September 08, 2011 GMT
Steaming Ahead

My first home was a small bomb-damaged rented terraced house in London's Pimlico, where my parents and grandparents lived. By the time of my arrival, the post-war renovation of London was well underway, led by a new estate of high-rise flats going up on a flattened corner of Pimlico, one block from our home.

It's called The Churchill Gardens Estate, and is the only post-war social-housing project built according to the imaginative plans of Professor Patrick Abercrombie.
Despite not living on the estate itself, I could never keep away from the playgrounds to be found there, such was the creativity that had gone into their designs. Features included castles, flying saucers, massive sand pits set in concrete ocean liners, and much, much more, all of which would be completely impossible to build in today's cotton-wool society.
The castle featured a narrow stone circular staircase going down into a dungeon and up to the keep, where an outdoor rope walkway led to another set of stairs leading down to the rest of the playground. It wouldn't do at all to slip down the stairs, off of the walkway or over the walls, as only concrete and brick would stop your fall.
Ditto the flying saucer, seen here at 1min 16secs into the piece.
And a local history piece here.

Another wonderful feature was this:

1923 Aveling and Porter 10-tonner. Six nominal horse-power.

Originally working the roads of Dorchester, it was acquired on retirement by Westminster City Council as a playground installation on the Churchill Gardens Estate. From about 1953 to 1981 it took pride of place, its wheels set in concrete right next to the castle.
I really don't know what I learned playing all over it, falling off it, squashing my fingers in it or being pushed off of it when the time came for someone else to have a go. But I do remember, aged 6 or 7 or 8, being determined to repair this thing and make it roll.
And there was only one thing stopping me: I no longer lived there.
My family had moved to East London, via White City, before my second birthday. The Victorian terraced house had had its top floor and half the next floor blown off by a bomb that landed across the road, so it wasn't really big enough now for burgeoning families and grandchildren. Thus my working visits to 'Churchill' were limited to a few hours on occasional weekend trips to my grandparents who still lived there.
And a few hours a month just wasn't enough time for a seven-year-old to repair a boiler, straighten a bent piston rod and weld up a rusty chimney. About all I could do was scavenge sticks of wood from the bomb site across the road from my grandparent's house and stuff them into the rusty firebox.


I couldn't even light the fire - buying matches would have been a capital offence. Sometimes though, an older boy would arrive, with some sort of 'match permit'. We'd get a flickering blaze going, half suffocating ourselves in the smoke, but no matter how hard both of us pulled on the regulator handle with all our weight, the ten tons of roller would never budge.
Then I remembered - my grandad, just round the corner, was a London fireman.


We never stood a chance of rolling a single inch of road!

A local know-all said something about 'needing water as well'....... don't be silly, my grandad uses that, it'll put the fire out we'd just spent ages lighting!!

But someone else did get this magnificent machine moving.

The local worthies of later years threw up their hands in horror at the dangers that lurked in children's concrete castles and idle steam rollers, and declared this most popular of playgrounds infinitely more dangerous than sitting in front of a TV computer game. They demanded its demolition.
Thus Churchill was freed from its concrete wheel chocks and fell into the hands of a new owner who completed what I started!
But I have never known who, nor seen the finished result.

Until a short while ago when I happened across a grand announcement for the Great Dorset Steam Fair - 2011, the biggest such thing in the world!
"I must find it there," I thought.
And here it is - last weekend!

Just what I needed for the Moyale-Isiolo road!

"You're only the second person who's ever confessed to jumping all over my Roller all those years ago," the present owner told me.
"Look at all the dents in the canopy! Your fellow culprit said there was a wall alongside, which you all used to climb up on, jump onto the canopy, then onto the wheels and into the footplate. Is that right?"
What could I say.
The present owner, the second since Westminster council disposed of it, is a 'preserver' rather than a 'restorer', doing just enough work to keep the machine safe and functional, no more. A lot of it certainly looks as though it's never been painted since those playground days of the 50s, although some of it must have been, as the first owner replaced the boiler and tubes.

"Cast your mind back," he asked. "When you were bouncing all over it, did you notice? Was the Aveling badge there on the front? The rampant horse?"


He gave me a deep meaningful look, one to stimulate anyone's memory cells into a super-human effort of data retrieval, pleading with my brain to remember.
"The badge you see here," he continued, his gaze probing my face for fifty-five-year-old information, "was on the machine when I bought it from the first owner, but no one seems to know whether it's the original. It would be nice to know! Do you remember?"
His eyes flicked to and fro, attempting to build a super-highway between my head, the front of Churchill and the Churchill Gardens Estate. But it was a feat of memory too far.
"We used to spend all our time trying to fix the clutch and accelerator," I replied. "We never bothered with: Look! There's a 1923 Aveling model 503! Let's see if we can get the badge off it while no one's looking. A dry box of matches was far more important."
So sadly, I couldn't help.
But I did suggest, "The Royal Institute of British Architects has a massive picture library of that estate. Some of it is on their web site and one photo shows the rear half of your steam roller in the playground. Maybe a browse through their archives will reveal the truth of the matter."
So I left him pondering, 'do I really want to know or is it better left alone?'

Later, just to prove it does indeed roll along after all those years being nailed down in Pimlico, off it trundled across the fairground, through the black smoke of dozens of fellow steam engines.

Fire and Water, Blazing like it Ought'a. Churchill rolls the dirt.

I wonder if one of these has ever done London to Cape Town, or RTW?

Back home, I've a new project.
Every weekday now I make my way slowly through half-closed motorways to the radiotherapy unit in Guildford.
There, it's compulsory to recite name, rank and serial number on arrival.
That is: name, first line of address and date of birth.
Twice. At reception and then in the ops room. Everyday.
So tomorrow I'm off to the vets. I'll get a little chip put in the back of my neck to save all this identification rigmarole. It'll have my life history on it, present and all past addresses - you'll be able to read this blog from it.
But alas, "No, don't do that, it'll be a waste. We don't have anything to read the chip with," they tell me, standing next to half a ton and a million pounds worth of Linear Accelerator!
Well, I have the answer. On Monday I'll turn up with the chip installed, and a donation of a Kindle with WiFi. That'll revolutionise things a bit in the NHS!

But today, a possibly better opportunity arose. Some of the zapping appointments were different to normal, including mine, because these Linear Accelerators are serviced quite regularly. By in-house engineers. So I've put out a feeler to the hospital's engineering department to see if I can sneak a look inside one of them during its service. Maybe I'll see a straightforward way for the machine to directly read the chip in the patient's neck........

That may sound a bit crazy, but you never know. Back in the late 60s, my boss at the time gained a patent and not a little fame by developing a device that became extensively used for a while in medical labs. It was a carousel of test tubes, about 40 or so, that rotated in steps. It held each tube precisely under any sort of sampling or testing paraphenalia, for an exact amount of time, as required, accurate to a millisecond or so.
He'd worked for many years on old-fashioned electro-mechanical telephone exchanges and developed his machine from what he'd learnt on that job. The basic mechanism being a switching uni-selector. Quite an advanced idea at the time, although, of course, the fast progress of technology meant his machine was probably superceded within a few years, or less.
By the time he gained the patent for it he'd moved on to the development of advanced (at that time) multi-channel cable TV networks where he was my boss, and continued to come up with all sorts of ideas for spin-off applications.

So you never know. My idea may come to something, although I'm sure someone else is already steaming ahead with a similar chip-reading idea for patient identification.
Either that, or tomorrow is the 1st of April. Hope I didn't miss an appointment.

Next time, I'll have a good supply of syrup to go with the waffle.....

Posted by Ken Thomas at September 08, 2011 10:19 AM GMT

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