I CHECKED what work we were doing in the summer of 1998, because I like to jog my memory about where we were and what we were doing, to make these tales factually accurate.

Winnie was pregnant, with a baby due at Christmas, so presumably wasn’t working at this point. The whole baby thing was something of a drama (again). After the worries with Lily, I should have been prepared, but events were to take a surprising turn (you’ll have to wait and see, in the next edition).

Meanwhile, we were mowing, almost every day, which is exactly what we will be doing again this summer, along with general gardening and fencing, because, to be honest, we could do with keeping the men as busy in the summer as they are in the winter months.

I used to own a triple-cylinder mower, an Allen National, a marvellous machine in its day. Unfortunately, its ‘day’ had been and gone quite some time before I acquired the machine and what was left was a hotchpotch of my own home-made repairs and make-do maintenance.

The issue was that the two side cylinders, either side of the operator, were prone to catching on trees, walls and anything that got in the way, a problem made much worse by the incredible speeds this mower could achieve, compounding any small crashes and gradually destroying it.

I kept the remains of this once-great piece of engineering together, with some very slapdash feats of engineering of my own. Quite often, I’d be welding bits back together at 10 in the evening, so that Gary, or Rab (who was back with me), could carry on unhindered the next day. I was a bad welder, using a dodgy arc welder, a tiny piece of coloured glass for a mask and utilising anything that came to hand to carry out the repairs at the least cost.

This meant that the machine was bodged with angle iron fencing, old six-inch nails, salvaged bicycle parts and anything else that I could find, mainly to try to hold the two side cylinders in place.

Had I not been so tired, and blinded by arc eye, I might have been ashamed of my work, but needs must and mostly we managed to keep the contracts serviced.

We had a few good contracts too, one in Swindon, mowing the grounds of a well-known ladies’ undergarment factory, which was straightforward other than the very steep bank at one end.

“I think you’ll need to strim that bit,” the factory manager had said, at the beginning of the season.

I did, for a bit, but after a while I became more daring on the Allen, gradually increasing the area down which I was prepared to use the machine, and the angle I considered ‘safe’ to operate such. In the end, I’d pushed the limits so far that, with a run-up, I could mow the whole bank, at considerable speeds, by flying off the top, turning sharply and using the momentum to get me back up onto flat ground, thus mowing the bank in arcs.
This was as terrifying as it was fun, and it really was fun, if you like adrenalin.

One night, I’d been up later than normal and, when Gary came to work the next day, he was aghast at the Frankenstein’s monster I’d created.

“What the xxxx?!” he asked, pointing to a mower that was, by now, at least 10 per cent recycled fencing. “I’m not using that.” He said it emphatically, but I didn’t mind. He’d be on the strimmer all day while I was thrill-seeking on Frankenstein Allen . . . if my repairs held out.

At that time, I also had a bike, which had a lot in common with the cylinder mower. It was a black Kawasaki Z-750, a motorcycle engineered to go quite fast, in straight lines. Not corners.

Despite being rough, I loved it, spending the weekends blasting around Wiltshire, using it for quoting. I think I even took Winnie to Bournemouth on it once. 

One day, a learned friend of mine, known simply as ‘The Knowledge’, called round at my request, because something about the bike was puzzling me.

The Knowledge (real name Derek) was something of an expert on motorbikes. He was also a man who knew about climbing, cars, shooting, beer and so on, the thing being that if he didn’t know something, he just pretended he did. Very convincingly.

“What’s that for?” At the front of the Kawasaki, between front forks and frame, was a curious pneumatic-type black and chrome rod that extended and retracted back into itself with any turn of the handlebars.

It was obviously an aftermarket device, but I didn’t like it because it made the steering very stiff, heavy and unbalanced, so I naturally assumed that it was the cause of the problems I had going around corners, or even slight bends in the road.

However, I’m no mechanic, and while I was perfectly happy to repair and improvise on my garden machinery, fiddling with a vehicle that could reach 100 mph (on a good day and in a straight line) was, I realised, risky.

Derek looked at the motorbike, examined the device, sucked air through his teeth and came to a conclusion.

“It’s a steering damper,” he said, correctly, before adding, “You don’t need it. The bike will handle better without it.” Incorrectly.

“Shall I take it off?” I asked.

The Knowledge agreed that this would be an excellent course of action and I would certainly notice a massive difference to the bike’s handling if I did so. He was absolutely correct about this, but not in the way that you might think.

So I took the damper off, carefully putting it aside in case I ever needed it again, excited that the motorbike would be easier to ride afterwards, but with a nagging doubt about why some previous owner had decided to fit the thing in the first place.

It was a Saturday. I remember that, because I recall having lunch with Winnie and Lily. Sausages, probably.

“I’m going out on the bike,” I said, and as always, my wife said, “Be careful, won’t you?” She still says it now. I don’t want to boast, but I currently own a Ducati Scrambler, which handles like a dream.

Less than a mile from our old house is the A4 Bath Road, perfect for testing the capabilities of my recently adapted motorcycle. Going through the village, the bike felt much more responsive, handling a little better in the corners, though I was reluctant to push things too far, probably because I knew Derek’s limitations better than I acknowledged.

So I increased speed, with my confidence growing to such an extent that by the time I was on the main road I was excited enough to open up the throttle.

This went well and I looked at the speedometer, pleased that I was now travelling along nicely, with no sign of any ill effects from the home mechanics.

At the Ridgeway, a famous ancient path that crosses the main road, I decelerated, aware of the potential for a walker or parked car to pull out in front of me.

It was then that I realised I’d made a terrible mistake.
As the machine slowed, the handlebars started violently wobbling, to such an extent that the motorbike and I were furiously weaving in a totally uncontrolled ‘tank-slapper’, across the white lines and into any oncoming traffic.

Luckily, there wasn’t any, and somehow, despite my state of terror, I understood that I needed to accelerate out of trouble, rather than slow down and wait for a car to approach in the opposite direction. This worked, but now I was once again travelling at a good pace and I was soon to approach a roundabout. I gritted my teeth, clung to the handlebars, grasped the frame with my knees and slowed as gradually as I could, decelerating gently in the hope that the shaking would be minimised.

It worked!

The bike slowed, with much less of a violent weaving, to around 10 mph, a speed I decided was quite adequate for travelling home and re-fitting the all-important ‘accessory’.

So, come Monday morning, I was well equipped for the dramatic and oddly similar turn of events that was my lot for that day. Allen, who had somehow developed a sheen of rust after the repairs undertaken by myself, was as unattractive a machine as you could imagine, so Gary’s assertion that he wasn’t going to risk operating it, and certainly not on a 45-degree slope, wasn’t unexpected.

It was raining, so at the site I decided that to gain maximum possible momentum to carry me back up the slope I would need to attack from the top at speed, quickly throw the mower into a tight left turn, flick the back around and shoot back to the top, a manoeuvre I’d perfected over the season.

I ‘gave it the beans’ (to steal a phrase I’ve heard on TV motoring shows) and as I went over the top I was travelling at top speed, noting that Gary was strimming around a bush on the downside of the slope much too late, as I was pretty much airborne and unable to do much about things at this point.

Gary, who looked up in the nick of time, was able to flee, leaving me to crash down hard onto the slope. Despite the relatively clear landing zone, Frankenstein’s mower was too heavy, too fragile and travelling too fast to have a chance of surviving.

My recent motorbiking terrors still fresh in my head, I just managed to flick the machine clear of the bush, but not to prevent the severing of one of the repaired cylinders, complete with angle iron and nail repairs, which flew off, quickly joined by its partner on the other side.

At the same time, the front wheel, which was also a victim of my welding, departed on its own solo journey down the slope, causing the remains of the mower to slew uncomfortably to a halt part way down the bank. All watched by a group of office types who were standing aghast in the car park below.

Sitting breathless and pumped full of adrenalin on the wrecked machine, I did the only thing I could think of at this moment. I waved.

It wasn’t long after this that I lost that particular contract.

The Allen National should have been condemned after its final flight but, as always, I attempted to salvage something from the carnage, returning the following week with a mower that was totally incapable of mowing tidy, uniform height and unscoured grass. In the end, with a heavy heart, I scrapped the mower.

Shortly after, I sold the Kawasaki. I never trusted it again, even with the steering damper firmly back in place. I think somebody rode it to Cornwall to see a solar eclipse, oblivious to my warnings that it might not be safe.

I hope they made it.

Wiltshire Dave
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