Tuesday, 31 May 2011

My Village, My Home, My Life - part eight

Wrexham Lager Company
Having left school the previous month, I began work on the 5th August 1963 at Arthur Cudworth & Sons Engineering Works, Union Street, Wrexham. It stood beside the large Wrexham Lager brewery, which had been there since 1882. Cudworth's has long gone, and the Brewery closed in 2000, and all that remains is the Grade 11 listed building seen on the right of the photograph. Many years ago, Wrexham Lager used to sponsor Wrexham Football Club, and I believe to this day fans still sing, to an old Welsh hymn tune,

"Wrexham lager, Wrexham lager
Feed me 'til I want no more". - I think you've got to be there to appreciate it.

1963 was an interesting year. In March, the Beatles released their first album, 'Please Please Me'. In August, the Great Train Robbery occurred. In November, the first episode of Dr Who was broadcast, and in the same month, President John F Kennedy was assassinated (I'll return to this later).

Belt driven centre lathe
I joined Cudworth's as an apprentice centre lathe turner, but as it was a small general engineering works, you had to turn your hand to anything. I earned two pounds, ten shillings a week, of which one pound was given to Mother.

The owner was what you might affectionately call 'eccentric'. He had one eye, and drove a Triumph sports car. Unfortunately, his one eye was his left one, and being driven by him was an experience to forget. Because he didn't have a right eye, he had to pull out further than other drivers to see any approaching traffic, and he did like to overtake. The car had a turbo boost button, which he pressed when overtaking. It was a nightmare.

The engineering works had an office, staff eating room, machine shop and a large area with a blacksmiths shop to erect large structures. My area was the machine shop, with a couple of different size lathes, drilling machines and sawing machines. Even at the time, the machines would not have been out of place in an Industrial Heritage Museum. Being belt driven, the belts stretch with use, and I seemed to spend more time shortening them, than I did using the machines. However, I did produce some nifty work, even if I say so myself.

Between my machine shop and the office, was the eating area. A small room with one large wooden table, and benches down either side. I'm starting to have horrendous flashbacks at the thought of this, so give me a moment to compose myself. [Imagine period of quiet contemplation]. Thank you, I feel better. Before entering the room, I would make a lot of noise and give the door a few kicks. Why? So that the mice would scurry away. Droppings would then be brushed from the table, and we would make a drink and sit down to lunch. Mine was often beetroot sandwiches. Have you had beetroot sandwiches, made at 6.30 in the morning and eaten six hours later? No? Well don't bother. I don't believe that I've eaten beetroot to this day.

Blacksmith at work
Cudworth's had one Blacksmith who occupied his own area of the works. He mostly made wrought iron gates and railings to order. He was an old fashioned skilled artisan, who mostly did everything by eye, rather than using templates. Believe me that is one skill to have. He also rarely used welding or bolts, preferring to hold every piece of wrought iron together with strips that he would heat and then cool to hold things in place.

He was also old fashioned in the sense that he reluctantly shared his skills with others, for fear that someone would take his job. He was kind to me though as a young man, and though he wouldn't directly teach me anything, he allowed me to watch, so I learnt by observation.

I put this to use in my lunch break (I couldn't wait to get out of that eating room). I was allowed to gather waste metal that was no good for anything else, or to purchase some metal at cost price. My task was to make wrought iron furniture for home. My pride and joy was a coffee table with wrought iron legs curled into lovely shapes, and held together by bars of wrought iron turned into a spiral shape. Unlike the Blacksmith, I cheated and welded the parts together. The top of the table was as nice a piece of wood that I could find or afford. This was taken home with pride (though as I'm writing this, I wonder how I got it home), and sat uncommented upon in our living room. I never did know whether my Mother liked it, but I did notice that it disappeared from view as soon as I moved out of the home. Ah well, every artist has suffered some disappointments in their life.

Denbighshire Technical College, Wrexham

During my time at Cudworth's, I studied for, and gained a City & Guilds in Mechanical Engineering. This was a five year course, one day a week, plus two evenings. It was held at a satellite building of the Denbighshire Technical College, next door to where I worked.

I enjoyed those times, and I studied with a great group of lads. I remember coffee time during the day release. We all bought a milky coffee and two wagon wheels each. Without fail, every week. The tutor on one of the evening courses was an interesting man. He'd spent many years working in Argentina, and it was no problem getting him to talk about that time. Also, we would spend the first 15 or 20 minutes of every session talking about the Magic Roundabout that had been on the previous evening. Come to think about it, when did we ever do any work? We all got our C&G's though. On leaving college, one friend and I played one game of postal chess for the next two years, until we eventually called it a day. The excitement of one move a week was just too much to cope with.

Portmadog, North Wales
A couple of months after joining the company we won a contract to install a heating system in a new factory in Portmadog, North Wales. See what I mean about having to turn your hand to anything? Three of us were to spend the next few months in Portmadog during the week.

If I remember correctly, we would travel down very early on a Monday morning, and return on a Friday evening. This was all so new to me, and I think quite exciting.

I did learn a lot (which I forgot years later) about industrial heating systems. One thing that fascinated me was the use of a 40 - 50 foot length of clear hose pipe, filled with blue coloured water and used to find a level mark over a long distance - water always finding its own level of course. My job was to ensure that there were no air bubbles in the pipe, so ensuring that the system would work. You're fascinated by this aren't you? Riveting is the word. But to me, poor sod that I was, it was one of the most responsible jobs I'd ever done. I've been similarly deluded on many occasions since. Our intrepid band of three completed the contract on time, and to budget, which pleased Arthur Cudworth no end. I do not remember us getting a bonus.

Life in Portmadog settled into a comfortable routine. We would breakfast at a local cafe, and have an evening meal at a local restaurant. Showers were taken at a local swimming complex, and clothes were washed when we got home for the weekend.

The other two members of the team slept in a caravan that we brought with us from Wrexham, and I slept on a camp bed in a 6 foot by 4 foot garden shed. I was on my own, and very comfortable. Both caravan and shed were placed within the empty factory unit, so rain, wind and troublesome residents were no problem to us.

You know how years ago you were asked where you were when President John F Kennedy was assassinated? Well, I knew exactly where I was, for on the 22nd November 1963, I awoke in my garden shed to the news of his assassination in Dallas, Texas. Unless you were around at that time, it's hard to imagine the impact this had. He was seen as the vibrant, charismatic leader of the free world, and somebody had gunned him down. Without exaggeration, there was little else talked about in Portmadog for the next few days. My subsequent garden sheds, have all been reminders of where I was when that dreadful deed occurred.

So, finishing in Portmadog, we returned to work in Union Street, and the daily travel from Penycae to Wrexham (about six miles).  I would catch the 7.25am Crosville bus to work, and hopefully finish by about 6.00pm to catch the bus home - anything much after 6.00 would only go as far as the Rhos, which meant a two mile walk home. As a slight aside (you do like your asides don't you Evans?), I would often leave the house about 15 minutes early and go into the Chapel, which was next door to home and the bus stop (they were never locked in those days). Ascending the pulpit I would read out loud from the Bible; this was to experience projecting my voice, which I took seriously for one so young. Actually, it was worse than that, for I would often on nice, long summer evenings, cycle up to the mountains, park myself in a suitable spot, and preach a sermon to numerous confused sheep. Again, this was about voice projection. Do you think that I needed counselling at that time?

Honda 49 CC Moped
In may 1967 I had my six month provisional licence, and passed my driving test during that period. I also bought myself a motorbike to go to and fro work. Actually, that's not true. I bought myself a Honda 49 CC Moped (like the one opposite). You know the one with the pedals to help you get up the hills.

I had a classy helmet (!), and all the wet weather gear. I really looked the part, that is until I wheeled out the moped from the back of the house, then I just looked a prat. But hey, I got 150 miles to the gallon, so was saving me money, what did I care. The problem was that whichever way I left the village, and whichever way I wanted to return, there were steep hills. One stretch in particular between Penycae and Rhos was not to be looked forward to.

Either way, there was a steep hill down, and then a steep hill up. My plan always was to race down the hill as fast as I could (maximum moped speed 35 mph), and with full throttle race up the other side. I never got more than two-thirds up before losing engine speed and having to start peddling. With no one about, this was no more than a minor inconvenience (par for the course you may say), but with the inevitable groups of school children or young people about, it was an embarrassment, as they fell about laughing, and shouting out all manner of unsavoury things. You can imagine what added delight I brought to their day, when in my flustered state, my foot would slip off the pedal just as I was about to climb the rise, and be away to safety. But did this put me off? No it didn't. We Evans are made of sterner stuff.

I just changed my route.  It was a bit longer; full of narrow country lanes and some hills, but at least there was hardly anyone about to see the frantic pedalling which was an inevitable part of the journey. The country route it was to be. It all went well until one day, a moron in a car took a sharp corner on my side of the road and drove me into a ditch. I still have the scar on my knee. Granted you need a fairly strong magnifying glass to see it, but I know it's there - a legacy of being a 'biker'. That was enough for me. The bike was sold, I hung up my helmet for the last time, and it was back to the 7.25am Crosville bus, Penycae to Wrexham.

The following year, my wife to be and I moved to Birmingham, got married, and settled down. I'd left my village, my home and started a new life. But that's another story altogether.


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  2. Hi (if you're still there),
    Parallel paths here. I started in the brewery in November 1962. I worked in the laboratory which had a row of windows which looked over Central Road to Cudworth's yard. One of our main entertainments was when Cudworth's had a big item arriving. Everyone there would go out onto the yard and all these big fellows would watch as the apprentice struggled with the yard crane.

    I also had direct dealings with the yard. In about 64-65 I had a converted Austin 1936 (?) cabriolet which was falling apart. I took it to Harold Cudworth who refused to bodge it and it came back with some effective welding to hold the headlights on.

    Although I'd been living in Cefn in 62 I moved to Chester in 64 and in 65 moved to Penycae, just below the Church. By then I had a Standard 8 which spent much of its time in Turners body shop in Acrefair. I caught the bus often from the Tainant turning at the top of Penycae and, like you, walked from Broad Street or Ruabon or (when the car still wasn't ready, from Acrefair up a dark Delph past Christionydd.

    I don't think I can be blamed for your motorbike spill. Before getting the Austin I had commuted from Cefn on a Lambretta and later on a Matchless. I had a few hairy moments on the winters of 63 and 64 0n them and have always given bikers a bit of space (more than they give me).

    Also 'graduated' from the famous Denbighshire Technical College. It's a bit sad to see its decline to a mediocre university. The college I remember helped so many people acquire practical, useful skills. It is dead in evenings and I remember the buzz as we returned from the cafeteria to evening classes and walked past corridors lined with masses doing commercial training, accountancy, typing, external degrees, ONCs, HNCs etc.

    You mention Wrexham FC. After starting as a humble lab assistant I went through the ranks and finished up as head brewer. I was delighted to arrange the sponsorship deal which got Wrexham Lager onto the shirts. I also enjoyed several years of having 'my own' lounge off the Directors' box with a fridge loaded with lager and the club supplying other refreshments. Fighting one's way out at half time to queue for tea never felt good after that.

    In those early days the pay was rubbish but the training great!

    Best wishes,

    David Ethelston