It is difficult to think about Fred without a feeling of horror when he persuaded me to climb a chimney. I think without exaggeration that it was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. It was round the time we made a series of television beer commercials featuring Fred and he suggested that I go and look at this chimney, as it was one of the tallest in Britain and he had erected some very imposing scaffolding around the top, which he was very proud of.
We were considering at the time including some scaffolding shots in one of the commercials, so I drove out to where the chimney was. I think it was somewhere near Burnley. I remember seeing it in the distance for miles before I got to it. It was massive. When I arrived Fred was sorting some ropes out with his assistant, Donald, at the base of the structure.“HeIlo Rog. What do yer think of it then? Some bloody chimney, isn't it? It's a monument to those hard men who built it. You've got to have it in the commercial."
I looked up and even standing on the ground felt a bit dizzy. He then announced: "You've arrived just in time. I'm going up now. Why don't you come up and have a look at the scaffolding?" I instinctively took a few steps back vigorously shaking my head. "Come on, Rog, you'll love it up there. You've never seen a view like it and, if you're going to use it in the commercial, you should see what it's like on top. Martin Lightening, the cameraman with the BBC, comes up chimneys with me, so this is your chance. Come on, be a real man," he cleverly quipped, walking over to the base of the ladder and beckoning me to follow. “I shall come up right behind you."
Why, I shall never know to this day. It must have been a wandering rogue impulse. It may have been the added (be a man) bit. I just walked over to the ladder and started to climb. I remember Donald 'the grounder' giving me a quizzical look as if he was trying to tell me something - I wish he had. "Lean back and stick your knees out sideways," Fred shouted from below me. I had only climbed one ladder length and it quickly hit me that I had made one dreadful mistake. "Go on, keep on going. Get into a rhythm," Fred's voice bellowed behind me again. It felt as if I was a 100 feet up already and I was only treetop height. I gingerly looked up and saw the ladder going up and up and up above me, disappearing into infinity. It was a most awful sight, especially for somebody who didn't like heights. Fred's voice bellowed up again: "Go on, keep going and lean back."
By this time I was clinging so tight into the ladder that my jacket, shirt buttons and
tie were scraping up the rungs. I was dressed in a pin-striped business suit, never
expecting to climb a bloody chimney, especially one of the highest in Britain. When
I set off at the bottom it was a warm, sunny day. I'm sure I went through a climate
Farther up a wind started blowing and it became quite cold and grey. Could
that have been a passing low cloud, I wondered? I felt like an ant clinging to the
side of a giant drinking straw. I kept climbing, not daring to look up or down.
The lines of bricks went slowly past. I noticed them in detail. The ladders seemed to
be very frail and wobbly, especially where one joined the other. They also went
narrower at the top of each one, which was disconcerting.
The thin metal pins sticking out of the brickwork holding the ladders looked as if they
could just slip out from the mortar. There were little lengths of rope tying bits of ladder
together. I noticed all these things in very close focus as I went further up and up.
Everything to do with the ladders seemed very whimsical and 'Heath Robinson', although
I kept trying to convince myself that Fred was an absolute professional and was meticulous
about his equipment. All I could think about was how I was going to get down. As I got
higher the chimney got noticeably narrower, there was an odd feeling that it could topple
over with my weight. "Keep going. Lean back," shouted Fred's voice from what seemed
to be a long way down below now - much lower than I had anticipated. Oo'er, I thought,
he should have been just behind me, nervously peering down between my legs.
The sight was unreal and made me feel sick. The ladder and the chimney just went down, down and down below my feet, which seemed to be superimposed on nothingness. It was a most horrible and unnerving sight making me feel quite faint and trembly. Fred was about 50 feet below and looked like a spider hanging on a thread with his knee through a rung and leaning back having a fag.
There was a whole landscape in miniature spread out below him. I could see Donald as a tiny dot of a figure looking up. I was transfixed and couIdn't move and just clung on as hard as I could for dear life. I think you can reach a point where keeping a so-called ‘stiff upper lip' and being a 'real man' suddenly buggers off and leaves you, and you throw any thought of dignity and courage to the wind. I think I was near to panic as the wind whistled past my ears. I was sure the chimney was moving. "Go on. Keep going," Fred's voice came up again from the depths. Then I think he noticed that I was having a bit of a problem as his voice came up again: "Hang on, l'm coming up." I must say I felt a lot better. "Come on, Rog. We're near the top. Keep going and don't look down." He was now right underneath me. We got to where the scaffolding was at the top. With not daring to look up, the first I knew of it was the next ladder coming back at an angle to get over the planks. "Hold on tight with your arms and keep climbing. Go on. And lean back!" he shouted. At this point I really thought my end was nigh. The last thing I wanted to do was lean back.
Climbing outwards suspended under the ladder at such an angle, it felt as if all of my body weight was held only by my fingers. I remember thinking my fingers are only little and if they give way it's ‘half a day out with the undertaker', as Fred often used to say. He came up from behind and butted me over the lip on to the scaffolding planks. I scrambled on and lay spread- eagled, flat on my back not daring to move. Fred climbed on and then started walking nonchalantly round the top with his hands in hispockets, surveying the distant landscape. "Look at that for a view, Rog. Just think, those men who built this chimney had never heard of aeroplanes, so they were the first ever to see it. Have a look, Rog!" I half-raised my head and twisted it sideways to try to comply with his wishes. I could just make out rows of terraced houses and the odd church steeple and factory chimney poking up through the grey murk down, down below. Everything seemed to waver in front of my eyes. It was slightly reminiscent of an LS Lowry painting done from very high up. I bet Lowry never climbed a mill chimney to look at a view. "How am I going to get down?"
I whimpered wishing an air sea rescue helicopter could come and pluck me off it. I even thought of getting Fred to go and ring for the emergency services.
By now he was pirouetting round the edge of the inside of the chimney, kicking loose bricks down into its big black cavernous hole making ominous dull thuds at the bottom. I just wanted him to sit down and hold on to something. "You will acclimatise and get used to it soon," he replied. "Just sit up and look at the view." He then went on about the delights of being at the top of a chimney and how many men were killed building this particular one. “l just want to get down again, Fred. l've seen the scaffolding now. It looks very good and I feel bloody awful." I must have sounded pathetic but had thrown any pride to the wind, which was now whistling round the chimney at a rate of knots. I was past even the slightest vestige of caring. "Would you like a brew and a butty?" enquired Fred. "That'll make you feel better. cock. I'll get Donald to send something up in the bucket."
To cut a long story short, Fred was right- I did get a bit used to it, there was something very special about being on top of such a magnificent chimney and I did look at his scaffolding. Then came the dreaded time of going down again. l couldn't help thinking of how I was going to crawl over those planks to get on the ladder underneath. Fred sat me in a bosun's chair and lowered me over on a block and tackle as I clung to the ladder for dear life, then it was a long, knee-aching climb down, feeling better all the time. I would never ever want to repeat the performance, but at least I had climbed a mill chimney, even if without the dignity. Some learned sage once said that life was one big tapestry, but tapestries always look faded. Fred certainly added some colour to mine!
Roger's Reminiscences - Climbing Fred's Chimney
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray