1….’A Southerner Working in the Northumberland Dales’……
If you have already read my bio you will know that throughout the nineties I lived in Northumberland. I worked up there as a sales representative for ‘J.T. Doves’ based in the pretty market town of Hexham. My huge sales territory stretched west from Newcastle’s commuter-belt, crossing right over the Pennines to Alston in Cumbria, and from Blanchland in the south to Kielder in the north. The far north Pennines were a wonderful place to do business, driving from call to call on exhilarating roads with superb views. Think of James Herriot doing his rounds, but update his car and change the profession and you will get a reasonable idea of what my working life was like!
Gradually, over the years, I had acquired knowledge of thousands of builders merchant stock lines, and accumulated many years of business knowledge and experience. I was at the top of my game. My job was to sell those stock lines, (and of course any ‘directs’ delivered on our behalf by our suppliers, such as lorry loads of roof tiles, bricks or blocks). The products I sold encompassed everything required in the building process, from the tiniest screw to the biggest garage door. I had inherited a list of local builder clients from my predecessor, and I had steadily worked at extending and improving that list. The sales office also passed on other sales leads from time to time. It was also expected of me to do ‘cold’ calls on any site, or builder’s premises, that I saw on my travels that were not already ‘on my radar’. There was no ‘hard sell’ involved, we weren’t pushy salesmen putting our foot in anybody’s door, we were welcomed professionals doing a valued job.
I was expected to be conversant on ‘bottom-lines’, ‘turnovers’, ‘business shares’ and other business jargon. I was up to speed on local planning applications. I had befriended a few estate agents, and they tipped me off on any land that was coming up for sale. This was useful to help out my small builder clients, who were always on the lookout for small bits of land for their next building project. They would remember my help and return the favour with profitable sales orders. There was much more to the job than might meet the eye. I was far more than just an order taker doing his rounds.
A typical early Monday morning would sometimes have found me in the lush Tyne Valley at pretty Stocksfield, sat in an old Victorian red brick semi with ‘one man band’ builder John Ridley. John’s wife Sally would occasionally join us at their kitchen table, sometimes still wearing her nightie! They didn’t ‘stand on ceremony,’ I was just accepted as one of their extended family. We would all sit chatting. I would dunk a chocolate digestive in to a welcome cup of tea. We may have discussed the previous night’s match at St. James’ Park, or perhaps our children, our holiday plans, or that old favourite, the weather. After the initial ice-breaking ‘craic’ we would turn to business. I formed good working relationships with many clients, and the orders naturally followed. But it wasn’t always quite so pleasant. Sometimes, for example, if our delivery system had let a client down, the builder would angrily let off steam at me when I arrived! I would take the ‘hit’ on behalf of the Doves team, apologise for the bad service, and assure him that we would do better next time. I would also have made a mental note to have a quiet word with the transport manager later! The builders ‘bollocking’ of me, and mine of the transport manager, were never personal. It was just business. We all made mistakes, but hopefully our service improved as a result.
Within twenty minutes of leaving a cosy, domestic environment like John’s, or perhaps a small office or a muddy little building site out in the ‘sticks’, I could have found myself meeting my next customer in a ‘state-of-the-art’ plush office on one of Tyneside’s many emerging new modern business parks. The atmosphere could sometimes shift, from one job to the next, from friendly, informal and laid-back, to hectic and slightly hostile. Not all calls were on affable clients. I had to deal with some pompous, arrogant, self-important assholes sometimes too! But thankfully in Northumberland these were very rare. Unless you had called on a particular client before you just didn’t know how your next customer was going to turn out!
Most of my Northumbrian clients liked and respected me. I stood out among my peers. As I was originally from the Guildford area of Surrey, over 300 miles to the south, I obviously had a totally different dialect to the clients that I was calling on. This was what had truly set me apart from my peers. Frankly I was a bit of a novelty. The nearest they had got to my accent before meeting me would have probably been watching ‘Eastenders’ on the telly! Of course once they got to know me my other qualities would come in to play too, but it was my southern ‘accent’ that gave me an initial edge over my opposition.
Sometimes when I arrived on building sites all work would come to a complete stand-still. Tools would be downed as the word went around…. “The Cockney rep’s here again lads!” They would all hurry down to greet me, the site managers, builders, plasterers, electricians, plumbers, decorators, quantity surveyors, architects, joiners, you name it, the whole bloody lot of them. They were keen not to miss out on the free ‘entertainment’ that I obviously provided. I was like a one man circus rolling in to town!
They would take it in turns to ask me questions. Any questions. About anything. Work related or not. It didn’t matter; just as long as they could hear me respond in my funny ‘Cockney’ voice! (I’m not really a Cockney of course, it’s just the way that anybody from south of Durham is perceived by the Geordies!) If only I had a tenner for every time I heard Northumbrian lads, (in their rubbish attempts at doing a Michael Caine accent) saying, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Or that other old Michael Caine favourite….”You’re a big man but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full-time job. Now behave yourself.” There would also always be great merriment about the way that we Southerners put ‘Rs’ in to words like ‘bath’ or ‘path’ that just weren’t there. They never could get their heads around that one!
I used to enjoy being on the wrong end of the piss-taking. I never took any offence, as there was never any intended. I took the stick and gave a little bit back now and then. It was all part of the banter, part of the ‘craic’. That’s partly how I won their respect and friendship. I realised that people tend to take the piss out of people that they liked. I would have been more concerned if they hadn’t. Once you made a friend of a Northumbrian you were their friend for life, but it wasn’t easy as they didn’t bestow this honour on every Southerner that they met.
While out on my travels one wintry morning I spotted, near Alston, under a deep blanket of snow, a fresh building site of which I hadn’t previously been aware. It was at that stage just the shell of a building. It had been a hazardous journey across the moors to get out there from my home in Prudhoe, slightly to the east of Hexham in the beautiful Tyne Valley. I had almost lost the car in a snow drift, and also slipped off the road in to a field gate at one point! The site appeared to be deserted. I assumed they weren’t working due to the heavy overnight snowfall. I called out “Hello!” But I wasn’t really expecting a reply.
But I got one. It came from a gruff, masculine Northumbrian voice about eighty feet up somewhere on top of the un-finished building, but I couldn’t actually see him. “If it’s an order you’re wanting bonny lad then you’d best get yourself on up here like!” The word ‘like’ at the end of his statement was a little appendage that Northerners liked to stick on the end of their sentences, that and of course their other favourites, “Oh, aye”, “Why, aye” and “Mind”. They were all contagious! Even now, fifteen years after leaving Northumberland, I still sometimes say all three of them, (and other Geordie-isms), and the Cornish folk always give me strange looks when I do. Unfortunately the voice did not elaborate on how exactly I should “Get myself on up here, like”; and stupidly, in retrospect, I didn’t ask. I was to regret that later. To be honest I was a bit upset that anybody had responded at all. It was bloody cold, and I was only wearing a flimsy summer suit. I had hoped to be able to get back in to my warm, cosy company car, fill in my customer calling card, (for the boss), with the words….. “New site at Alston, but no builders on site”, put Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ on max volume, and then bugger off to a warm sales office full of pretty girls somewhere.
I had a very quick look, (far too quick it would later transpire), up at the three storey high building. The roof area, where the deep, gruff voice had come from, was not yet covered over, and I could see the big bare roof timbers. Directly in front of me, leaning upright against the wall at an angle, with snow covering the bottom two or three rungs, was an old wooden triple-extension ladder. It looked like it had seen better days. It probably had, way back in the nineteen fifties. (Unknown to me at this time, just around the corner to my left, there was an opening in the block-work wall where later a door would be fitted, and this opening would have led me to a series of aluminium internal ladders, but I’ll get to that later.) The top of the ladder ended just below a scaffold tower walk-way, which was fixed around the building at eaves/gutter level. I had wrongly assumed that there would be an opening ‘trap-door’ within the scaffold planks just above where the third part of the extension ladder finished, and that when I got to the top of the third extension piece of the ladder I would just have to put my hand above my head and push it open. (If you are wondering why I would have assumed that, the answer is that I had climbed up a similar scaffold tower on a Newcastle building site just a few days earlier; where there had been a trap-door type arrangement with access to the walk-way above).
My shiny (but totally grip-less) black ‘office’ shoes were not the right footwear for climbing up ancient ladders, (or even new ladders), especially in mid-winter icy conditions. I took a deep breath and started my ascent.
Now I never used to have a problem climbing the local majestic old oak trees, or flying, (I took control of R.A.F. Chipmunk two-seater dual-control trainers over Oxfordshire a few times). As a teenager my mate Alan and I had even stupidly dangled our legs over the edge of ‘Hell’s Mouth’ on the Cornish coast, (my poor ‘uncle’ Len had covered his eyes over and was probably trying to work out how he would explain to our distraught families how he hadn’t stopped us from doing something that stupid), but climbing up very long ladders these days, or standing too close to a cliff edge, are now big ‘no-nos’ for me!
Nowadays, some twenty years after I had climbed up that dodgy ladder in snowy Alston, if I see somebody climbing a very high building on television my legs turn to jelly! I have to quickly change the channel. If I haven’t got the remote control I tend to go straight to plan ‘B’. (Plan ‘B’ is where I shut my eyes and firmly grab the arm of the sofa). I recall once switching channels after I saw a guy walking on a tight-rope between New York’s (ex) Twin towers, only to find on the next channel two blokes just about to base jump off of the top of the Eiffel tower. So I switched channels again. On the next channel they were showing film of New York construction workers in the nineteen thirties. These men were all sat, side by side, on steel beams eating their sandwiches, chatting and reading newspapers, their feet dangling many thousands of feet high above Manhattan! I switched the T.V. off in a panic, shut my eyes, and put my hand out to grab the sofa arm to my right to steady my nerves; only to feel something very warm and furry. It was my dog. He yelped. Poor old ‘Geordie’ it had frightened the life out of him. He hadn’t expected to be gripped, and definitely not that firmly. He had been sat on the carpet in front of me watching the tight-rope walkers, the base jumpers and the building workers balancing precariously on the steel girders too. He hadn’t wanted to look at them either, (he obviously has ‘doggie-vertigo’), and so he had leapt up off of the carpet, just as I had closed my eyes, to snuggle up alongside me.
With each fresh step up the rickety old ladder I had held on just that little bit tighter. My hands were weaving in and out between the half-rotten wooden ladder rungs, like trailing ivy around a wooden trellis, to cling on. I was beginning to tremble. Not just from vertigo but from the freezing cold air. I was by now about sixty feet up. I had a quick glimpse below me of just how high I was and pressed my face even closer to the ladder rungs.
I thought I would whistle something cheerful to try to kid myself that I could climb all the way to the top and to give myself more confidence. I searched my memory banks for a suitable tune. The first tune that came to mind was an old Christmas carol, ‘In the bleak mid-winter’. I discarded it. It made me feel even colder. Then I thought of the Byrd’s ‘Eight miles high’. No, that was no good. The next tune to pop in to my mind was ‘High Anxiety’ by Mel Brooks. That wasn’t very suitable either. I finally settled on ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ by Chumbawamba, yes totally inappropiate lyrics, but it was very cheerful and easy to whistle. I pursed my lips to hit that first note. Just as the sound was attempting to exit my mouth it froze like an ice cube in my mouth. I spat it out and it bounced down off the wooden rungs below me, breaking at least two of them, and what was left of it dropped in to the snowy ground far below.
O.K., so I’m exaggerating a little bit, but it was very, very cold up that ladder. (Many years later I would visit Finland in mid-winter where the temperature by the Helsinki coast was minus 40 C; but I’m telling you that it still felt a lot warmer there than being up that ladder in Alston that day). I tried my best not to look down again. I knew that if I did I risked freezing to the spot, unable to go any further up or go back down.
I finally got within touching distance of the top of the ladder. I stopped climbing and looked up. I tried pushing at the boards with the palm of my right hand. They wouldn’t shift. I tried again. Still no movement. Then it slowly dawned on me that there was no trap door through the scaffold boards, and therefore no access to the walk-way above. Oh crap. Panic was beginning to set in. My legs were not in good shape to go back down; they were shaking with the cold.
I could hear some movement just above me. The boards were wobbling. Peering up through the cracks between the scaffold boards I could see three rather big men. There was an older looking one with longish hair and a beard big enough for two crows with a large brood to nest in, and two younger, clean-shaven men with neat, tidy crew-cuts in their early twenties; they looked like twins. They were now all peering incredulously over the side of the scaffold tower hand-rail at me below them. They appeared to be shocked to see a smart looking bloke in a suit staring right back at them (me!) I was clinging on for dear life. “What the hell are you doing up that old ladder like?” Said one of the ‘twins’ to break the ice.
“Well I was t-t-t-trying to get up to the r-r-r-roof top to see you g-g-g-guys, to see if I could f-f-f-flog you some r-r-r-r-roof t-t-t-tiles”. I had stutteringly replied, my tongue now no longer working properly due to the cold.
(They explained to me later that they had heard some strange grunting noises and the odd filthy swear word spoken in a ‘Cockney’ accent below them somewhere, and that they had all downed tools to investigate. This had been a good fifteen minutes after I had originally called up to them. They had, until they saw me just below them clinging on to the ladder, assumed that I had changed my mind about calling on them and had driven off elsewhere.)
They quickly observed the worried expression on my face and saw how violently I was shivering. They knew that I was in need of some urgent assistance to get off of the ladder safely. The older bearded man asked me for my name. I tried to pull my business card out from my internal suit pocket, and in the process my right shoe had slipped off of the icy, snow covered wooden ladder rung. My face slipped down with a crunch on to a ladder rung. They all gasped. I pulled myself up again. It was O.K., my nose had taken a bit of a bash but it wasn’t bleeding. “Now just slow down, take a deep breath lad.” The older guy said. “And for Chrissakes dinna bother with your business card bonny lad, just give us your Christian name, that’ll do for now, like.”
“Aye, said one of the two younger men with him, who by now I could tell with certainty were twins. “So we can inform your next of kin when you fall off like”. His twin laughed but the older man shot him a look that clearly said, “Behave yourself mind!”
“My name’s M-M-M-M-a-a-a-r-k-k-k-k”. I replied. My teeth were banging together now like one of those sets of joke shop chattering teeth. They suggested that I very carefully, and very slowly climbed back down the ladder. I said “No way, I’ve come this far. I’d rather try to get up to you”. By now I was in no fit state to climb back down anyway. Not even one rung. I was so cold, so bloody cold, and my body was shaking like I was having a fit. I was built for speed in those days, not warmth, there wasn’t any spare fat on me to keep me warm, and the icy wind was cutting right through my useless summer suit.
“Right, O.K. Mark, just keep calm, and whatever you do don’t panic, we’ll get you safely up here”. The older bearded guy said in his very re-assuring, comforting, deep manly voice. He was almost close enough to reach out and touch as he bent down under the safety railing to re-assure me. I could see bits of what looked like bread crumbs in his beard. (Although they could have been crow’s eggs)! The two younger blokes started to do really bad Corporal Jones impressions, walking up and down the wobbly gang-plank saying “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” In their northern dialect. The older man, (obviously their own version of Captain Mainwaring), shot them another stern look, “You stupid boys, stop messing around! This Cockney lad needs our help!” He then looked back down at me, “Mark lad, lean back just a little bit, but be very careful mind, (he didn’t have to remind me), just raise an arm up and we’ll all grab hold of it. One of the twins said “Don’t worry mate we won’t let go of you”. And then, after a short pause, very quietly under his breath to the other twin. “Well probably not anyway.” The twins giggled. ‘Captain Mainwaring’ (with a big beard) shot them another stern look. Their little bad taste jokes hadn’t instilled me with a lot of confidence. What I needed to do now, and I needed their assistance, was a similar manoeuvre to what you might see a climber trying on a climbing wall at a sports centre. But those climber guys always had plenty of chalk on their fingers, and safety harnesses, and mats to fall back on, just in case they slipped. I didn’t. All I had was about three feet of snow, but that was around eighty feet below me, and it was covering God only knows what underneath it, but most likely bricks and roofing slates. The thought of doing just that one last little movement of my arm was terrifying. Even circus performers have safety nets!
Somehow I did manage to lean back just far enough from the ladder, holding on now by just my right hand finger tips, and I put my left arm up as high as I could behind me. The three brawny builders were now all laying down on the scaffold boards and each one of them, their arms fishing around under the scaffold boards, had firmly grabbed at my arm. “O.K. we’ve got you now bonny lad, now when you feel ready just let go with your other hand…… it’s O.K. Mark, don’t you worry lad, we’ve got you like.” Said the beard with the bits of bread in it. I was freezing cold, scared, and found it very hard to let go with my other hand, to put my life in the hands, literally, of three complete strangers. But after a few more minutes of coaxing and assurances from them that I could trust them, I did finally let go. Their strong working men’s hands, working as a team, had then pulled me swiftly and skilfully out from underneath the scaffold boards, and in one movement up and under the safety rail, and on to the scaffolding boards alongside them. (Thanks to these wonderful Northumbrian lads I am sitting here today, many years later, in a warm, cosy room, with my labrador ‘Geordie’ at my feet, telling this story. Their rescue attempt could so easily have gone wrong!)
After getting our collective breath back we had all cautiously stood up. I grabbed hold of the scaffolding tower safety handrail, but my hands had little feeling in them, they were numb and it was difficult to maintain a proper grip. The icy cold wind on the high exposed walkway hit me hard, like a bully, it almost knocked me straight back over the rail. It was wild up there. The wind felt like it was passing right through me; it was trying to play a tune on my ribs as it did so. (It sounded a bit like ‘Idiot wind’ by Bob Dylan).
The builders all stood there on the scaffold walkway just looking at me. All three grinning. They had had a little excitement and they were pleased that it had all ended well without anyone getting hurt. One of the twins said “So where’s the “R” in bath Mark?” His brother laughed and ‘Mainwaring’ said “Give the lad some time to get his breath back before you start taking the piss out of him will you?!” We all laughed. They were comfortable in their lofty, glacial, working environment. The other twin then said. “It’s unusual for you pen-pushing, suit wearing types, especially Southerners, to come up to the roof like, most reps are too scared to climb up ladders mind”.
“What’s w-w-w-with that l-l-l-ladder anyway?” I said, still not able to get warm and stop my stuttering. “How d-d-do you m-m-m-manage to c-c-c-climb up to this w-w-walk-way on that useless l-l-l-ladder?”
They all looked at each other and exchanged smiles. One of the twins replied. “Oh, we n-n-never use that one M-M-M-Mark, (he was taking the mickey so he must have already liked me), we use a series of six ladders on the inside of the building. The one you came up was on the site when we first started the groundwork. It’s not one of ours. One of the plasterers must have got fed up with tripping over it and decided to lean it against the wall. Health and safety would have a bleeding fit if they had seen you using it!”
“I nearly did have a fit b-b-b-bloody using it” I responded. They smiled.
I looked around at the amazing view. (see the photo to your left) All around me I could see the white snow covered lead slate rooftops of beautiful Alston, and out beyond them, way out in to the exquisitely pretty Northern Dales, it was like a white patchwork quilt divided by snow topped picturesque little stone walls. It was magnificent, and all things considered, it was almost worth the hassle and danger of the climb!
The older bloke I would now discover, was called Bill Burleigh, and his two younger mates were in fact his two sons. They were popular, well known lads and were all known locally as the ‘Burly Burleighs’! They invited me to huddle down with them, out of the biting cold wind, between two huge oak roofing beams, where they had nailed up a temporary bit of ply as a wind protector. They gave me a bacon stottie with plenty of brown sauce and a warming cup of coffee. The sons were called Tom and Jerry, (no, really, honest!) In later weeks I got to know them a little bit better in the bar at the Allendale Inn. I soon noticed that after a few drinks they behaved like their ‘Fred Quimby’ cartoon counterparts!
One Friday night in the pub those burly Burleigh boys confided in me that no sales rep had ever taken them up on their offer to “come on up” to a roof-top before, any roof top, but especially a three storey high roof-top; not even via the health and safety approved internal ladders!
After saying our “good-byes” that day, I was hoping that my next business call would be to a warm sales office in Hexham; and that was luckily how it turned out to be. After going back down the internal, (health and safety approved), ladders, I walked back out through the deep Cumbrian snow to my car. I looked back up to the ‘Burly Burleigh’ lads still working up on the roof. I called out. “Thanks lads, see you next time!” They called back “Aye, Cockney lad you do that and we’ll be pleased to see you again like, but remember the bacon stotties and coffee are on you next time mind!”
I laughed then got in to my company car. I started the engine and took out the order that Bill had scribbled down for me and shoved in to my suit pocket, (while I had been warming my fingers on my coffee cup). It was a large profitable order. He had ordered roofing slates, timber, plasterboard, nails, and some joist anchor ties. I put it in to my brief-case to hand to my boss back at the Hexham office later that day. I drove off with a smile on my face down the slushy, snowy track, towards the main Alston to Hexham road. As I reached the main road junction I briefly stopped to put a C.D. on. It was Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’. I went straight to track 6. ‘Promised Land’. A song that is always guaranteed to send chills right through me, even on hot summer days. In a strange way I felt that I was living in ‘The promised land’ up in Northumberland. I sang along with Bruce. Life was precious. I loved these Northerners and I felt so lucky to be working amongst them, to experience their hospitality and friendship. I would have a tale to tell one day to my kids. Perhaps even the World if anybody could be bothered to listen. Maybe I might even write a short story about it.
On future visits to that building site, and others where I would later find the ‘Burly Burleighs’, they always came down to meet me, and they always gave me big orders, bacon stotties and a cup of coffee. I did, a few months later, surprise them by taking them a box of assorted buns and pastries!
A rep competitor of mine at that time, a red headed lad called Hamish, from a rival builders merchant called ‘Matthew Charltons’, once asked me how I always got so many good orders from the ‘Burly Burleigh’ boys. He told me that he could never even get a bag of cement out of them. I replied “Well Hamish if you were to arrive on one of their building sites and the lads were up on the roof top working, would you go up the ladder to speak with them on the rooftop, or would you wait for them to come down to see you?” Hamish looked at me as if I had finally lost it. “You must be bloody joking mate; they might be paying me bloody peanuts but I’m a sales rep., I’m not a f***ing monkey!” I smiled smugly; knowing that he was one rep who would never poach any of my business.
Constructive comments below are very welcomed. Glowing praise even more so. It’s how I know that you have been here. Offers of highly paid writing gigs, though unlikely, would be lovely too. But just for the record, all spammers can just go and **** themselves.
All written work by Mark Anthony Wyatt, Bude, Cornwall. March 15th, 2015.
Note; Any written work, music, images or videos that Mark Anthony Wyatt has created, remains his personal intellectual property! But any other images, videos, quotes etc., that were NOT created by me remain the intellectual property of those who created them, and NOT me!
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