Fred and Sue, were returning to Bolton with the steam roller Betsy and the living van from a steam rally in the wilds of the Peak District.
They were parked up for the night in Buxton and Fred was a bit worried as they were running late. I agreed to help out for a day and steer the roller to give Sue - Fred's second wife and the mother of his sons, Jack and Roger - a break, as she was also looking after little Jack, who was only a baby at the time. She would take the car ahead of us, do some shopping and bits and pieces then meet us in Macclesfield.
Between Buxton and Macclesfield stands the notorious Cat and Fiddle, a 10-mile winding hill reaching a thousand feet or more over the Pennines, dropping down on its western flank to the Cheshire plain. On a clear day from the top, you can see the Wrekin in Shropshire, Liverpool Cathedral, Snowdonia in Wales, Blackpool Tower, and, if you are lucky, the mountains of Cumbria. We got the fire up and the green engine started to come to life with its own special little gurgles, hisses and clunks. We cleaned out the ash pan, emptied bags of coal into the tender, oiled all the moving parts and did some wiping and a bit of brass-polishing, an absolute must with Fred. He was like the company sergeant major in the brigade of guards when it came to brass-polishing. Once the engine was gleaming to Fred's satisfaction and the pressure was up, we were ready for the big ascent to the top. Sue cooked us a hearty breakfast in the living van, and, ifI remember rightly, cut my hair as she thought l looked like a wandering minstrel - certainly not an engine man. Then she and baby Jack went off in the car while Fred and I set off with the roller, steaming up the tortuous hill with its dozens of tight bends.
The Aveling steam roller, Betsy, was performing well and really in her element as she tackled the gradient, with that unmistakable barking sound up the chimney which was music to Fred's ears. It was one of his favourite sounds. "Better than all that bloody pop music - shows she’s working her nuts off!" he commented, with a smile from ear to ear. We had got about three-quarters of the way up when Fred started having difficulties with the injector. Every time he cracked it open _we were enveloped in a cloud of hissing steam instead of being greeted with the reassuring singing-kettle sound which announced that water was being injected into the boiler. I kept my eyes fixed on the winding road ahead making continuous rapid revolutions on the wheel to get the engine and van round the ever-steeper bends which were coming up thick and fast.
It was becoming obvious that Fred was getting a bit agitated. He kept on muttering unmentionable things every time he tried to crack the injector open,just to be met with clouds of steam. I quietly noted the water level glass on the boiler was getting ominously low as Fred’s actions with the injector were getting more and more animated. After another big hissing and clouds of steam episode he suddenly yelled: "Pull in on that bend!” I could tell by his tone of voice that we were now in urgent mode. As we came to a clunking halt, Fred leaped down and checked the tender. ”We’re out of bloody water - we’re out of bloody water!” he repeated with incredulity. I did a quick scan of the desolate landscape, thinking there were no fire hydrants for miles round but I did remember a small pond on the little road going down to Derbyshire Bridge, a good half-mile away. I had painful visions of running back and forth with buckets of water.
In the meantime, Fred, jumping back on the footplate, had grabbed the shovel and was rapidly shovelling the fire out of the firebox and onto the gravel by the side of the road. "Keep raking everything out of the ash pan!" he bawled. A few cars had stopped for the occupants to watch open- mouthed the spectacle of Fred’s furious fire-shovelling act amid clouds of smoke and sparks. It was quite spectacular - especially if you didn't know what was happening. A van driver offered to give me a lift up to the Cat and Fiddle pub, which was at the summit, to bring back some water and Fred produced four big plastic water containers from the living van.
Before we left, I noticed Fred was lobbing fresh coal onto the roadside fire and encouraging it to burn well. There was an age-old engine man’s strategy in Fred’s action. Thinking ahead, he was intending to shovel a good, red fire back into the firebox once we had some water in the boiler. I did about half a dozen trips back and forth to the Cat and Fiddle pub with the ever-patient van driver, who carried Eccles cakes among other things...
The people at the pub lent us some more containers, so we managed to fill the tender with enough water left over for the boiler. Fred did the last trip as a magnanimous gesture, butI suspected he needed a quick pint after the hot work. By the time Fred returned with the bemused van driver, the boiler had cooled off sufficiently and I had let off the remaining steam. I had gingerly taken the top plug out and filled up with water to the desired water glass level. The bright red fire was duly shovelled back into the firebox and the needle very slowly crept up the dial on the steam pressure gauge while we did a bit of oiling, wiping and more brass-polishing - not forgetting having a mug of tea and a packet of Eccles cakes. There’s nothing like clutching a steaming mug of tea and eating Eccles cakes with grimy oily hands next to a sizzling steam roller halfway up the Cat and Fiddle - better than sitting at a café in Antibes. That’s my view on things, anyway.
The roller’s tender was empty because a drain tap had been inadvertently knocked on, so we had been watering the road all the way from Buxton. When the steam pressure got back up to the desired mark, Fred gently nudged the regulator and, with a toot of the whistle, we were off again, trundling towards the summit and the famous Cat and Fiddle pub. It is said to be the highest licensed house in England, being 1690 feet above sea level. Sue had pre-arranged that Buxton Young Farmers’ Club would bring a water bowser up to the pub at lunchtime so we could replenish the tender. It was a pity that we couldn’t have contacted them when we were stuck without water halfway up the hill, but this was in the old days before the invention of mobiles. We take so much for granted now. Communications were difficult then, especially when on the road with a steam roller, having to rely entirely on the ubiquitous red telephone box, which were rather thin on the ground up in the remote Pennines. I did try to contact the young farmers’ office from a pay phone at the pub, but there was no reply. They would have been out working.
The morning had gone by the time we finally retired into the pub for a quick butty, as Fred aptly put it. It was mid-afternoon before we set off again for the long descent down to Macclesfield. The problem with Fred and pubs was that you just could not get him out of them. It was not that he was a heavy drinker; on the contrary, a couple of Guinness was all he ever wanted. The problem was that he quickly became everybody’s best friend. They all wanted to buy him drinks and never wanted him to leave - not forgetting that once he got into explaining things, time just wasn’t an issue. It could take him half-an-hour to explain in graphic detail about taking a nut off a blow-down valve. Wherever you travel in the country if there is with anything to do with steam engines, you will invariably meet Fred’s best friends. They will have met him for a couple of hours in a pub somewhere and sincerely believe they are one of his closest mates - and Fred believed it too. They constantly came up and reminded him, so getting him out of a pub was always a diplomatic mission. Even though he was one of the most famous and adored television personalities in Britain and surprisingly in many other countries around the world, Fred was always just Fred, always happy to chat to anybody, and genuinely enjoying their company. He just liked people. It was a lovely side to him. in fact, I doubt if he ever really realised the magnitude of his fame.
When steam traction engines and steam rollers embark on going down long, steep hills, there are always a few precautions to bear in mind, the main one being an old steam engine device known as the fuseable plug. This is a lead plug situated in the top of the firebox at the rear of the boiler. The great Victorian engineers, in their wisdom, realised they had to include some form of safety device in case the boiler ran short of water. This little lead plug would melt if the water level got too low, allowing steam to gush into the firebox so putting the fire out, thus saving the boiler from expensive repairs and perhaps total disaster.
When going down hill, the water is inclined to run to the front of the boiler. If it is only half full there is a possibility of leaving no water at the back, thus melting the fuseable lead plug. All prudent steam engine drivers, therefore, make sure the boiler is full when going down hills. Fred was very aware of this, especially on the long, winding hill down the Cat and Fiddle, never forgetting, of course, that the best way to stop a steam roller with intent is by using the power of the steam itself, by putting the engine in reverse. We didn't want the fuseable plug to melt, put the fire out, lose our steam and our best method of stopping the ancient monster on this notorious hill.
We were making good progress down the long ever-winding descent. Life was good, the sun was shining and the magnificent Pennine hills stretched away on both sides as far as the eye could see, with the high plateau of Kinder Scout in the distance over to our right. In the distance before us, lying stretched out below like a vast carpet, was the flat green Cheshire plain stretching to the Irish Sea. Every now and again there would be the peeping of a horn as Sue would drive past, keeping an eye on us and giving a wave; we would give a return toot on the whistle. Fred was continually at the injector, making sure the boiler was full. We were about halfway down when some very ominous clouds came rolling in from the north-west and it started to pour down. On the tight, steep bends of the Cat and Fiddle, the road gets shiny and very slippery in the wet (It’s been greatly improved and resurfaced since those days). The roller started to get a bit skittish, as the slightest bump over a grid or something could make her big, smooth, driving wheels lose momentary contact and she would slide on the wet surface, which could be quite unnerving. We had slowed right down because of the torrential rain and a queue of traffic had formed behind us but we had got to a difficult stretch and there was nowhere convenient to pull in.
Fred was still concentrating on the injector keeping the boiler full when a police car passed and pulled in right in front of us with its red "Stop" sign flashing. I yelled to Fred to stop the bloody engine and he shouted a lot of expletives, slamming the reversing lever back. There was a tremendous chuffing up the chimney as she seemed to rear up. The big wheels began to slip on the road and we were now on a direct collision course, sliding towards the back of the police car with Fred giving the whistle continuous blasts. I could already see it on the TV news .... "Steam roller demolishes police car on the Cat and Fiddle!" I also saw cartoon visions of a flattened police car like a pancake on the road. Luckily, the driver must have anticipated what was happening and drew forward allowing us to come to a gracious clattering halt in a cloud of steam.
As things do in situations like this, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. That hair-raising long slide towards the police car, in reality, probably only took a couple of seconds and the distance between us was less than three feet. Nevertheless it always remained indelible in our minds. We recalled it with chuckles when Fred was in the hospice. Two grim-looking policemen got out, one producing his a notebook which always seems a bad sign. We were expecting the worst, especially after a couple of pints of Guinness. I was wondering if it would be difficult for them to determine who was actually driving the roller. It seemed they had only pulled in to offer us assistance and control the traffic. They felt the copious clouds of steam drifting across the road from the injector could restrict vision for anyone trying to pass.
Fred kept on saying, in his usual way: "Yeh, yeh, yeh, officer,”in answer to their questions, which seemed to satisfy them. They helpfully waved the traffic on for us and bade us a good journey. When we finally chuffed into Macclesfield town on the Cheshire side, Sue was patiently waiting so she could hitch up the car to the back of the living van and resume the journey to Bolton with Fred. Baby Jack was accordingly tucked up all cosy and snug in the living van - he certainly started his steaming at a young age!
Roger's Reminiscences - Steaming over the Cat & Fiddle
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray