Thursday, 8 July 2010

Busy week –3

This time we were off to a reunion that I try to attend every year. It is held in different parts of the country and this year was held in Dudley, a part of England known as The Black Country, a name that is a legacy from the industrial revolution.

The group is made up of a number of people who were once employed in the training department of what was part of a corporate electrical and electronics company. During the eight years I worked there the company management became rather over enthusiastic about the then popular term ‘leaner and fitter’ and steadily reduced the effectiveness of the company’s ability to deal properly with its customers by reducing staff levels. As a part of that drive, we were made redundant in dribs and drabs until a department that had once had eighty people or so was cut down to four. I was able to be re-employed in each new ‘leaner Fitter’ department a total of five times until I realised that I did not want to be blamed for not being able to do my job any more. By that time the department was not so much leaner and fitter as skeletal. When the department had got to this point, our now ex-departmental head suggested a commiserative party for the threatened staff and all those who had gone before and the idea of a yearly reunion grew out of that. The commiserative party, as they do, had become a little morbid by the end of the evening and we all ended up singing ‘Things can only get better.’ This worked out to be correct, because once I had departed from that moribund company things did get better.
So for several years now, one of our group takes a turn to organise something for the reunion weekend and this time it was the turn of JC who lives in the midlands.
My turn to organise this event had been in 2008 and I had arranged it to be in the Lake District, but the weather had not co-operated and we were rained out. I missed last year’s event because I was in America for that week, but it had been more fortunate and this year the weather was as good as it gets in the UK.
JC had booked us into a large hotel near the Merry Hill district in Dudley next to a canal basin that has been ‘regenerated’ from its industrial past to cater for people taking their holidays on the canal.
We arrived Friday evening and met up with the gang. JC had booked us into a local pub for a meal and typically of our group, a disorganised discussion resulted on how to share transport to get there. Only a few cars could go, since there was very little parking and it was a bit too far away to walk. There were enough drivers who did not drink for nearly everyone but not quite, so four of us decided to order a taxi. As things turned out, whilst I was at the hotel desk ordering a cab, a taxi turned up to drop someone off at the Hotel and we were able to take the empty cab. After the meal we all returned to the hotel where the hardened drinkers congregated in the bar and settled down for a long session. This is not something TBH and I do well so fairly soon we bid them goodnight and retired to our room.

The Hotel and the canal basin

For such an expensive and prestigious hotel we were rather disappointed to find they had no air conditioning. We were on the third floor and the bedroom window, whilst giving us a splendid view of the canal basin, only opened a crack. It became very stuffy and we did not sleep well. To add to our difficulty a kind of party or event was taking place on the ground floor and the music did not end until well past midnight, so we stifled with the window closed until the sound stopped and then we stifled slightly less with the window opened as far as it would go.

The next day JC had arranged for us to visit the Black Country Living Museum. This is a place where they have rebuilt, as close as possible, representative buildings and streets dating back about 160 years or so with people dressed up in period clothes acting as guides and historians.

A typical view of the streets found in the Museum

A policeman in an Edwardian uniform met us and gave us a short talk on the purpose and history of the Museum.

Our group being briefed by the copper

We had all been booked into the schoolhouse for a lesson but had about forty-five minutes to kill first. Some of us decided to go down the coal mine to see how our ancestors suffered in providing the nation with coal. This was one of those typical shows where you struggle through an authentic mine reconstruction with life sized workers in set displays at intervals showing each stage of the arduous task of getting coal out of the pre-mechanised mine. As we approached each scenario, the guide would throw a switch and the new scene was illuminated and a sound recording came on with ‘authentic’ coal mining sounds and voices telling you in the first person what they did. The rather ancient guide was very knowledgeable but whenever he started up a canned commentary, he talked over it so that you could not easily understand what either was saying. We were issued with hard hats so we all resembled Bob the Builder as we stumbled about in pitch dark. The hats, certainly in my case, proved essential. In many parts of the mine you had to crouch down to get through the highly authentic four foot high tunnels. Eventually after crouching or standing in total darkness and experiencing the sound of blasting in a tunnel; we were herded out into the bright sunshine and it was time to go to school.
This was more fun. We were all given a slate and some charcoal and made to sit quietly in rows whilst a retired school teacher told us about the kind of school Victorian children would have attended and then gave us a lesson in writing copperplate script. She was very good and at one point had to discipline some of the class because she had discovered that some of the ‘girls’, the hussies, had nail varnish when she inspected our fingernails and one of our group, JW, was discovered to have written ‘I have seen your knickers’ on his slate.
They were all taken out to the front and she explained to everyone the kind of punishments they could expect if they had been real school children in a Victorian school. She then swished a cane close to them - no actual contact - and they had to say ‘Sorry Maam’ before they could sit down again.

Getting the cane and having a hard time keeping a straight face

By then it was lunch time after which we wandered around looking in the various houses and shops and were dismayed to find how many things we found there that we remembered from our own childhood. It is not a good feeling to find that what you still think of as everyday items are in fact museum pieces.
One building is a working bakery, although they are not allowed to sell the bread for H&S reasons. TBH found this fascinating because her Grandfather had owned and run a family bakers and she spotted some of the things he had used, including some bread tins that she had inherited and has at home.
The site is quite large and to help us aged, there was a tram service and a trolley bus running through the grounds. When I was very young, both trams and trolley busses were an important part of the public transport system since we lived close to London. Whilst I rarely used the trams before they were scrapped and the rails removed, I often used to take a ride home from school in a trolley bus. I told TBH I would like use the trolley bus for nostalgic reasons but TBH was only vaguely aware of the difference between the two forms of transport, having never used either regularly, or cared much anyway. She had only ever ridden in a tram in Blackpool so she had not really appreciated the difference but steering her in the right direction, we got on the one that I insisted was a trolley bus.

A trolley bus

A Tram

Trams run on rails like a train and usually have a single wire to supply their power, the other contact being the metal rails, but trolley busses run from a pair of overhead wires and have normal road wheels. Of course like a tram, they can only go where the wires go but the ones I used also had a battery that allowed them to go about a hundred yards if they ever lost connection with the wires. This enabled them to get out of the way of the other traffic if this happened. It did happen occasionally by accident but also if they needed to change routes and had to be hooked up to another set of wires. I had often witnessed this on my way to or from school.
So we had a ride on a form of transport that I had not used for over fifty-five years.
Both trams and trolley busses were scrapped in London for economic reasons but also because they did not mix well with modern traffic and the quiet trolley busses had a bad record of killing unwary pedestrians who failed to hear them coming.
This needs to be remembered now that people are considering introducing electric cars. It has been suggested that they have a built in engine noise generator or they will be so quiet, that they may start knocking down people who do not hear them coming.

One of the attractions in the museum is a canal boat ride through a network of tunnels that pass beneath castle Hill, yes there is a castle in Dudley.

Dudley Castle

One of the canal boats used to tour the tunnels

At one time, the owner of the castle wanted to mine and transport the various minerals found in the different strata beneath Castle Hill and so he had a series of tunnels and galleries dug out beneath the hill and joined the lower ones to the existing canal system. Despite their recent - recent geologically - construction, there were some impressive stalactites that had formed on the ventilation shafts from water seeping through the hill.


Quite early in the trip, just as you have got used to the dark, the tunnel opens up into a deep hole in the ground where several tunnels were dug for mining purposes that is now open to the sky creating a strange place surounded by trees and creepers. Then you go back into the dark tunnel again.

At one point, the engine is shut off and two volunteers are called for to ‘walk’ the boat through the tunnels. This requires they lay shoulder to shoulder across the boat and literally walk their feet along the opposite walls of the tunnel to drive the boat along. This was common practice before canal boats were powered. Traditionally a horse was used to tow the barge outside any tunnel but it could not be taken through the tunnel and so the horse was led over a hill via a bridle path whilst the bargees would walk the boat through the tunnel themselves using this method. This has a history in my family because my father, whilst in the national Fire Service during WWII, had to take an un-powered barge on his own through one of the many underground waterways that link the Thames to the canal system. Because he was alone, he had to lay on his back on the roof of the cabin and walk the barge along using the roof of the tunnel. Since a canal tunnel is built as small as possible the boats just fit the tunnel, so this was perfectly feasible and also was standard practice for a lone bargee or in this case fireman.

JB and SM walking the boat

Outside again on a short, little used, part of the canal some boats had been moored and had sunk. On one of these, some coots had built a nest and I managed to get a snap of the chicks walking about around the nest with the mother bird sitting on the nest, oblivious to the people coming and going around the canal.

The next day we were intending to go to Cosford, an airfield and aircraft museum but the lack of sleep and hectic life style I have been living these past few weeks, or both had caught up with me and I did not feel too good and could not really face breakfast, a sure sign I am not quite right. So TBH decided that rather than drag me around a possibly much larger site than the Black Country Museum, thought it better to go home early. Those I saw at breakfast expressed their concern and so making my apologies, we skipped the aircraft museum and went home a few hours earlier than everyone else.


  1. Oh goodness. So many things here to remember. I do remember that canal boats often have to be walked through a tunnel. I well remember the trolleys and actually when we moved to Toronto in the sixties they were still using trams. We had to take one every morning to get to our classes. I would love to do a canal boat vacation, but I'm not even sure I can make it across the Atlantic any more -- it's 10 or 11 hours for us. The teaching episode is funny , because I used to use a cane when I first started teaching! Can't do that now! And I'm not sure we're better off for it being forbidden. Our schools over here -- you couldn't pay me enough to teach in them! Crime, guns, weapons etc, even in our 'respectable' little towN.
    Our weather has been a disaster - for us-- no sun and temps barely hitting the 70's. It's been the coolest June in years.
    Glad you have been able to see Clare and Patricia. I do feel sorry for Clare. I don't get along with Patricia as she was always trying to lure me into a religious argument and I wouldn't 'bite' so to speak.

    Great post. Very interesting.

  2. Lovely long post, Pete. You did have some unique experiences during your reunion. Was that you getting the cane on the backside??

    ChrisJ, believe it or not, the trams are still running in downtown Toronto. They are one reason I don't drive downtown -- always have to watch so carefully for the doors opening and passengers getting off in front of you.

    That reminds me, I must post a story about Romanian trams.

  3. Thanks to my two faithful readers for your comments. The site meter shows a lot of traffic but no one else seems moved to comment. Kaybee it was the best man at Joy's and my wedding who was being punished. An old friend and part of the group. Nothing different at English schools Chris, T2DIL somehow puts up with that int'north. Accepting deserved punishment is no longer a part of modern children's attitude to life. A complete re-think is needed on why people are so much more violent now. We have returned to crime levels of Victorian society and Dickens would not feel out of place today, whilst movies like Gangs of New York could be set in modern times.

  4. Hi Snafu:
    In repy to your question about my camera, I have a Canon PowerShot SX 120 with a built in zoom X10.

    I don't do anything fancy except pull a lever to close in then wait a second for it to focus and then click. I'm not really that talented it's
    just my camera. Most of the usual digital cameras are Zoom X4. The real skill is taking
    the picture before the object moves on! I got the X10 for Christmas by my special request. I
    was jealous of Kay's good photos. The sun finally came out for a short time today. It's weeks since we had sunshine.