A Snow Day With George

Yes, we Brits can be wimps. An inch or two of snow and snow stops everything. “The Beast From the East” headlines warn us for weeks of impending snow-and-ice doom and our resident media fear-mongers in smart suits and ivory towers continue to invent news rather than report it win out once more.

One of the neat things is that much work can be accomplished from a laptop in front of a warm fire these days; handy for some. All I need to do is persuade others that my workbench in the living room or kitchen will not create too much mess.

George rolled up on his black sit-up-and-beg bike as I rode in on my newer self-built Triumph I made from parts salvaged from the local rubbish dump. Well wrapped up I heard his hob nails tickety tick on the cobbles as he crossed the yard towards me. “Don’t leave your bike there or Jack’ll have you!” I moved it over next to his and we walked through the latch gate together, clocked in at the machine, and walked over to the bench. Everyone was crowded round in a circle having the usual chat and a smoke but talking about nothing important. Throwing out jokes and mocking anyone within reach was part and parcel of the whole. It was cold and the snow had built to a few inches overnight. My job was to light the boiler and keep it fully stoked throughout the day. The boiler, a vintage behemoth, was down in a brick and concrete pit four feet lower than the outside ground level. In the bottom was 4″ of water. We generated enough shavings from the machines for me to load it all day to fuel the central heating in the workshop. On average days that meant stoking every hour or so. On days like this it was a full time job.

Loading the wheelbarrow constantly was no problem. Dumping it in the pit was another thing. The only way to get the shavings into the boiler was to be down there in the shavings at the same time with barely a two foot space to stock from. If the radiator temperature dropped someone ran out to catch me by the ear and whisk me inside to feel how cold the radiators were. I didn’t feel the cold because I was working so hard keeping up with the hauling and stoking. Normally we used coke. Much longer lasting. The bosses liked the free fuel idea.

These days were too busy for me to fuss but I really missed the making at the bench and George was ever chivvying me to, “Get a move on and get in here!” The problems came when it came to brew time. How to leave the boiler work to brew for 10 to 12 men who all had a different preference on tea types, strengths, sweetness and so on. I had to go to each bench, get their twists of tea from the bags and boxes, put it in their individual mugs and cans and then deliver each man’s back to him within a few degrees of being boiling hot. Woe betide me if either the radiators cooled or the tea wasn’t hot!

On the way with a tray load of tea, crossing the yard from the boiler room, the pathway was as slick as could be and I was steadying myself as best I could… I was also ten minutes late! A definite no no! Suddenly a hail of snowballs came lobbing me from over the timber piles, knocking my head and the tea tray. I went down with hot tea all over me. The hot tea was the least of my problems. Being doubly late and without tea was an unfixable issue. The other apprentices scurried in through the latch gate like a pile of rats down a drain pipe. I panicked. You can’t tell tales and you can’t be late or without the goods. But inside, unbeknownst to me, the others were collared and cornered inside. The men reconciled my problem and let me off the hook. The apprentices were sent to brew and I was returned to boiler duties. The snow melted above the boiler room and came down on the heads of two apprentices as the passed under the eaves. Just was seen to be done.

19 thoughts on “A Snow Day With George”

  1. I wish my job had some one making us tea and keeping us warm, and I also wish we all started out in that role so we knew what is was like and appreciated it 🙂

    most of the carpenters I work with say they are too important and valuable to even clean up after themselves, the problem being we are all carpenters here and there is no “boy” on staff to coddle us.

    1. Gone are the days of bringing others younger than you alongside. Now you need college certification saying your qualified. Not so with my apprentices. The less paperwork they have the better qualified they become. Well packed, neat, compact, happy! The nice thing in the UK is that you do not need a certificate to be a qualified crafting artisan in woodworking.

      1. I’m looking to begin a career in real woodworking and most furniture companies here expect you have completed college before applying

        1. Yes, the college has unfortunately become the filtering agent for companies. It’s lazy company management especially through agencies that filter before interviews. Companies mostly want to know that interviewees can read and write before they take them on and then they know they have been taught safe practices to work and that they have the basics so they can train them according to what the company wants from them. I have friends with three year degrees in design and furniture making who shove MDF through machines all day and it cost them £25,000 for the privilege of working for a company. There is no law to that end, just companies that are lazy with lazy management. All of my apprentices for over 30 years had no college qualifications and became furniture makers in their own right. A keen apprentice is as good as any 3-year college or university graduate within six months of training with me. You just have to find one skilled man who will work with you. Trouble is we are dying off year on year and then we will be left with AI and robots.

          1. The guys at my job who schlep mdf all day laugh at me for using hand planes and saws. A career change couldnt come soon enough. I am searching for a mentor every day until I succeed, and will remember to do my best to pass on anything im taught should the opportunity arise to do so.

          2. Paul and I are of about the same age. Over our lifetimes formal “education” has been so stressed that most of our children and grandchildren start life with a burden of debt many can never repay for an education that hardly does them any good. If anyone has the desire to become a Journeyman or Master Woodworker go for it, being happy in what you do is paramount. Thank God something good has come out of the Internet. Thanks Paul for your efforts we are all better off now.

  2. Interesting read Paul. Up here in North Dakota, we just endured the better part of a week with temps + wind chill of close to -60F. I think the people up here can stand such conditions better than the machinery. Glad I like hand-powered tools.

  3. Hi Paul
    I was tea boy…..toilet cleaner…..go to the local cafe for men’s grub (& 3 times a day)
    I started my engineering apprentice ship in 1967. One winter after struggling the 10 miles on my moped to get to work I found my steel workbench decorated with a 2′ snow drift….just my luck to have a hole in the roof above AND by draughty rotten doors.
    The workshop didn’t get anywhere near warm till 10…. my job was to keep the open coke fire going……from the yard coke pile…….apart from throat drying smoke winding its way up to holes in the roof……there was the delightful smell from people who had used the coke pile to pass water!! OH YES THOSE WERE THE DAYS….”WHEN MEN WERE MEN AND BOYS WERE BOYS”. ETC. AND I WAS PAID £5 A WEEK !!
    Today I can pop into my warm garage workshop….in my slippers standing on an old carpet.

    Paul thanks for your reply from Berlin…….John

  4. “Yes, we Brits can be wimps. An inch or two of snow and snow stops everything. ”

    I wish it was like that here in Winnipeg. Our weather has been a -50C windchill this week, but everyone just goes about their business as usual. I even rode my bicycle to work all week.

  5. This whole college education thing has gotten totally out of hand. I have 2 grandsons in college right now and it’ll cost somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000 for each of them. They’ll come out fully qualified for almost nothing. I went to a 2 year technical school and came out with a good job.

    On a positive note……..I love the pictures in this post! I love the workbench in the first picture! I’m just finishing up a “hoiti toyti” European workbench that I’ve alway wanted to build and am looking forward to building one of your benches out of Home Depot lumber just because they’re to cool and practical.

  6. I too was an apprentice in the 60’s and the tradesmen use to say “that one boy was a boy, two boy’s was half a boy, but three boys was no boy at all!

  7. Robert W Mielke

    Since moving to the New England part of the United States I’ve to deal with a more severe definition of Winter. Last year we had 5 blizzards in a single month. My little town of Uxbridge, MA were hammered with a “37” single day snowfall.

    Still, I chose to live here 3 years ago and I’ve accepted that it’s my new home. Unless I win a big lottery I plan on living here for the remainder of my days.

  8. I just retired after 35 years as a teacher preparation professor. I got to do that because I was good writing about it. But I had 2 side jobs that were much more satisfying, a flight instructor and a guitar builder. I got to to the side jobs by proving myself as a proficient pilot and then a woodworker. Both jobs put me with experienced and accomplished mentors who taught me and assessed my readiness. I would be the first to say that a university education has been over sold. It certainly can neglect the heart of real trade or craft knowledge, whether it be flying airplanes or building stringed instruments. Best example when I was a flight instructor: I would not turn over the keys to an airplane for a solo flight had the student only read about or written about flying the plane.

  9. “Yes, we Brits can be wimps. An inch or two of snow and snow stops everything. ”

    When the rain falls out here in sunny southern California (which it is right now…) everybody looses their driving sensibilities on the freeways (motorways for our European brethren).

    Having grown up and learned to drive in Idaho winters, I love the inclement weather. It heightens my level of alertness, keeps me more focused on the task of avoiding the atrocious drivers around me. Personally I miss 4 distinct seasons, which this part of California does not have.

    1. I am presently holidaying in San Diego where we British couple are “enjoying” plenty of rain. Local drivers seem completely unaware of the slippery dangers of oilslicked and rubber smeared roads. And the roads are great but not well designed to drain the present torrents.

      But Paul’s blogs are a great reminder of times past. This was when an apprentice started from the bottom up, learning responsibility, respect for elders and betters, timekeeping and the need for reliability. Sadly university teaches none of these things.

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