Ever since joining British Railways I had wanted to be an Area Manager and so I jumped at the opportunity when I was asked to go to Haverfordwest. Admittedly, I would be going in an acting capacity with only a hint that it would become permanent but it suited our purposes to move from Cwmbran to Pembrokeshire where we could get in some bird watching and enjoy the wonderful coastal scenery. We were, by this time, well aware of the sort of tricks railway management could play but the Canadian government was about to make me an offer that I couldn't refuse so we regarded this as a temporary arrangement anyway. A further advantage was that obtaining a driver's license was also part of the deal. So it was that after a week at the railway driving school at Taplow, I arrived at Haverfordwest fully prepared not only to be Area Manager but also to drive the railway Austin Mini Minor.
The area covered from Haverfordwest included the double track main line from Whitland through Clarbeston Road to Johnston with the single line extension to Milford Haven. The pleasant seaside resort of Tenby was a good place to visit on the Pembroke Dock Branch which was the only branch still open. The Cardigan Branch had long been closed although the railway still retained some property at Cardigan and while the line to Neyland was officially closed the rails were still intact. I went in on one of the last trains to Neyland one Saturday morning. We had an Engineer's Special to pick up some salvage materials. The rails were well covered with grass by this time and we had to keep the windows of the type three diesel electric well closed because of the proximity of the trees and bushes.
On the way into Neyland we came across a backroad which was forded by a river. I had encountered this ford on an earlier inspection trip in the railway mini. The water was swollen and mindful of the experience of another Area Manager in a similar situation in the Oxford area I decided not to risk it. He was out one day in his railway mini and decided to chance using a ford just after a heavy downpour. The strong current picked up the small car which promptly started to float downstream. His wife had the presence of mind to shout "Abandon Ship!" and opened the door whereupon the car filled with water and promptly sank. The luckless vehicle eventually grounded close to a field where a circus was being set up. A rope was passed out and an elephant pulled them above high water level. Jumbo then tipped the car on its side to empty it of water. This incident did little more than to provide some amusement to a group of astonished bystanders, but the subsequent request to the Divisional Manager for a lifebelt and a pair of waterwings for the mini was not well received.
The much maligned railway minis were not appreciated by Area Managers especially when attending meetings which necessitated parking the mini next to the mayor's limousine. The mini might have been economical but it was not a status symbol. I had my first encounter with the mayor over the Haverfordwest River Bridge ceremony. Just south of the station, the line passes over the Western Cleddau River. There was a lift bridge which I assumed was disused until one day, I received a letter by hand from His worship informing me when he wished to have the bridge raised. It turned out that the river was theoretically navigable up to Haverfordwest Quay but hadn't been used commercially for many years. The railway charter was such that if the bridge was not raised within a period of one year, it could be permanently left lowered and the port of Haverfordwest would be cut-off for all time from the open sea. Every year the mayor would find himself a launch and make a ceremonial voyage under the bridge. I consulted the Sectional Appendix to the working Timetable to find the following instructions:
HAVERFORDWEST RIVER BRIDGE - Drivers of all Up trains and engines must keep a good look-out on approaching Haverfordwest Bridge and the Home Signal for the Bridge Box must not be passed at a greater speed than 20 miles per hour. The Bridge is to be opened when required for the passage of Steamers and Vessels to and from Haverfordwest Quay and the working will be controlled by the Haverfordwest Bridge Signalman assisted by a Porter or a member of the Operating Staff.
In the event of any emergency which necessitates working by Pilotman, the Bridge must not be opened until the Pilotman has handed to the Bridge Signal Man a written authority to open it, and the Pilotman must be present when the Bridge is opened, and remain there until it is closed.
At sunset a Red Light must be exhibited at the Bridge to indicate to an approaching vessel that the Bridge is closed across the river and when the Bridge is open a white light must be exhibited on each side of the Bridge to indicate to an approaching vessel that the passage is clear.
GROUND FRAME - A Ground Frame for controlling Haverfordwest River Bridge is situated on the Down Side of Line at the East side of the Bridge at 276m 34ch. Known as Haverfordwest Bridge Ground Frame, and is released by Annett's Key from Haverfordwest Bridge Signal Box.
What the instructions didn't say was that the box had been closed since at least 1945 and I hadn't really been aware of its existence and so, armed with the book of instructions I went out the next day to find it. It did exist but only just as it had been heavily vandalized.
The great day dawned clear and sunny - just the right sort of weather to go sailing down the river. While waiting for everybody to arrive I found out that last year the bridge had opened well. The trouble was that it had become stuck in the upright position and it had taken six hours to get it down. I never ceased to be amazed at the number of people it took to get the bridge up. The District Inspector was there with one of his signalman and one of my porters. The Ganger was there with his gang to unbolt the rails. The District Signal Engineer and his crew were there to disconnect and reconnect the Block Telegraph while the District Engineer and his gang were there to actually perform the hurculean feat. There were so many people there that there wasn't room for them all on the bridge.
It turned out that the mayoral launch was a somewhat small affair, so small in fact that it would go under the bridge at all states the tide except High Tide. This explained why His worship planned to go under the structure at precisely 2:53 p.m. instead of the more formal 3:00 p.m. At 2:53 there was no sign of the vessel which had been delayed by strong winds. His worship arrived at 3:00 by which time the river had dropped sufficiently to allow the launch through without opening the bridge. This was not good enough of course, and so we raised the span about two inches then quickly lowered it safe and sound for another twelve months. Honour was now satisfied on both sides and everybody could go home. The Mayor's joyride had cost the railway a lot of money in unproductive wages.
If the Sectional Appendix had helped me to find the Haverfordwest River Bridge Box it certainly didn't help to find the way down the Pembroke Dock H.M. Extension Line. The revised instructions for operating this half-mile-long line took up a full page in the K2 notice. They were obviously written by a well-intentioned person but the thought of the Pembroke staff trying to memorize them by heart filled me with horror.
It would have required a full briefing session before each mission and would see the sort of planning that is evident in an American Football play. I went down the H.M. Extension Line on Saturday morning just to observe the fun. All I can remember is a number of railwaymen running around opening and closing crossing gates and waving green flags at the Brush Sulzer diesel that made its cautious way down to repatriate three empty wagons. We retraced our steps in the same flamboyant manner and then retired exhausted to the mess room for a cup of tea. I can't say that each man did exactly as the instructions said he should, but the move was carried out in complete safety. This only goes to prove that rules are really only common sense and the main point is to ensure that there is a clear understanding by all concerned as to the move to be made.
The instructions were only good for a train of five standard wagons or less. I used to hope and pray that nobody would ever want to take more than five wagons down as I would have had to have made the arrangements. I think I would have told them to have gone down twicel
The most important traffic in the Haverfordwest Area was the oil traffic, particularly the trains of Liquefied Petrolem Gas (LPG) from the Herbranston Refinery to Provan in Scotland. These made running times as good as the passenger trains and never failed to raise the dust as they roared through Haverfordwest platform. The manning of these trains was very much a contentious issue in that Whitland men felt that they should have these jobs rather than the regular Llanelli crews. Although sympathizing with my Whitland men there was little I could do to prevent this further nail in the Whitland coffin.
I found the men to be very conscientious although they would naturally strike a hard bargain. The Chairman of the group who bargained for the platform staff was particularly hard to get through to until one day found out that he was a pigeon fancier. I quickly realized that asking questions about his hobby was the way to his heart and we soon became firm friends. The more I learned about pigeons the easier became my relations with the union. One Saturday we received a van-load of pigeons that had to be released from their baskets at midday. I had great fun helping to free the birds and watching them wheel about before unerringly heading for home. I didn't realize that a pigeon can fly at 60 mph and would undoubtedly reach home far quicker than the train had been able to bring them to Haverfordwest.
Being in a very welsh area, not only did many of the 150 or so members of my staff speak welsh, but it seemed that most of them were called either Williams, Davies or Vaughan. In order to avoid the problems that this tended to cause, expecially on payday (there were 23 Davies on the payroll), many of the men were nicknamed after the villages where they lived. I soon came to know George St. Clears and Dai Pwll Trap but the one who sticks in my mind the most is Charlie Glogue.
Charlie was a driver who lived several miles north of Whitland in the small hamlet of Glogue. The road through the mountains to his home was not very good but Charlie never failed to turn up for duty on his trusty old bicycle. He had to pass a pub on his journeys to and from work and it was said that he had a convenient arrangement with the innkeeper. There was always a pint of the best beer on the window ledge waiting for him regardless of what time he was going home and this gave Charlie the extra energy he needed to trudge the last few miles after a hard day or night's work. He had a reputation for snaring animals and every so often a dead rabbit would be placed alongside the empty glass as payment for the refreshment. This was a good arrangement which worked well for both sides. He claimed to set snares in many places visited regularly on his assignments. Many were the rabbits that went to meet their maker in the cab of Charlie’s locomotive.
Charlie was a very likeable person although he did run foul of two passengers one day on the Pembroke Dock Branch. He was running the diesel unit and two elderly passengers were observing the action from behind the glass partition. It was a hot day and Charlie reached for his bottle of cold tea which he carried in his grip. Now cold tea looks very much like rum and Charlie happened to be carrying his refreshment in an old rum bottle. He took a swig. At this very moment the train approached a downgrade, gathered speed and began to rock somewhat. The lady passengers became somewhat alarmed at the pace and knocked on the glass. Charlie looked around and misunderstanding the knock, (it was a hot day, remember), opened the sliding door. Wiping the bottle on his somewhat greasy sleeve he offered refreshments all round. It was hardly surprising that this little episode brought Charlie a trip before my predecessor.
I only had occasion to reprimand Charlie once. One evening he had the Haverfordwest shunting turn and he was really hitting the wagons around hard. Peace eventually returned to the yard as Charlie took himself and his locomotive down to Milford Haven to see what havoc he could wreak down there. Around 6:00 p.m. I walked along to the signal box to make sure all was well before going home to my dinner. One of the tank wagons in the Oil Siding was up at a strange angle. It had been shunted hard and the impact had caused it to ride up over the buffers and hang bufferlocked. The wagon was wedged in tight and it was evident that the only way to get it down would be with the aid of the Wagon Examiner at Milford Haven. I drove down to Milford where Charlie was predicatably away from his locomotive (word travels fast on the railway grapevine). The Examiner and I put a wagon jack in the boot of the railway mini and brought it back to Haverfordwest. This jack was so heavy that it tended to lift the front wheels off the road making steering somewhat erratic and decidedly difficult. Using some old sleepers as packing we began to jack up the wagon. There weren't enough sleepers to pack the wagon properly and because the wagon had to be lifted a long way up it began to sway gently from side to side. We gingerly eased up the last few inches so that we could release the buffers and lower the now bufferless wagon to the rails. The precarious part was now over but we still had to get the buffers back in and to do this we had to move several wagons back along the siding, against the grade, to give us room to work.
By the time we had finished it was 10:00 o'clock and both my evening and my dinner were ruined and so the next day I requested the pleasure of Charlie's company in my office. He couldn't think how the wagon had become bufferlocked although there was a very deceptive gradient on the Oil Siding. He did agree eventually to be more careful in future and when the interview was over he said to me;
"No hard feelings boss?“
“Not so long as it doesn't happen again, Charlie."
I replied in my sternest voice.
"Well come and have a drink with me then."
"No thank you Charlie, I have some things to do.“
I replied in a less stern voice, whereupon Charlie pulled out a halfcrown from his pocket and put it on my desk.
"In that case why don't you have one on me?“
I politely refused and, thinking I had expensive tastes, he put another half-crown down on my desk. Barely able to contain myself, I propelled Charlie and his money gently but firmly to the door. As he disappeared outside he said;
“I know where there are some good rabbits, next time I am in Clarby (Clarbeston Road) I'll snare one for your missus."
I closed the door and collapsed, laughing, over my desk.
Haverfordwest Yard was the scene of quite a bit of action of one sort or another. Around 5:00 p.m. one sunny May evening the peace and quiet of the yard, and the town, was shattered by a burst of gunfire - or so it seemed. This is what really happened.
Many of the buildings on the Pembroke Dock line were disused although still intact. On the day in question I had been searching through the old station at Pembroke and had found a tin box under a pile of rubbish. Having pried off the battered and rusty lid, I found the box contained over fifty detonators, all of them equally rusty. All British detonators are colour coded by the year of make but these colours were some that I didn't recognize. Gingerly wiping away the rust from the metal casings the detonators revealed their age - 1932 and 1936!
My first reaction was one of ecstasy, after all how many people have genuine Great Western Railway detonators — twenty years after nationalization? My joy soon turned to concern when I wondered what to do with these potentially dangerous relics. The instructions are quite specific. All detonators must be returned to Swindon works five years after the date of issue as marked by the date stamp and colour coding. These should have gone back thirty years ago! My mind boggled at the forms and explanations this might require if I followed the rulebook, so I hit upon a simpler plan. I took the tin box back to Haverfordwest and carried it gingerly to the yard. The yard crew were having a tea break but were soon merrily clipping down detonators on the shunting neck. We were about to destroy the evidence. The driver climbed into the cab of the Hymek diesel hydraulic locomotive and having made sure that everybody was well clear, I called him forward. The tone of the engine changed as it was put into first notch and there was a slight pause while the hydraulic transmission filled with oil. The air horn sounded and with a loud hiss the locomotive brake was released. The exhaust deepened as the throttle was advanced. There was a loud bang as the leading wheel hit the first detonator, followed by a succession of explosions, rather like a burst of machine gun fire. We ran the Hymek back over the track just to make sure that we hadn't missed any the first time, then picked up the still warm casings and put them in the garbage. The only sign of our activities was a thick cloud of smoke that hung over the yard in the warm still evening air.
I decided to walk home. There was a beautiful sunset and I began to daydream about the regulations and how to bend them. My walk took me over a road bridge which crosses the yard. My reverie was interrupted by the sight of a member of the local constabulary, his bicycle propped up against the parapet, who was gazing intently over the scene of the crime. This stalwart crime fighter seemed to have a bad cold, he kept trying to clear his nose by sniffing deeply. He said something in welsh which I didn't understand, shook his head sadly, got on his bike and rode off. As I watched him wobble his way into the golden sunset, my nostrils caught the faint smell of gunpowder wafting in the breeze.
During my own short stay we had two minor derailments in the Haverfordwest yard, one of which I managed to get back on while the other I made even worse and nearly succeeded in tipping a wagon over on top of myself. Putting wagons back on was always complicated by the fact that the locomotive crew, coming from Whitland, spoke welsh, while the Haverfordwest shunters spoke English. The centre of operations for the yard was the signal box which was the source of all information. There was a very efficient intelligence network that would have shamed the CIA. The box was connected to the omnibus telephone circuit which stretched all the way from Carmarthen to Milford Haven. Every box and railway office was connected to this circuit and it wasn't uncommon to have two or even three different conversations going on at the same time. The procedure for using this apparatus was quite simple, it just didn't work out so well in practice however. All you had to do was to pick up the receiver and ring a code on the buzzer. Everybody bar the one you were trying to get would answer and when you did manage to get the right one the line was normally so bad that communication was impossible anyway. All conversations were interrupted by somebody else trying to get on the line or just listening in and it wasn't surprising that my G.P.O. phone bill was as high as it was. The omnibus circuit did have one advantage in that it was possible to have conference conversations. On one occasion during a bad derailment which required a large number of handsignalmen as well as working by pilotman I was on the phone with the District Inspector and my Movement Supervisor as well as the Chairmen of the two Local Departmental Committees involved and the boxes at Johnston, Haverfordwest, Clarbeston Road and Whitland. The omnibus circuit was particularly busy at night when there weren't many trains about and time used to hang heavily on the signalmen. There wasn't much work to do but there was a lot of gossip to catch up on.
During my brief stay at Haverfordwest, there was a flaring up of the range war at Crundale Crossing. Crundale was a manned crossing on double track about midway between Haverfordwest and Clarbeston Road. The gates are normally across the road and motorists intending to cross ring a bell which brings out the lady crossing keeper. The crossing was not a block post but it did have a set of repeater block instruments and signals which could be placed against trains. If the line was clear the signals would be placed to danger and the gates would be opened for the car. The lady crossing keeper lived with her husband, who was a relief signalman, in an immaculate cottage which was situated extremely close to the tracks. A meal at the cottage was quite an experience. As the soup was being served, there would be an exchange of bell signals. Train Entering Section came just as we were finishing the soup and there was a rush to collect up the plates before the empty Provan tank cars would hurtle by at high speed not more than ten feet from where we were sitting. Having rearranged the cutlery on the table there would be a pause while an impatient motorist was dealt with. This somewhat unusual way to have a meal in no way detracted from Mrs. Willoughby's excellent cooking.
Crundale Crossing was out in the country situated right next to a farm. Life was good with only the occasional motorist to break the monotony until the somewhat ambitious farmer bought a new field. The new field was very good grazing and every day the cattle were moved from the farm to the field in the morning and back for milking at night. The only problem was that the farm was on one side of the railway while the field was on the other. The animals were docile enough and very nearly took themselves on these regular jaunts frequently accompanied only by the farmer's small son. Although the grass in the new field was lush the grass along the railway right of way was even more lush and the leading beast frequently made a ninety degree turn at the crossing in search of greener pastures. Mrs. Willoughby often had to deal with some twenty cows contentedly wandering along the embankment pursued by a small boy and with a passenger train imminent.
The cattle were bad enough but things came to a head one Sunday when the farmer decided to hire a lorry to move fill from one part of his farm to another which was, of course, on the other side of the railway. This operation required the gates to be opened every twenty minutes or so - right through the day. I was out on some engineering work at Whitland that day and I heard over the omnibus circuit that Sunday dinner at Crundale was being ruined. The phone lines nearly turned red hot in the process. The pilot locomotive which was being used on the Single Line working was due to run light to Milford Haven to work the sleeping car train so I decided to go with it and stop in at Crundale.
The locomotive came to a halt just by the crossing and I descended into an electric atmosphere. The first person to rush up was the farmer who told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I didn't move my locomotive off the crossing he would move it for me with his lorry. I thought that the lorry might come off second-best in such an encounter but mindful that brake hoses were the achilles heel of a locomotive and thinking of its next working I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and meekly moved the offending locomotive forward a few feet. The next person on the scene, in a flurry of red flags was the crossing keeper's husband and there followed a heated argument. It was some time before both parties had cooled off sufficiently before I deemed it safe to leave without the risk of bloodshed. The sequel to this little episode was that the local National Farmers’ Union representative and I brought the two warring factions together to work out a compromise. I must admit feeling somewhat like the local sheriff going out to stop a gunfight. We managed to defuse the situation sufficiently so as to avoid physical injury to either of the combattants, cows, trains or farm equipment but I am not sure that we achieved a permanent peace. Every day when I open the paper I expect to read that the range war has broken out at Crundale once again.
If my experience at Crundale had had its lighter side perhaps the saddest episode for me at Haverfordwest revolved around a trainload of potatoes. We were bringing in trainloads of explosives for shipment through Milford Haven and sending the empty trains back right through to the Midlands. This seemed to me a terrible waste of very scarce resources and I tried to find a use for these empty vans. The Pembrokeshire potato season was just about to get under way and a few phone calls soon established that there was strong interest in using these trains to move potatoes in trainload quantities to the Midlands. This plan would entail no additional train mileage and we could have loaded each train in a day, keeping the additional wagon-days to a minimum. The farmers were well interested because the road transport firms, which had a monopoly, were trying to squeeze up the rates.
British Railways had previously run into trouble with this traffic because the potatoes had been moved in individual wagon-load consignments which had required separate attention. What I had managed to sell to the local farmers was, in effect, a block train movement which was well in keeping with the unit train and liner train concept. Senior management got wind of the project and I was called to the phone from out of my bed and instructed to cancel everything.
I wasn't even given a chance to explain.
It so happened that I gave in my notice a week later. If I had had doubts before, the potato train confirmed that there wasn't a long term career for me in British Railways. We had already made up our minds so it wasn't the last straw that some militant railwaymen tried to make of my resignation but of all the men I talked to not one felt that I was doing the wrong thing.
I sent my letter of resignation to the Divisional Manager in Cardiff. The letter read in part;
The reasons for my resignation are as follows:
1) The future of this country, both politically and economically, seems to be poor.
2) The future for British Rail seems to be equally as poor and I am not satisfied that it will provide me with a pleasing way-of making a living until I am ready to retire.
3) My own position with British Rail has been very unsettled over the last eighteen months with the result that my personal life has been unsettled and unhappy.
Staff morale is very low at present because the staff have lost confidence in management (this includes both clerical and management staff). You will never succeed unless you gain the confidence of all your staff.
This letter earned me my last visit to see the Divisional Manager. He didn't like what I had said, particularly the part about morale. I was vindicated in that my last week coincided with a work to rule during which time I was asked if I would open up and work a signal box outside my area. I refused, but that was yet another example of the rift between the two sides.
Even to the end the railway grapevine proved its worth. Because of the differences in voltage we decided to sell all of our electrical appliances and some other items before leaving. A list was given to a Movement Supervisor in the morning and practically everything was sold by midday. The railway pick—up and delivery vans also provided a useful if unauthorized service in delivering the articles to their new homes.
I was sorry to leave Haverfordwest and under other circumstances we would have been only too happy to stay on. The job was interesting and although there were frustrations they were mitigated by the distance from the Divisional Office while the wonderful countryside made up for a great many stupidities.
What do I remember of Haverfordwest? There are many fleeting memories.
The beautiful old brass oil lamp in Johnston box that was kept in case the power should fail.
The fight, which I eventually won, over whether or not to whitewash platform edges.
Testing a detonator machine one day at Clarbeston Road - it fell out of the placer and went off under the next train.
But the strongest memories I have are of the friendliness and loyalty of the railway staff. Just before we left, Pat and I attended the Whitland annual railway social. It was the event of the Whitland year to which even the local doctor was invited. The evening was conducted in welsh and the cabaret consisted entirely of local performers all of whom sang beautifully. The most moving aspect was to feel the way the entire room would burst into spontaneous, beautiful harmony. This was an unexpected and very welcome aspect of the welsh character.
Just before I left I found, in Whitland Booking office, a petty cash book, the first entry of which was July 31, 1876. In the back of this relic there was a small notebook dated Whitland, lst February, 1956. Inside the first page was type—written the following:
Testimonial to Mr. E.C. Rosser on the occasion of his retirement.
It is regretted by all members of the staff to learn of Mr. Rosser's retirement. He has been our highly respected Station Master for the past nine years during which time he has made many friends, and his dealings with the public and staff in general have always been of a very high order. It is generally felt that in order to show our high appreciation of his kindness and the high esteem in which he was held, that subscription be invited to present him with a token gift to remind him of the many treasured memories of his nine happy years spent at Whitland.
Everybody contributed, from the District Inspector to the porters and shunters, yet the total collected was just £11-9-6. Small enough to recompense for a lifetime working on the railway. It was evident that this was more than just a job, it was a way of life.
As the DMU pulled into Haverfordwest on my final day I thought about the way of life I was putting behind me. It had had its frustrations but I don't think I would have had it any other way. As we stepped down from the Air Canada DC-9 into the steamy Ottawa summer we had other things to think about.