Something to look forward to from one of my favourite authors.
After a month or two not sure what I was going to write after publishing my historical novel, Kindred and Affinity, http://mybook.to/KindredandAffinity or even if I was going to write another book, I find myself with two works in progress.
The first is an instructional book about painting watercolour seascapes – having been painting the sea for thirty years and having pretty much perfected my own technique, I now feel able to pass on my experience – using masking fluid is something I know many artists struggle with, and the sea has its own particular challenges. It’s going to take a while to compile as I’m planning about ten demonstrations, and each will need photographs and detailed instructions. I’ve ordered a voice recorder to capture my thought process, which should be fun. This is a possible cover for the book which I intend to publish in paperback under the name…
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The project at Scunthorpe was to install a new bloom casting facility and was expected to last 18-20 months. Most of the new machinery was to be installed below ground level, so the first task was the creation of a large hole lined with thick concrete walls. This began with the driving of sheet piles around the perimeter of the hole. With these in place to support the surrounding soil, excavation of the hole commenced. At a depth of 3 metres and with 7 still to go, the sheet piles began to cave in. Work was halted and a specialist in soil mechanics from Sheffield University was engaged to identify the problem and propose a solution.
It turned out that the site had been excavated many years previously to recover iron ore, then filled in with spoil. This in-fill was unstable, a situation not helped in the least by the presence of an underground spring. The solution proposed was the casting of a reinforced concrete ring beam to hold the tops of the sheet piles in place. Moreover, because of the length of the pit, this beam would itself need to be supported by cross beams, also cast in-situ in reinforced concrete. Whilst the ring beam could be incorporated into the final walls of the pit, the cross beams would have to be removed so as to maintain the open access required for an overhead crane servicing the machinery. This, of course, significantly extended the time required to construct the pit which necessitated considerable juggling of later operations to bring the project back on track.
As well as detailed planning and monitoring of daily progress, I was put in charge of collating perceived hazards as part of the site safety regime. This allowed for anyone on the site to fill in a simple form identifying potential hazards, from something as simple as some object protruding from the ground that might cause someone to trip, to poorly constructed scaffolds. These reports were discussed at the daily progress meetings and it was my job to ensure that any recommended remedial action was implemented.
As the project progressed from the Civil Engineering stage to the mechanical, I was in more familiar territory, dealing with the installation of pipework and machinery.
Early in 1997 I attended a recruitment day for a company then called British Aerospace who were recruiting Engineers for their aircraft design and manufacturing facility at Brough, a short drive from our new home. This was followed by a day of interviews and factory tours, after which I was offered a job as a Project Planner/Engineer, subject to security clearance.
Weeks passed with no news. I enquired about the delay and was told that they were still awaiting security clearance for me. Eventually I got the call in the middle of June. The Scunthorpe project was almost complete and the Project Manager was happy to let me go with a week’s notice. I began my new job on the last Monday in June – the same day that the company received the signed contract from the government of a Commonwealth country for the supply of fast jet training aircraft. A fact that made me question the veracity of the reason I was given for delaying my appointment!
Negotiation of the contract, like all such projects, had taken several years. A central part of the contract mandated that it be operated using Earned Value Management, monitored and audit representatives of the client government. (If you follow the link you will need to scroll to the bottom of the page to find the reference).
I was one of a team of individuals who would be responsible for implementing EVM. First we had to demonstrate that our system was properly established and robust enough to satisfy the client’s rigourous testing. This was the first milestone on the contract, which triggered the first payment, and was supposed to be reached in November. Our systems failed the test. We were granted an extension to improve our systems. It was hard going but we made it.
As well as being an essential requirement for that first contract, being approved users of EVM opened the door to other markets. Contracts for several other governments followed, culminating in one for the RAF, keeping the company – which, along the way, changed its name to BAE Systems – and me busy until retirement in 2006.
I had begun my career as an Apprentice Engineer in a small company making parts for aircraft. After many years during which I had been involved with the Engineering of facilities for the manufacture of everything from Biscuits to textiles and from pharmaceuticals to steel slabs, I was back where I began, dealing with aircraft design and manufacture.
If you saw Back in the Real World #5 before I changed it, you need to know that I was made redundant (again) shortly before my birthday in autumn 1994.
One place I went to for an interview was McCain Potato Products at Scarborough. That would have been an interesting job, had I got it. One day in December I got a call from a firm in Sheffield. They were very interested by my CV and invited me for interview. The company was run by two brothers, one who had designed the firm’s unique product and was responsible for sales and tendering, the other in charge of production and installation. The product was installed into large warehouses and industrial buildings at a particular stage during construction. This required detailed planning to ensure that everything was ready at the right time.
I was, the Production half of the duo thought, just the man for the job. But he needed his brother’s agreement. Maybe a second interview would be arranged immediately after Christmas. A few days later the brother rang me. He didn’t need to interview me. He wanted me there as soon as the Christmas holiday was over. Oh, and yes, they’d find me a car.
I was there exactly two months. They were, it transpired, in serious financial trouble, with bills outstanding at several important suppliers. I would be chasing up promised materials, or the delivery to site of a hired machine, only to be told “You need to talk to your finance department. We can’t supply you until we get some payment.”
Eventually I came in one Monday morning toward the end of February to be told to pack up my things and leave. The Production Director apologised. They had held a board meeting over the weekend to try to find a way through their problems. The only way was to reduce staff numbers. I was not the only one affected. I pointed out to the Director that I had been extremely busy throughout my short time there, even coming in some Saturdays. Who was going to do all the work I’d been doing? “I’ll have to do it all myself, just as I did before I hired you,” was his response.
I was, this time, out of work for just a few weeks. The agency contacted me to tell me that my former employer, the power station overhaul specialists, needed an experienced Planning Engineer. The only snag being that it was in Kent.
Kingsnorth power station, like Eggborough, had four coal fired generating sets. Two were to be overhauled this summer and the other two the following year. The company had a team permanently based on the site, dealing with routine maintenance as well as major overhauls. It served as a Southern Region Office for the company.
I began work there in April, lodging in a pub in Strood and travelling home Friday afternoon, returning Saturday night. Because Freda needed a car to travel to her work at the nursing home, I had to purchase a car. I booked us into a nearby holiday camp for a week between the two outages. I also found a self catering flat nearer to the plant which was much more convenient than the pub in Strood.
In between working mostly long hours that summer I also managed to explore the area, taking long walks, sometimes along the coast, sometimes in Rochester. I remember the weather in the summer of 1995 as being mostly warm and dry. Although we worked Sundays we tended to finish around 2pm so Sunday afternoons were free.
With the second overhaul completed that autumn, I was kept on to assist in preparing the detailed pricing for the following year’s outage. We also tendered for a quantity of new work in the vicinity, including at Dungeness nuclear station. Having visited the station and spent several weeks compiling the tender, the completed document had to be delivered to the BNFL head quarters in Cheshire to meet a deadline.
It was decided that posting it could not guarantee its arrival in time so I drove home one Friday evening, setting out later than usual as last minute adjustments were made, taking a roundabout route via the M1 and M6 to Cheshire to deliver the documents than back East on the M62, arriving home around midnight. Our tender was not accepted.
After the Christmas and New Year break it was back to Kent once more, this time staying in the pub again. But I did not relish another 9 months of the weekly commute from Yorkshire to Kent and decided to find out what was available nearer home. The agency responded by saying that a team was being established at British Steel in Scunthorpe to deal with a significant new project and they were recruiting for a Planning Engineer. I attended for interview one Monday morning, got a phone call that afternoon offering me the job and handed in my notice to the team in Kent the same day.
The job at Grimsby was for the pharmaceutical company Ciba. They had operated a small plant at Grimsby for many years – I passed it daily when commuting to my job at Courtaulds. Now they were expanding into the manufacture of “intermediates” on a much larger scale. Our part of the job was the installation of a tank “farm” and all of the associated pipework and pumps.
The main contractor was a subsidiary of Trafalgar House and they were enthusiastic supporters of “partnering” in their relations with sub-contractors. The corridor leading to their offices was emblazoned with a sign proclaiming “The Partnering Route”. It’s easy to be cynical about such initiatives but it certainly worked for us. So did their commitment to Total Quality Management which our CEO embraced with surprising passion.
As the contract end approached I was offered a permanent appointment with the company. He was pleased with the way the planning and execution of the contract had gone and wanted me to “drive” planning as a key element of their contract procedures. Included in the offer was a salary close to my earnings as a freelancer, plus all the benefits of a permanent staff post – paid holidays, sick pay, pension, and a car. I was also trained as a TQM “facilitator”, supporting improvement workshops across the workforce.
Acquisition of the car was delayed until August, when there were bargains to be had under the new registration system. Just in time, as it happens, for a trip on the ferry from Hollyhead to Dun Laoghaire to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. We collected Mum and her husband in Hereford. I badly underestimated the journey time from Hereford to Hollyhead. Every stretch of winding road seemed to be blocked by a farm tractor – it was harvest time after all – and I was sure we would miss the ferry. Had it sailed on time we would have. It was cancelled, however, due to bad weather so we had to board a later one.
The next few days were delightful. We visited all the usual sites and discovered how friendly Irish people are. Our 30th anniversary was on the Saturday. The following day, Sunday, saw the annual all Ireland Gaelic football final which brought a festive atmosphere to Dublin’s streets. Mum and Pop enjoyed every minute. We were concerned about them on Sunday night because there were a lot of people with, as they say here, “drink taken”, some staying in our hotel. Freda laid awake worrying about Mum. We heard a commotion around 3am.
At breakfast Mum told us that she’d opened her door to speak to a young man who had knocked on their door thinking it was the room occupied by a friend. She was not in the least bit bothered by the experience.
The next big job the company undertook was for British Oxygen, on the outskirts of Rotherham. Another collection of tanks and pipework. At the end of the job there was a long list of extra work, payment for which had to be sorted out. I and my opposite number at BO reached agreement on this to the satisfaction of both parties. The company also had a small team permanently based at the BP refinery in Hull and I supported them with the introduction of planning and other software solutions.
By the summer of 1994 several large projects we had tendered for had not borne fruit and I was warned that, unless something did materialise, they would have to down size. As the most recent recruits I, and the Project Manager recruited with me, would become redundant.
This time, redundancy when it came, was done in a much more civilised way than at the power station overhaul company. I was allowed to work out my notice. Nevertheless, the result was the same – out of work shortly before my birthday. Once again I was responding weekly to advertisements in the Yorkshire Post and the Daily Telegraph.
I had one month’s salary in-lieu of notice. I began the weekly search of the “Situations Vacant” columns in the Yorkshire Post and Daily Telegraph, sending my CV to various companies in need of men with my skill set. Christmas came and went with no offers of employment. I contacted the mortgage company and they were sympathetic to my plight. The bank, less so, when it came to my maxed-out credit card. Freda offered to sell some of the cheap jewelry she had accumulated over the years. She got a job on the housekeeping staff of a nursing home.
My former colleague who had worked for Pertmaster contacted me to say I might be able to work for them on a casual basis training new users to use the software. I presented one such course successfully, but it meant travelling to Bradford on each of the three days of the course.
In March I was contacted by a man I had worked with when he was a member of the CEGB’s planning team at Eggborough. The privatisation of the CEGB had now been completed and he had left to set up a recruitment agency. One of the power stations operated by National Power was installing a new stores cataloguing system and needed suitably qualified individuals to verify the data being transferred from the old to the new system. It was a six month contract at a relatively low hourly rate, paid for a basic 35 hour working week, with a £1000 completion bonus.
I took the offer despite the low wage, in the belief that after 3 months I would be able to take on a summer season with the power station overhaul company. That did, indeed, happen and the longer hours more than made up for the loss of the completion bonus I would have received had I remained on the other contract.
This time the station to be worked on was at West Burton in North Nottinghamshire, a 90 minute drive from our new home.
When the job finished I let the agencies I’d previously worked with know that I was once again seeking work. This time I had a call within a week, from the agency that had got me my job at Tioxide over 3 years before. Was I available to attend an interview that day? He would like to recommend me for a vacancy he had been asked to fill at short notice. I responded in the affirmative and he rang back half an hour later to say the interview was 20 miles away at 1:30pm.
At the end of the interview I was informed that a contract launch meeting was scheduled for the following morning in Grimsby. I would need to attend, along with the director, and the project manager who had, together, conducted the interview. I later learned that the project manager had also been recruited the same day via the same agency.
So it was that, having moved away from Grimsby 15 months earlier to reduce commuting time, I was now commuting daily in the opposite direction!
Meanwhile, I had made enquiries about a Talking Newspaper service for visually impaired people in the district and discovered there was none. Goole District Hospital’s broadcasting service needed volunteers, however, so it was not long before I was hosting a Friday evening “Country and Western” show and the Sunday morning request show.
Sunday mornings we also had a pre-recorded religious tape which I played whilst visiting each of the six wards in search of requests to play later. After a while hospital management introduced a policy whereby people who were not desperately ill were sent home at the weekend so that the only people present on a Sunday morning were in no fit state to make, or listen to, requests.
In the school summer holidays a small group of young people began using the Hospital Broadcasting Service’s facilities to produce a talking newspaper as a community project. It was only a temporary project, but demonstrated the need for such a service. I found out that the mother of one of the boys was the local social worker with responsibility for the welfare of visually impaired people. I contacted her about setting up a permanent service, telling her of my experience. She put me in touch with a small group of friends and relatives of blind people in the district. This group were the core of the local branch of the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind).
Recently the RNIB had changed its policy, insisting that funds raised locally could no longer be spent locally but must be remitted to HQ. Branches were then supposed to request funds for specific projects. It makes a certain kind of sense, ensuring that funds raised in the more affluent districts are distributed to poorer areas. The local group in Goole were not happy at this policy change and welcomed the opportunity to support, instead, a new service for local blind people.
We had our committee, we could use the Hospital Radio studio – at least for the time being. All we needed was funds to purchase some tapes and recording equipment. Once again I undertook a sponsored walk – this time from Snaith to Howden, dressed as an emu!
I also contacted the CVS (Council for Voluntary Service) for advice and help. Before long I found myself seconded to the CVS management committee and appointed as treasurer.
As the end of the contract approached I learned the team was to be split, and each part augmented to create two full teams, one to undertake an identical contract on a second of Eggborough’s four boilers whilst the other moved to Ironbridge to repeat the work on one of that site’s two. The contract manager was going to head up the Ironbridge team and wanted me as his planner. There would be a lodging allowance and mileage for travel home every Friday afternoon and return on Saturday night/early Sunday morning. (The standard pattern of work on these contracts was Sunday – Friday with Saturday off).
After discussing this turn of events with Freda, we agreed that she would give up her job if we could find a holiday let in the area for the whole three months. The contract manager was happy for me to use my allowances in this way. We found a cottage in the village of Plaish, between Much Wenlock and Church Stretton. The proprietor had just finished modernising it and put it on the holiday let market, so was pleased to be able to let it to us for the whole summer. It meant that we had our evenings, Saturdays and August Bank Holiday to spend together exploring the Shropshire countryside. It was also near enough to Hereford for more regular contact with our relatives there than we usually had.
Living in the country made us realise how much we had come to miss the joy of being surrounded by nature and creating a garden. Added to this was the long drive from Cleethorpes to the company head quarters or any of the power stations. We decided to look for a house closer to Snaith and the motorway system. We looked at the outskirts of Pontefract, a new estate in Goole, and a number of other places before we settled on a small development just coming to market in the village of Eastrington, a short distance from the ancient market town of Howden.
I was approaching 50 so needed a 15 year mortgage. At the time interest rates were very high by current standards. However, interest charges could be offset against income tax, as could the premiums for life insurance. The financial services industry came up with a scheme whereby the loan was covered by a life insurance policy which would pay out a lump sum at the end of the term – an endowment.
Later, many firms would be accused of miss-selling such products because they continued to encourage clients to take them on when the tax incentives were no longer available.
At the time, however, it was ideal for people like us for whom the capital element of any repayment would need to be relatively large in order to pay back the loan in such a short time. We moved in early in April of 1991.
The winter months in the company’s business were spent compiling estimates and plans for future work. The team was familiar with all of the routine tasks and knew from past experience how long they should take and what the resultant cost would be. The “Low Nox” installation was an exception, but now that we had completed three installations that, too, could be estimated and planned with confidence.
Up to that time contract plans had been constructed manually. A decision was taken to computerise the operation. The company purchased new PCs and a project planning software package called Pertmaster. One of the young software developers who had been a member of the development team at Pertmaster was recruited to oversee the introduction of the system and a group of us spent most of our working hours during January 1991 holed up in a hotel seminar room learning, not only how to use the software, but a good deal about the fundamentals of PC architecture at the time.
The work plan for the overhaul “season” in 1991 included a repeat of 1990 – two outages at Eggborough and one at Ironbridge. I should not have been surprised to learn that I was not required at Eggborough. When June arrived and we began work at Ironbridge with most of the team from the previous summer, the possibility of taking a holiday let was not a practical option. Unlike before, when we had friends in Cleethorpes who could, and did, keep an eye on our property in our absence, we did not yet know anyone in Eastrington well enough to do the same.
I spent my nights from Sunday to Thursday lodging in a boarding house together with most of the other team members, driving home on Friday evening and back again very early on Sunday morning.
With the contract ended, in the autumn, it was back to planning future work in head office. With major work now completed on many stations – ours was not the only company in the business – the future work load was likely to be less intensive.
For my 50th birthday Freda contrived to surprise me by inviting a group of our old friends from Cleethorpes Liberal Party. I knew nothing about it. They all arrived whilst I was in the bath and must have come in very quietly. I was completely taken aback when I came down the stairs, which led right into our living room, to find them all sitting there!
One morning, a couple of weeks after that, I was called into the manager’s office and told to pack up my things and go home. I was being made redundant. I could, if so minded, return on a temporary contract basis, next summer.
Meanwhile Ian had taken a job as a community psychiatric nurse in Surrey, working from a building attached to a large hospital where he was able to live in the nurses’ accommodation. There he had met an Irish woman who was working in the same hospital.
I attended a selection day, held in Leeds, for a company specialising in power station overhauls. At the end of the process the consultant informed me that he would be recommending me for both positions, those being Planning Engineer and Sub-contract Manager.
The next stage was an interview with a company representative at their head office. When I was offered the Planning Engineer role I asked “what about the other job?” and was told I was being offered only the Planning role. I accepted and began work on the first Monday of March 1990.
Power stations do not generally operate at full capacity during the summer in the UK. Their operators take the opportunity to shut some of them down in order to carry out major overhauls. Most consist of two or more generating “sets” so the whole station does not shut down, only one set at a time. On a four set station, two sets will be shut down over a six month period, each for three months.
The first shut down is usually scheduled for late March/early April. That year the shut down of one of the four sets at Eggborough was brought forward because of a breakdown – the operator decided not to restart for a 2-3 week run but to commence the planned overhaul right away at the beginning of March. That is where I was sent on my first day.
In 1990 all UK power stations were still operated by the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board). The government had decided to privatise, dividing the enterprise into two businesses, National Power and Powergen. Neither privatised company wanted to takeover an enterprise that was not efficient, so the CEGB was investing heavily, on behalf of the government, ensuring the plant was in good condition, as well as installing modifications to make them less polluting.
This mostly concerned the boiler element of the set. All of the work had to be accomplished within 90 days. There was a penalty clause under which the contractor would have to compensate the operator for loss of revenue in respect of every day by which the restart was delayed. The role of the Planning Engineer was, therefore, an important one.
A power station boiler is the size of a city apartment block: 160 feet (50 metres) high, 80 feet x 40 feet in plan (25 x 12.5 metres). Access is provided at 40ft., 80ft. and 120ft. above ground. The inner chamber up to 80 ft. is constructed entirely from thick walled steel tubes containing water under pressure which is heated by the burning of powdered coal blasted in through 24 nozzles each about 4 feet in diameter.
One of the jobs being undertaken during this round of overhauls was to replace those nozzles with new ones designed to eliminate the production of nitrogen oxides (Nox), a principle cause of acid rain. The tubes in the front wall are shaped to surround the nozzles. Because the new nozzles were a different size to the original this whole wall had to be cut out and replaced.
Elsewhere the extent of erosion and corrosion on the other walls was measured. Where this was found to be excessive the defective sections of tube were cut out and replaced. All of these tubes are embedded in refractory cement, outside which is a sheet steel case, then a layer of insulation and an outer cladding of sheet aluminium, all of which has to be removed to provide full access to the tubes, and then replaced after all tube welding has been completed.
The nozzles are supported within a steel structure on the front of the boiler. The old nozzles have to be unbolted and lifted out and the new nozzles lifted in. A difficult operation that has to be co-ordinated with the removal and replacement of the matching tube wall.
At Eggborough that March it soon became apparent that this sequence of operations could not be completed within the permitted time. I was charged with the task of devising an alternative sequence that would meet the time constraint. This proved successful.
Meanwhile there was much other work taking place. In the upper section of the boiler chamber a series of “U” shaped tubes hang down, also filled with water under pressure which is heated by the hot gases rising out of the chamber. All of these required inspection, as a result of which many were shown to be in need of repair.
All of the tubes emanate from a series of large bore tubes, or headers, located above the chamber roof. These too are subjected to inspection and repair as required. All around the boiler valves are repaired or replaced. All of the large ducts conveying air and hot gases to and from the boiler are cleaned out and, where necessary, their walls repaired.
The coal pulverisers are stripped down and worn parts replaced. The turbines, too, are subjected to an overhaul. Progress on all these tasks has to be monitored to ensure that nothing prevents the re-firing of the furnace on the contract date. Additional labour is recruited if needed, and additional hours worked, more than the usual 60 hours per week.
The sub-contract manager’s role is to liaise with the many specialist sub-contractors – scaffolders, refractory and insulation specialists, cleaning and inspection teams – to ensure that they have sufficient resources allocated when and where needed.
Both roles require the incumbents to spend large parts of the day in the thick of it, clambering about in confined and dirty spaces as well as attending meetings with contract supervisors and the client’s team and, in the case of the Planning Engineer, time spent at the desk assessing where delays are occurring and coming up with possible strategies for correcting them when the original strategies for preventing them have plainly failed.