If you’re going to get stuck, do it in style.
By Bill Dean. Illustration: Steve Shaw.
For many of you reading this, the sign “Don’t Push” on the back of some wagons is just an amusing piece of graffiti. It’s the signwritten version of finger scrawl in traffic film: “I wish your wife was as dirty as this,” or “More drops than Santa.”
It’s there to demonstrate the transport manager has a sense of humour – as if his routing schedule isn’t proof enough.
However, for a small number of drivers it is necessary because, despite being instructed never to do so, and not having wagons or tyres suitable for the job, in order to deliver we have to go “off road.” When we do, we get bogged down. Which is when the site manager whistles up Murphy’s machine to knuckle us out with the bucket of his excavator. Or rather, he doesn’t because, as we all know to our cost, the exteriors of wagons are now made out of politician’s promises, easily broken, and horrendously expensive to repair. Hence “Don’t Push.”
Of course, the customer doesn’t care about this. All he wants is his load of bricks or whatever. My first experience of this was on a Travelodge site near Leeds. The site agent waved me into the sea of mud, shouting that it was just a coating over hardcore. Certainly it only just covered the soles of his immaculate rigger boots. It was a “the water can’t be deep, it only goes halfway up that duck” scenario. He was standing on four breeze blocks. I sunk up to my axles. “The JCB’ll pull you out when you’ve unloaded,” was his only comment as he tiptoed back inside his office on his makeshift stepping stones.
But even solid ground can be treacherous. Driving onto a frozen golf course – minus 10⁰ Centigrade overnight – I thought I was safe. The grass snapped as my tyres passed over. Unfortunately, the wagon had a front-mounted crane and an exhaust which vented under the engine, not up a vertical stack into the air. After I’d unloaded my two concrete chamber rings, it had thawed the ground under the wheels. When I lifted the stabilizer legs, it sank up to the front axle. Go get the tractor. Contrary to what you see on films, the crane only works when the hand brake is on. You can’t push yourself out of a hole.
On another occasion, I was coerced onto a horse field by the customer – a very nice lady in tight jodhpurs, as it happens. She was building a stable and I had all the block, cement, etc on board. Before I drove on, I walked the newly gravelled access to the delivery point. Two days previous, a tractor with a front blade had made a track of sorts, and stone had been spread on it. The field itself undulated, but this “road” was nice and level.
It seemed OK. Fully loaded I reversed on, set up the crane and dropped everything off. 16 tonnes lighter, there should be no problem getting off. Wrong. I hadn’t noticed the heap of straw and manure which is stacked by the gate of every horse field with a sign “Free fertilizer. Help yourself,” was missing. The farmer had used it instead of hardcore to fill in the dips in the terrain. The engine vibrations whilst unloading had jiggled it from a reasonably solid mass into a soggy jelly. Down I went, all three axles, quite literally in the sh*t. It was two weeks, an expensive jet wash and a lot of heavy rain before the wagon stopped smelling when warm.
Sometimes it’s other vehicles being stuck which have caused me problems. Coming around the roundabout at junction 3A on the M40/M42, I noticed a box van on the slip road had pulled over and bedded down in the soft verge. The driver was waving. I pulled in front, staying on the black stuff, attached a lifting sling, and dragged him off. He’d been there an hour and thanked me profusely. Feeling pleased with myself for being a knight in shining armour, off I drove. It was only after an hours’ travel I realised it wasn’t my intended slip road and I was going south instead of west. It made for a really long day.
Interestingly, I now know what to do when going off-road, even to “proper” building sites where hardcore has supposedly been laid and compacted down. This is the result of encountering a real jobsworth at the site of the new Granada studios in Salford. When I first went, he insisted in seeing all my licences and certificates for the wagon, crane and slings etc, before he’d let me on to unload. Not only that, but he had to take them away, photocopy them, and also ring the issuers/testers to make sure they were valid. An hour of a job. I told my boss the reason for my delay on my return to the yard. No problem – you and the wagon have been vetted, we’ll send you each time.
The next day, another load of drainage pipe and the same palaver at the gate. The day after, the same again. I had a word with a builder friend. A solution. I told my boss what I intended. My next delivery, the same request for all my certificates etc. “No problem,” I replied, “ but before I enter into the holding area, I want to see the site certification certificate to make sure all the driveways I might go on will bear the weight of the vehicle.” Jobsworth totally gobsmacked. “I also want a photocopy of it so I can phone the issuing body to make sure it’s correct.” Jobsworth made a large number of phone calls and eventually a suit came over with a folder of paperwork. I made a pretence of reading and understanding it. “Now, if you let me on everyday without hassle, as my licences won’t have changed, then I’ll assume this hasn’t changed, even though it is quite obvious roads are being dug up and rerouted every few minutes as drains are being laid, and I know you’re not retesting the compaction and load bearing.” After that, everything went smoothly – not only for me, but every other delivery driver, once checked, was clear from then on.
But the strangest time I got stuck was in midwinter, driving a small front-wheel drive car-based van. As I set off across a lonely Pennine road between Lancashire and Yorkshire, it started snowing. Very quickly it became an almost whiteout, with the flakes blowing straight at me. The van seemed to be coping alright. The road was deserted, so I kept a steady slow speed by listening to the engine noise. I kept to the middle of the road and watched for the markers either side. It might take a while, but soon the road would drop down off the top into the shelter of walls and trees. Then I glanced to my left. A sheep was licking salt off the passenger side window. I got out and looked. A wedge of snow had built up under the front of the vehicle lifting the wheels off the ground. For the last ten minutes they’d been turning slowly in the air. I’d gone nowhere. Luckily, shortly after the snowplough arrived, he helped push me backwards off my mound and I escaped.