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Of course, it soon became clear that the job would take longer than six months – there were at least six lines to do, at three months each that meant the project would last at least a year and a half.
It also meant, of course, that I was away from home from Monday morning to Friday evening. I had the use of a car from the company pool and my accommodation in Grimsby was paid for by the Courtelle Division who also paid Courtaulds Engineering for my services. I discussed with my ex-colleague the possibility of my becoming a permanent member of his team and he agreed that it would make sense, but for some reason I never fully understood, the divisional board considered the possibility on a number of occasions over the succeeding months but it was fully one year before they finally said “yes”.
My lodgings were in a small boarding house on one of the short streets running back from the promenade in Cleethorpes. Run by a Scottish former sub-mariner and his wife there was a clientele that mostly consisted of company representatives who made visits to the area on a fairly frequent basis and I got to know them all. There was also, for a while, a chap who was in the same position as me; from Newcastle, he had been appointed manager of the local branch of Lucas vehicle electrical equipment and needed to stay in the boarding house until he found, and completed the purchase of, a house in the area. We’d often stay up until quite late after dinner playing darts and “chewing the fat” with these men and the proprietor’s Scottish friend who was the PR Officer for the local council.
A full English breakfast every morning (very similar to a “full Irish”), two courses for lunch in the staff canteen (staff were separated from shift workers!), and two further courses for dinner back at the digs, washed down with two or three pints of beer, saw my weight climb from 10 stone to 11 stone for the first and only time in my life. I took note of this and cut back on some of the meals and the booze.
I also spent some evenings taking long walks on the beach south of Cleethorpes. There were miles of mud flats exposed by low tide. I remember one occasion when I had walked a long way towards the sea and suddenly realised I was looking up at the horizon and the string of container ships and tankers awaiting the tide before entry to Hull, Immingham or Grimsby ports. That is certainly how it seemed. It was definitely a disconcerting feeling and I quickly turned round and walked back! I can fully understand now how people get caught out by fast incoming tides in similar situations.
In the summer of 1978 I booked us into a chalet in the nearby holiday camp for two weeks so that Freda and Ian could have a taste of Cleethorpes. Back in Coventry at weekends I helped out with the collection of old newspapers for recycling as part of the local Scouts’ fund raising as well as continuing my voluntary work with the Community Broadcasting Service. Ian joined the cast of the Gang Show. I’ve written elsewhere about the snow that made it difficult – but not impossible – for me to get back to Coventry to see the show in March of 1979.
In May of 1979 the company finally made me an offer of permanent employment at Grimsby. They would continue to pay the boarding house costs for three months. As I was no longer working for Courtaulds Engineering I had to return their car and purchase one of my own. The salary I was offered was considerably more than I had been getting and there was a lump sum allowance to help with the cost of moving.
We found a house in the centre of Cleethorpes, a narrow Edwardian terrace that had been constructed with four bedrooms upstairs and four rooms downstairs. The two back bedrooms had been knocked together and the bathroom made larger. Downstairs the door connecting the first two rooms had been taken out and replaced with an archway. Beyond that was a small dining room and a good sized kitchen. It would be our home for the next nine years.
We arranged the move for the middle weekend of Ian’s two week camp in the New Forest with his Coventry scout group. We learned later that he had asked his best friend’s mother if he could stay with them after his mother and I moved to Cleethorpes!
We drove down to Bournemouth on the last weekend of the camp to bring him back with us – the whole group had traveled down from Coventry by mini-bus and were returning in the same way. I had purchased a car from Freda’s brother – a white, rear engined, Renault 10. Although I’d driven it between Coventry and Cleethorpes several times by then, I had never before taken a short break during a long journey, setting out to continue before the engine had properly cooled.
We stopped for a food break in Marlborough, parking near the town’s Market Square. When I turned the key in the ignition on our return to the car the engine emitted a loud report and a puff of smoke. After the initial shock, and having checked that everything looked okay in the engine compartment, I turned the key again and the car started as normal. We learned that this was a “standard feature” of the car and sometimes took pleasure in watching people’s reactions whenever it happened.
It had been cold all week up to now. A brutal North Easterly wind scoured the coast in sub-zero temperatures under leaden skies. I was working in Grimsby, awaiting the board’s approval of my permanent posting, still travelling back to Coventry at the weekends. That Thursday morning, St. Valentine’s Day 1979, was no different to any other that week: still bitterly cold as I left the guest house at 8am for the twenty minute drive to work. As I crossed over the traffic lights where Grimsby Road, Cleethorpes, transforms itself into Cleethorpes Road, Grimsby, I felt the wind rock the car and saw the first flurries of snow caught in the headlights’ glow.
By the time I reached the next set of lights, at the junction with Freeman Street and Fishdock Road, the traffic seemed to be at a standstill, nothing moving when the lights changed. The snow was still fine and light, though driven by that bitter wind. There was now a light dusting of white powder on the road being picked up and swirled around by the wind, mingling with the steam from vehicle exhaust pipes.
Eventually the traffic in front of me began to move forward slowly. I switched into the right-hand lane by the derelict Alexandra Theatre, ready to turn right onto the swing bridge. As I made the turn into the wind, the snow began to plaster the windscreen and I turned on the wipers. Beyond the swing bridge, the road climbs briefly. It was here that I discovered the cause of the hold up. Heavy vehicles were struggling to negotiate the incline, their rear wheels spinning, causing them to snake slowly forwards.
Beyond the dock estate the road to the plant runs parallel to the coast, about half a mile inland. That half mile consists of a flat cultivated field – or it did then. The field is separated from the road by a low hedge and a ditch. Here I was to learn the meaning of the expression ‘white out’. The road, the sky, the field, were all white. Snow flakes swirled around the car. The only guide I had, as I covered the mile or so of straight road to the plant entrance, was the red glow from the rear lights of the car in front of me. Its driver, like me, an employee arriving later than usual to work that morning.
My morning routine, having arrived in the office, was to take a walk around the various projects for which I had responsibility. This necessitated a quarter mile walk outside. I donned waterproof over-trousers, wellingtons and a hooded waterproof, carrying the hard hat and goggles I would be obliged to wear inside the plant. Snow stung my face and I turned my head to the side so that the hood took the brunt of the storm’s blast. Where the internal factory road turned a corner between two buildings set at an angle to each other, snow was piling into a huge drift.
By noon I was back in the office, nursing a mug of hot tea. In the meeting room all eight of us Engineers were gathered around the conference table to hear the Chief Engineer explain that the road leading to the plant was completely blocked, the narrow channel between low hedges creating the perfect repository for every flake of snow the wind scoured from the farmer’s field. Nothing could get in or out of the plant. No deliveries, no collections.
Of greater importance was the fact that a change of shifts was due at 3pm. The road needed to be open, both to enable the employees due to arrive to do so, and to ensure those leaving were able to do so safely.
The plant generated its own steam and electrical power by means of a bank of nine boiler and generator sets, 4 coal powered, 5 oil fired. The company employed two large bucket loaders to move coal around the yard. It was agreed that one of these would be deployed to clear the road. The cars belonging to incoming employees would be held at the entrance to the road, then led in, in convoy, behind the bucket loader. The loader would then lead the vehicles containing departing workers away from the plant. This process would be repeated as often as necessary to complete the change-over.
With this operation completed, the day staff, officially due to leave at 5pm., would be led out. Finally, those of us who would normally leave at 5:30 would be led out. We were left in no doubt that this operation would take some considerable time and that we would likely be here until well after six.
There are 3 other plants, further North along the Humber Bank. Two produce Titanium Dioxide and the other, fertiliser. I learned the following day that staff at one of those had been unable to leave their plant and remained there over-night.
I had hoped that, by Friday afternoon, the roads out of Grimsby would have been cleared. They were not. So I had to spend an extra night in the Cleethorpes boarding house, journeying to Coventry on Saturday morning. By my return on Monday morning most of the snow had cleared, just the drifts under the hedges remaining.
And here is an odd thing. Four weeks later, on Friday 15th March, there was another heavy snow storm that prevented me travelling to Coventry until Saturday morning. That was a bigger blow, personally, than February’s winter blast had been. My son, Ian, was a scout and was in the Gang Show company. Their show was playing Saturday night in the Coventry Theatre. I had to be there. More than that, the plan was that I would drive to Hereford on Saturday morning to collect my mother and her husband so that they could see her grandson’s performance. That part of the plan had to be abandoned, but I did get to see the show.