went first, and to get a broader licence, I borrowed the company minibus. All went well until we were on a quiet road. "Pull in and stop." The examiner said. "You see that side road behind you to your left. please back the bus into it, keeping as close to the kerb as you can." I looked, and the road was unfinished and into a new estate. The tarmac dribbled into the dirt, there was no kerb. "Ah well," he said, "Just keep as close as to where you might imagine it would be!" I did and I passed.
When Pam went, she had to do a theory test and was shown a road sign, a white disk with a red rim and a bent arrow pointing to the right with a red bar across it. "If you saw that, Mrs. Parke, which way would you not turn?" It took Pam a while to decide that it wasn't a trick question! After that she drove safely and carefully through Letterkenny on market day, negotiating hand carts, animals and pedestrians with great confidence. She then drove with relief and enthusiasm back to the office, where the car park was up a steep ramp to the second floor. At the end of the ramp all four wheels of the car left the ground! She and the tester looked at each other and he said, "I wish my other clients drove as well as you did, but if you come back, do go more slowly up the ramp!" She passed!
[To be continued!]
The current advertising for the successful musical, Book of Mormon, reminded me of a trip I made, back in the early seventies.
I was working for Courtaulds as the technical manager of an experimental pilot plant developing carbon fibre. We were stretching the fibre under inert gas at a temperature of over 2500c. The only thing that doesn't melt at that temperature, let alone vaporise, is graphite, so it was all a bit difficult, and very technical!
Courtaulds then had a technical exchange agreement with the American Hercules Powder Company who made explosives. At that time, the peak of the space race, they were making rocket engines and were also interested in carbon fibre. Their factory was about 12 miles outside Salt Lake City, and I was sent there to exchange knowledge on the developments.
Most of you will know that Salt Lake City is the home of the Mormons. And this story is about them, rather than carbon fibre.
I was booked into a hotel in Salt Lake City and was driven every day back and forth to the plant. The driver was a retired steel worker and he would say things like, "Gee, I wish I had the vocabulary of you English folk!" It turned out that he was the Elder of the local Mormon Tabernacle, and he was at least as articulate as I was. He started to tell me about Mormonism, and it became clear, that if you were a devout believer, you had a numbered place awaiting you on the right hand of the deity. If you were so unfortunate as not to have met Mormonism, then there was an antechamber where you could become 'educated', and then claim your place. If, however, you knew about Mormonism and did not accept it, there was only one way for you and that was down! I said, "Joe, I am a total unbeliever, and I won't be convinced. If you tell me about Mormonism, aren't you committing me to Hell?" It didn't stop him and when I got home, he sent me The Book of The Mormon. It stayed at home on our bookshelf for a long time just to confuse our visitors!
The Mormons take things very seriously and they eschew all stimulants including tea, coffee and alcohol, but they are not bigoted. If, as I was, you were taken out for a meal and you would like wine with it, you must not ask a Mormon to serve you against his principles. However, you might see a table at the side of the room with bottles on it. You helped yourself, left the cash and that was acceptable.
Mormons are supposed to allocate 10% of their income to their church or other charity. Certainly, at that time I was made aware of Mormons in difficulty that their church was caring for. They were also expected to give one or two years of their lives to spreading their gospel before starting their careers. At that time, you would occasionally open your door to one or perhaps a pair of Mormon preachers. That does not seem to happen so much these days.
In Salt Lake City there is a big four-block square that contains the Mormon Tabernacle [you don't get in unless you are a card-carrying member], the Concert Hall where the wonderful Mormon Choir and Orchestra perform, and the Mormon Visitors' Centre where you can go to 'learn all about it', which I did.
The centre looked as if it had been finished and furnished by a major hotel chain, thick carpets, framed pictures, and luxurious furniture. Walking along a corridor I felt my elbows gripped by a handsome young man and a pretty girl. They said, "Have you seen our hall of mirrors? Gee, you should see our hall of mirrors!", then opened a door in the wall, pushed me through and shut it behind me. I was standing in a room about 6 foot-deep and 15 foot-wide. The front wall was curtains and the end walls were full length mirrors. I was wondering what would happen when a huge voice boomed out from up there said: - "Have you thought about all the SIN AND EVIL that there is in the world? Who do you think is RESPONSIBLE for all the SIN AND EVILTHAT THERE IS IN THE WORLD? LOOK INTO THE MIRROR!" The curtains opened and then, feeling about four-foot six high, one was wafted through into the Mormon 'promised land'. They did not convert me, but I gave them full marks for effort.
While I was at The Hercules Powder Co. I became friends with the chief Electrical Engineer of the plant, and he and his wife invited me to come for a week-end in their holiday house near Moab in Utah, about 150 miles south of Salt Lake City. We packed up his car, an enormous Buick, on the Friday afternoon with my bag, their luggage, and most important, a six-bottle box with various bottles of spirits and mixers, so that that we would have a comfortable weekend! We did.
I don't recall much of my visit, but they took me to Dead Horse Point. [see picture]. This was a promontory high above the Colorado River, a bit up-stream from the Grand Canyon. Legend has it that the natives in the area used to round up wild horses onto the point, where they could corral them. They could then select those they could break and tame, then drive the rest over cliff into the river 100 feet below; hence the name!
On the Sunday it snowed and we had to drive over a pass back to Salt Lake City. Fortunately, a snow plough had come over the pass, but only one way, towards us, so we were driving on the wrong side of the road. There was no other traffic until a car approached us and we then had to drive off into the snow. Our car stalled and no amount of churning with the starter would make the motor start. My friend, the engineer, said he knew nothing about cars. He had bought this one a couple of years back. If the petrol consumption got over about 8 miles to the [American] gallon, he took it to be serviced, but he had never opened the hood [bonnet!] himself. We were miles from anywhere and there was no other traffic. There were, of course, no mobile phones in those days.
"Bill," I said, "We have got to do something, and at least we should have a look". He pulled the catch, and I opened the bonnet. There was the massive V8 engine and on top of it a huge distributor, the size of a large dinner plate. I put my hand on it and it was loose. I could rotate it through perhaps 30 degrees. I moved it fully anticlockwise, and fully clockwise, then put it in what I guessed was the mid position. Lacking a spanner, I tightened the bolt as best I could with my fingers.
We got into the car, he turned the key and away we went. Thereafter of course, I was the miracle-working mechanic from over the pond!
WOT, NO BOOZE!
The following letter, sent by Alex Parke to the North Devon Journal and printed in the issue of 12th January, describes the difficulty the Shop encountered with its new Liquor Licence and why it was 'the shop with no beer [or spirits]' in the pre-Christmas weeks.
I am struck by the wasteful stupidity of bureaucracy illustrated in your story of the parish councillor "carpeted" for selling a cake (at a loss) to her own parish council without declaring an interest.
A year ago we in Berrynarbor raised £10,000, employed a sub-postmaster/manager and successfully kept our village shop open with the help of 40 or so villager-volunteers who work without pay in the shop. We were licensed to sell alcohol, and for good reason the licensee was a committee member. But the licensing laws changed, causing many businesses unnecessary cost and trouble and we needed to make our manager the licensee.
We paid for his training and applied and paid for the new licence just before the dead line at the end of November. The bureaucrats, ignoring the fact that he was of good enough character to be accepted as a sub-postmaster, then demanded that he have police clearance before the licence could be issued.
He asked for forms. They sent the wrong ones. After repeated requests and considerable delay they sent the right ones.
We then learned that because "the police were busy ", clearance would take up to five weeks, and we still haven't got it.
Therefore, during the month before Christmas our shop was unable to sell liquor and has lost a considerable amount of our normal turnover. The bureaucrats even went to the trouble to send a provocateur to the shop on a Sunday morning to try to buy a can of stout "for a Christmas pudding"! Fortunately, the volunteer on duty did not sell, and was able to see off the inspector who followed her in.
I live in hope that one day our judiciary will say, "This person is guilty, but the law, and those who have drafted and applied it are stupid. I fine the defendant 10p.and award all costs against the prosecution!" Until that happens on a regular basis we will continue to be cursed by the "British Disease" of bureaucratic constipation which is clogging our country.
A.V. Parke [Secretary, Berrynarbor Community Enterprise Ltd.
What is a coincidence? Life is full of them. You go into the post office and meet a fellow villager. It is a coincidence because you are both there at the same time, but it is not really 'a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection', as it says in the dictionary; nor does it have any significant consequence. Some coincidences have real consequences. Some are fortunate - a couple meet who haven't seen each other for years, and a few months later they marry. Some are tragic - two cars coincide at a cross road and someone is injured. If only one of the drivers had taken 30 seconds longer to start his car! Now those would be real coincidences.
One may well think that life is made or broken by coincidence and the art of living is being able to cope with it. My coincidences may be remarkable but are fortunately far less serious.
Some years ago when living in Donegal, Pam and I were flying from Heathrow to Heraklion for a holiday in Crete. Not long after take-off, an attractive girl came down the plane, leant over my seat and said, "Hello Alex, how nice to see you again!" She had been my assistant until a couple of years earlier. Later in the week, I stepped over a pair of legs on the beach and a voice said, "Hello Alex, I see we still use the same tailor!" [M & S, of course] - I had met him on a management training course five years earlier. Finally, we went to visit a disused leper colony on the extreme north east of the island. It was very hot and a glamorous lady in a bikini and a large sun hat was sitting on a rock. She said [you've guessed], "It is Alex, isn't it? How are you after all these years?" We had last met many years earlier on the back seat of a car when we were both 19! Parn l s response to these meetings was, "I hope we don't meet anyone else you know, or you would have been in your pram!"
To bring things more up to date, on a recent holiday in Cyprus, we were staying in a nice hotel in Paphos for a week. On the first day we went to a resort called Lakki, 50 miles away and well known for its fish restaurants. We were lunching in one of these, overlooking the harbour, when two familiar figures came walking past. It was Phil and Lynne from The Globe! Of course we called out and greeted each other. Just then, Phil said, "You'll never believe this!" and from the other direction came Ivan and June Clarke and their three boys. All of us were in Cyprus completely independently. Needless to say, we took photographs as proof. If the chance of meeting a group of fellow villagers on a holiday 2000 miles from home is say 1 in 10,000, the chance of meeting two groups at the same time must be 1 in 100,000,000!
The story was 'capped' a few days later after our return home. We went to Ilfracombe for an early morning swim and as Pam was about to leave the pool, a woman, she didn't really know, said, "Did you enjoy your holiday in Cyprus?" Then, "I saw you outside the George Hotel in Paphos a week ago!"
AVP of bC
The European Commission have just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the EU rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty's Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5 year phase-in plan that would be known as 'EuroEnglish'.
In the first year, 's' will replace the soft 'c'. Sertainly this will make sivil servants jump with joy. The hard 'c' will be dropped in favour of the 'K'. This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan have one less letter.
There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome 'ph' will be replaced with the 'f'. This will make words like 'fotograf' 20% shorter.
In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible.
Governments will enkourage the removal of double leters, which have always ben a deferent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent l e's in the language is disgrasful, and they should go away.
By the fourth yar, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing 'th' with and 'z' - 'W' with 'v'.
During ze fifz yar, ze unesesary 'o' kan be dropd from vords kontaining 'ou' and similar changes vud of kurs be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters, After zis fifz yar, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubls or difkuJtis and evrivun vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer.
ZE DREM FINALI KUM TRU!
Aknolegment for ze abov is gratfuly givn to ze Plymoz Caligrafers Newsleter -- vich in turn pinchd it from ze' Peterboro Skribs' and God nows ver zey fond it!
HAPY NEW YAR
AND AL GOD VISHES FOR ZE NEXT ZOSAND YARS IN UROP!
AVP of DC
MY NEW SPELL CHECKER
Eye halve a speeling chequer
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a quay and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write,
It shows me strait a weigh
As soon as a mist ache is maid,
It nose bee fore two long,
And eye can put the error rite
It's rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it,
I am shore yaw pleased two no,
Its letter perfect awl the weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.
Alex Parke [but Sauce unknown]
AIR RAID WARDENS
The mention of Fire Wardens in the last Newsletter reminded me of a list that was circulated at one time in the Midlands. I wonder if Bob Richards was properly equipped?
List of Equipment for Air Raid Wardens
- Axe to be carried in belt
- Stirrup pump to be carried over left shoulder
- Extending ladder to be carried over right shoulder
- Long household shovel
- Rake to be carried in left hand
- Scoop to be carried in right hand
- Whistle hanging from lanyard to be carried in mouth
- Belt to be worn with ten hooks to carry 4 pails of water and 6 sand bags
- 2 Wet blankets to be slung round neck
- Flash light to be carried slung round neck
- Tin helmet with turned up brim to hold extra water
- Box of matches to ignite incendiary bombs that fail to ignite
- Extra sand to be carried in all available pockets
- Ship's anchor to be dropped in case warden wishes to stop galloping
- Broom to be inserted in the only available place so that Warden may sweep the floor as he progresses.
Alex Parke - Damson Cottage
A Night in June William Wordsworth
The stars are out by twos and threes,
The little birds are piping yet
Among the bushes and the trees;
There's a cuckoo, and one or two thrushes,
And a far-off wind that rushes,
And a sound of water that gushes,
And the cuckoo's sovereign cry
Fills all the hollow of the sky.
The greenest of grass in the long meadow grows;
And the stream, how the stream is dancing!
How cool is its kiss on the little brown toes
That find it a playmate entrancing!
Forgotten the bad days
The weary and sad days,
Or time all unheeding
That bright hours are speeding,
Forgotten is 'bed' by the children in June
Jane G. Stewart
Illustration by: Paul Swailes