The Norfolk man who took fire fighting into his own hands
PUBLISHED: 12:12 17 July 2018 | UPDATED: 12:12 17 July 2018
Concerned about the time it would take the emergency services to reach their thatched home in the event of a blaze, the Barr family did the only sensible thing. They bought their own fire engine...
Two new noises came into our lives that summer. First there was the gentle hum, almost like an electric motor, from a brood box sitting in the back of my car. It contained the first colony of my wife’s bees.
Then she telephoned me at work. “Please don’t be cross,” she said. She seldom says anything like that. I expected that something dreadful had happened. Had she crashed her car? Had she found a better man? Did one of the sheep have the ague?
But it was none of those things. She continued: “I have agreed to buy a fire engine.”
As a child brought up in Wisbech I was fascinated by fire engines and would loiter around the fire station waiting for the siren to sound – ready to set off on my bicycle in pursuit of the appliance as it lumbered through the streets of Wisbech. As often as not the call was for nothing more exciting than a chimney fire or a false alarm, but every now and then there was a real fire and the firemen (no question of them being gender neutral then) would pull out their canvas hoses, connect up to a hydrant and drench the flames.
But I did not grow out of it. In later years, as an apparently respectable high street solicitor in King’s Lynn, I would leap onto the office bicycle (conveniently chained to a nearby lamp post) and race after any appliance that came anywhere near the office. At home, while others were listening to The Archers or Saturday Night Theatre, I had the radio tuned to the fire brigade VHF wavelength and would race to any nearby incident – even (and embarrassingly) sometimes arriving before the fire brigade.
The years went by and my fire engine fetish diminished – until that telephone call.
A few weeks later a low loader delivered to our home in Bacton a seven-ton Green Goddess fire engine bristling with all the things that a grown-up small boy could ever dream of; half a mile of hose, two ladders, nozzles, huge bolt cutters, a stirrup pump, stand pipes, an impossibly heavy ‘portable’ pump, blue flashing lights and two-tone horn. But no instructions.
It was built in 1955 and was 49 years old when we bought it. Yet it was scarcely run in, with just 3,000 miles on the clock.
A thousand Green Goddess fire engines were made during the Cold War as part of the civil defence effort and were intended to go into cities ruined by nuclear bombs to supply large quantities of water to quench the flames and salvage something from the devastation.
The bombs did not fall. The Berlin Wall did, and gradually the Cold War melted into peace. Green Goddesses were kept in huge hangars, only to be brought out during strikes, until the government decided to dispose of them – and my wife saw the announcement.
It took a while to work out what everything did, but in time I was able to connect it to a garden hose to fill its 300 gallon tank, a process that took about two hours. Later I learned how to pump water through the hoses (complicated as the pump was driven by the gear box). You had to disconnect the drive to the wheels, put it in fourth gear and rev up the engine. The result was impressive – a jet of water that shot over the roof.
There was some method in our collective madness; we live in a thatched house. There are many in Norfolk and the Eastern Daily Press reports stories of thatch fires with depressing frequency. Our nearest fire station is five miles away and is a retained station. We would lucky to see the first appliance in less than 15 minutes from the call.
Not wanting to become another statistic we practised until the able-bodied members of the family could have water spraying on the roof in 90 seconds. That was assuming that the Green Goddess would start (it often would not, particularly in winter), had water in the tank (if we had been playing with it, we might have forgotten to fill it up) and enough petrol (it seemed to do gallons to the mile and forever needed refuelling).
The roof never caught fire but the Green Goddess had other uses. We would take it to our local village fete or vintage vehicle rallies. It would lurch dangerously if we went more than about 20 miles an hour. Once, the brakes failed and we sailed straight past the entrance to Bacton playing field. Fortunately nothing was in the way. Our popularity waned when some children grabbed a hose and washed out the car boot sale.
It was useful for dealing with the other noise of that summer: the bees. They swarm regularly in warm weather. It is the way a colony reproduces, but we needed to capture the swarm (often from a high branch) and put it into a new hive. The Green Goddess became a very convenient platform for rounding up the bees.
I had a fantasy of performing a heroic deed with the Green Goddess; nothing too risky, though; something like extinguishing a lawn mower fire or rescuing a kitten from a not very burning bungalow.
One night someone set fire to a van in a depot opposite us. I dashed to the Green Goddess while my wife rang the fire brigade. With a grinding of gears I urged the huge appliance towards the flames, all the while imagining the local paper headlines: ‘Solicitor hero braves inferno’, ‘We need more solicitors like this – a credit to the legal profession’ or ‘Ambulance-chasing solicitor tries fire engines instead’.
Then two things happened. There was a high-pitched shriek from outside the cab. Looking out, I saw my wife running in bare feet. “Stop!” she commanded, “The fire brigade said you must not tackle the fire.”
“Nobody tells me not to fight a fire,” I replied fearlessly. “Yes they do,” the Green Goddess seemed to say. And its engine died before I reached the road and it would not start again: it had plenty of water but no petrol, so we watched from the silent cab as the flames devoured the van and the local firemen turned up a quarter of an hour later to extinguish it. So much for 90 seconds.
And like all toys the Green Goddess gradually faded into the landscape. The bodywork is mainly wood and it was not designed to live outside. Unknown to us it was rotting away (as I found out when I put my foot through the roof). We had no way of stopping the rot as we could not keep it under cover. Then I reached the age of 70 and had to renew my driving licence. The new licence came back missing any category of vehicle that could include driving an ancient fire engine.
A dozen years after that summer, it was driven onto another low loader, sold for just £650 to a young man who vowed to restore it to its former glory. As it trundled down the road I felt a lump in my throat; an old friend was going to a new home.
Richard Barr is a lawyer, freelance writer and author. His latest book, The Savage Poodle, is available from Amazon.co.uk richardbarrwriter.co.uk