AS a young boy I would often travel with my father from the north of England to Manchester in his Atkinson articulated truck. It was a 32 tonner (the maximum allowed back then) with a five-cylinder, 150 hp Gardner engine and no power steering.

Our load to Manchester usually consisted of reels of paper which were landed at Hartlepool docks and destined for the Daily Mail. On our return we would bring back a load of steel or fertilizer and, on occasion, plastic pipes.

If it was the latter, and because they were light, we could proceed over the M62, which as you will know has lots of hills which the old truck managed at just quicker than walking pace. When loaded with steel or fertiliser we went so slowly that I was able to hang from the window and count the wheel nuts going round.


Fortunately, downhill sections were a little quicker as most people at the time used the age-old practice of freewheeling. Incredibly, the old Atkinson did 12 miles to the gallon which, considering I now get 14 miles to the gallon with our 13 tonner, seems to contradict the so-called modern energy-efficient motor.

At this time in the ’70s many of our current motorways were under construction and it was quite common to travel using either the north- or southbound carriageways while the other carriageway was being built. To construct these roads back then you had two D8 Caterpillars, one with a scraper blade and one with an Onions scraper box, as well as a couple of men walking ahead marking out the route with pegs. The Caterpillar which dragged the Onions box, which is a big self-filling scraper object, sometimes struggled to haul the box depending on the terrain, and the person operating the other Caterpillar would occasionally give it a push. As a child I used to love seeing these giant lumbering beasts at work.

Despite being very slow, my dad’s old Atkinson was very ‘torquey’, due to having relatively small pistons and a long stroke. This meant you had long conrods which lengthen the distance of the crank journals and produce turning power or torque.

Caterpillar engines are very similar – slow and grunty. I used to love to see the occasional puff of black smoke as the D8 hit a big boulder or other obstacle which it then ripped out with ease. Also, back then most of the Caterpillars were cabless and the drivers always seemed to wear oil-stained overalls and a flat cap with the obligatory ‘rolly’ smouldering away in the corner of their mouth. These machines could inflict serious damage on the landscape and they were always accompanied by flocks of seagulls as they levelled off several miles of new roadway a day. At times you could see hundreds of eight-wheeler tippers working furiously to keep the bulldozers busy.

Forestry Journal:

Fast-forward 50 years and look at the road works currently in operation. Hundreds of 360-degree excavators all so close that if they swung around they’d wipe each other out, with drivers sitting in hi-viz jackets barely concentrating as they fiddle on their phones. Progress is pitifully slow with a landscape of millions of cones and safety barriers, signs of every description and in such numbers that none make any sense, are almost too much for the brain to comprehend and all overseen by numerous officials. At the beating heart of the operation is a village of portable cabins looking not unlike some favela on the side of a South American city, while what seems like hundreds of bosses strut around doing God knows what.

Unlike the ’70s where daily progress was clearly visible, you drive past over a series of times and are left wondering if anything has actually happened. It seems today that a hundred times more people do roughly 10 per cent of what was achieved in the past.

I liken the old guys on the Caterpillars to what it’s like to be self employed in the private sector, in that you have to be productive. My insurance costs, for instance, have gone up seven fold over the last 10 years and I’ve had to spend roughly £200,000 on new forklifts, rewiring the sawmill and installing dust-extraction units at the behest of the HSE.

We have a basic problem with the HSE in the UK. If you are a big manufacturer like JCB and you produce upwards of 1,000 pistons a day this will all take place in a pristine temperature-controlled environment with white-coated technicians all bedecked in safety glasses and spotless yellow hats. Automated systems load aluminium ingots into CNC lathes (computer controlled). After loading the technician will close the canopy, press a button and walk away. This is the stuff of HSE fantasy and the god they worship.

However, down the road may be a couple of guys repairing a 1936 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow in a small workshop. They’re trying to sort out a scored piston and will be hands on, watching, measuring, adjusting and they may even be holding emery paper while the piston turns in a lathe. Any HSE inspector entering this environment would immediately place a prohibition on proceedings, and this is what is happening all over the UK many times a day.

Oddly, the COVID crisis gave us all a reprieve and with the civil service on furlough the private sector boomed. Look what happened to timber prices and look what happened to tax returns. The treasury has just announced record tax receipts, largely due to companies paying tax on the adjusted profits for the COVID period.

Now the civil servants have returned to work (although many seem to be working from home) have things improved? I think the general consensus is that it’s a nightmare.

I’ve just been quoted a three-month wait to have a bent shaft repaired after the owner has had to lay off staff and I’m trying desperately to get my electrics ‘passed off’ before the electrician quits. I’m even currently trying to enrol on a course as a stress grader as HSE and building inspectors are condemning bridges and the like if they’re not C16 or C24. I used to have someone who did it for me, but he has let his ticket lapse.

Stress grading is largely a matter of common sense and I’ve yet to have any wood fail. Big knot then big weakness, but now this all has to be accompanied by paperwork and on and on it goes. Our bread-and-butter work throughout the winter is the production of larch posts and this trade has been decimated by the import of creosoted posts from abroad which are becoming cheaper and cheaper since a ban in Europe. I’ve even considered digging out an old tank in the yard but I couldn’t find anyone to sell me creosote in bulk. I had visions of spending hours removing the foil tops of hundreds of small containers of creosote and pouring them into the tank. I think this illustrates perfectly the problems we face that when CCA was banned for domestic use (it was never banned commercially) we took the most destructive route possible and banned it nationwide. The irony is we’re now going back to something which is 100 times worse. Personally, I hate the stuff and am violently ill if I even smell it and I don’t need to touch it to burn. However, you can’t blame farmers for wanting it after the poor performance of modern treatments.

Now we have the arrival of galvanised metal posts, which I think look absolutely awful and whose introduction is due largely to civil servants poking their noses into things they don’t understand. And what of the future (that’s if we have one)? I think I’ll secretly install a lathe in my garden shed, far away from the prying eyes of officials or maybe even have a go at making my own wood preservative. Basically, just try and get by as best we can. We, ‘the self-employed’, are a resilient lot, but I really believe anyone with fewer than 20 employees is seriously under threat.

As an avid viewer of Quest I am watching the series called How it’s Made, which is currently being repeated. The series concentrates on small producers who make items like cricket bats, chairs, lock gates and the like and is probably about 20 years old. I’d love the producers of the series to revisit the same businesses and see just how many of them have survived and how many have been wiped out. I’d also like to see what next year’s tax receipts are like now that the civil servants have returned to wreck people’s lives.