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Complete Story taken from The Wizard issue 1720 January 31ST 1959

It’s a hundred miles from Donchester to Middleford by road. A good lorry driver can do the journey in five hours. But when Alec Campbell and I did the journey it took us just over twenty-four hours! That was steady driving, too.


You’ve probably guessed that it wasn’t an ordinary type of vehicle that Alec and I were handling. My name, by the way, is Harry Turner. We work for Zephyr Road Services, one of the biggest transport firms in the Midlands, and when Brent’s Boilers of Donchester wanted one of their boilers delivered to a new power station at Middleford, they got straight on to Zephyr and gave them the job. You see, the boiler was ninety feet in length! Zephyr have done similar jobs before and they had a special, massively-constructed trailer they used for gigantic loads, with a whacking-great traction unit to do the pulling – “Big Willie” we called it. The whole journey had to be planned like a military operation. The firm had to contact the police force in each area we were to go through and get their approval for the journey. It wasn’t simply a matter of taking the straightest route to Middleford either. We could use only roads where any bridges cutting across were high enough to give sufficient clearance for the boiler. The police were waiting for us when we drove out of the factory gates. They had two cars, one to act as a pilot, and the other took up its position behind us. I was in a special cab on the end of the trailer, and I was in touch with Alec by telephone. Some of the corners we had to negotiate would be easier to judge from the rear. Our route had been planned to bypass as many built-up areas as possible, but in the Midlands you have to pass through a town sometime. It was a really tricky job, when we did. All the traffic lights were switched in our favour and all other traffic had to halt while we crawled along. It was all plain sailing out in the country, except for odd occasions, when the police had to shoo a flock of sheep from the road. We’d done about twenty-five miles at five miles an hour when we had the first snag. As I’ve said, our route had been planned so as to give sufficient clearance under any bridge that crossed the road. But somebody must have slipped up when he was measuring. Just outside a village the road crossed by a railway bridge. It seemed pretty low to us as we neared it, but we let our better judgment be over-ruled by the thought that the chaps who worked out the route must have known what they were doing. We were halfway under when we became firmly stuck. Alec shut off the engine, and we all got out and studied the position. The boiler was firmly jammed against the top of the arch. Alec looked at it thoughtfully, then said to me as he went back to his cab, “Just watch while I try backing up, Harry. If I start pulling any of the bridge away, give me a shout.” He started the engine up again, and very slowly let in the clutch. The boiler shuddered violently, and I shouted warningly as the brickwork started to flake. Alec stopped and got out. “I never reckoned on this happening,” he said ruefully. “It looks as though we’re stuck here for good.” We all concentrated hard, trying to see a solution. Quite a crowd of spectators had gathered by now enjoying the spectacle immensely. There was one schoolboy, about ten years old, at the front of the crowd. He wore big, round glasses and had a studious expression. After sizing the situation up for a minute, he came over to me. “It’s not difficult when you think of it, you know.” I bent to catch what he was saying, and he went on casually. “Why not let your tyres down a little?” I think I felt about three inches high as the lad looked at me condescendingly. The obvious answer, and it took a ten-year-old school kid to point it out! It worked perfectly. We lowered the pressure by a few pounds in each tyre, and the load sank down just that few inches that was necessary. The boiler sailed through perfectly. The crowd had a really good laugh at our expense, especially when we had to sweat away at pumping the tyres up again! At nine o’clock that night we pulled into a drivers’ rest house, for the night.


The next morning we were up early and by eight o’clock we were back on the road again. It was about eleven when I heard a sharp exclamation from Alec over the phone. “Just look at it, Harry. The weather’s been perfect all week, but today of all days we have to get fog.” It came floating down in thick clouds. I thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t Alec up front, having to drive in weather like that. He couldn’t have been able to see more than two yards in front of him. Then it happened. The trouble was caused by a lorry-driver coming in the opposite direction. He must have lost his bearings completely, for he was weaving all over the road. All that Alec saw was a three-ton lorry looming up out of the fog. Alec did the automatic thing. He swerved to the left and jammed on his brakes. The giant trailer lurched violently and I banged my head against the side of the cab. Then the whole thing seemed to start sliding downwards. After a second it stopped. I stayed where I was for a minute, but there was no more movement, so I reckoned it was safe to get out. I opened the door and stepped down. I got the shock of my life when I found there was no ground beneath me! I just managed to grab hold of one of the cables lashing the boiler down before I fell into space. Slowly I hauled myself up on to the trailer again, and made my way to the other side. There I was able to step down to the road. We soon found out what had happened. We were at the top of a railway embankment and in swerving Alec had crashed the vehicle through the protecting fence. The trailer was now poised at a crazy angle at the top of the embankment. I went hot and cold at the thought of what would have happened if the trailer hadn’t stopped where it had done. As it was, the situation was very dangerous. If Alec started up again to try to drive clear, the chances were that the whole lot would go tumbling down to the bottom. I’m rather proud of the fact that I thought out the answer to the problem this time. “This is a farming area, isn’t it?” I asked one of the policemen, and he nodded. I went on. “Well, if a few of your chaps went round they might be able to persuade half a dozen farmers to lend us their tractors for half an hour.” A slight breeze had sprung up and the fog began to disperse into small shreds. The policemen went off to search the area, and in twenty minutes they were back with four farm tractors, complete with drivers. Four seemed to be sufficient for the job, so we set to work. Each tractor had a cable hooked on to it and looped round the boiler and trailer chassis. Next we got them all to start up their engines in bottom gear, while Alec climbed into his cab and started his engine. Then, at a signal, the drivers all let in their clutches simultaneously. The traction unit jerked forward and immediately the boiler began to sway violently as the trailer wheels slithered half over the embankment. But the combined effect of the four tractors pulling together away from the railway began to tell. Alec’s vehicle was heading back to the road, while the tractors, pulling at right angles to him were stopping it going down the embankment. In two minutes Big Willie was safely back on the road again. The programme had been planned so that we should pass through Middleford, at the end of the journey, in the middle of the afternoon before the rush hour started. But because of the delay caused by the embankment incident, we landed in Middleford at half-past five, the busiest time of day! The police looked worried. They had planned to hold up all the traffic while the boiler went through the town, but that was out of the question now. Any delay in the rush-hour traffic would cause chaos for the rest of the evening. But Alec was confident. “Middleford streets are pretty wide,” he told the inspector who was to control the operation. “I reckon we can get through by just holding up part of the traffic at a time.” The police inspector was doubtful, but there wasn’t much he could do about the situation. He told Alec to go ahead and try. Alec got that load through Middleford as though it was a bicycle he was riding. As he reached each corner he judged to a fraction of an inch just how much room he had to spare, and he was dead right each time. Anyway, we were through Middleford in half an hour, and we had a straight run of only five minutes to the power station site. The first thing we did when we reached the site was to go and have a wash and a meal. Big Willie was going to stay there until the following day, when special equipment would be brought for unloading the boiler. The firm had fixed up lodgings for us in Middleford, and some generous bloke lent us his motor-bike to ride to them. Alec took the controls as we set off. We were just riding through the centre of the town when a dog chose to run out into the road in front of us. Alec jammed on his brakes and we skidded right across the road. The screeching of the tyres was drowned by the crash as we hit a “Keep Left” bollard on the middle of a traffic island. The two of us went flying over the handle bars and landed in a heap in the road. As we both sat up, feeling dazed, a policeman came strolling up. “Very clever,” he said sarcastically. “A chap drove a hundred-foot trailer through here today and never scratched a stone in the town. But you speed hogs do all this damage on a pip-squeak motor-bike! I only wish that the trailer driver could be here to give you some lessons in driving!” He pulled out his notebook. “Names, please!” He couldn’t understand why we burst out laughing!




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Vic Whittle 2003