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Matt Swindlehurst recalls a time of dirty carrots, dodging rugby practice, shooting a Lee Enfield rifle – oh, and there’s a Matchless G3 in here somewhere, too…
Back in the late 1960s the housewives of Leek in North Staffordshire certainly knew their onions – and their cabbages and their cauliflowers and, in particular, their carrots. Carrots had to be misshaped, of various sizes but, above all, they had to be dirty. Apparently this guaranteed taste and freshness. Clean ones were not to be trusted under any circumstances.
So when The Old Man, who was the fourth generation of market gardeners in the family, came back from Sandbach wholesale market with the news that he had only been able to purchase bags of clean carrots a deep gloom descended. With our next market two days hence what was desperately needed was a cunning plan. And so it was that at the tender age of 14 I became involved with mass deception. A trench was carefully dug, and the offending vegetables inserted and then covered up. For good measure the resulting mound was generously watered. The following day we resurrected the carrots, newly resplendent in their dirty coating. Result!
Clearly I deserved a small reward for my criminal activities. In general, I treated the attending of school as a purely voluntary activity. It was now Wednesday and there seemed to be some sort of cosmic balance to a little mid-week break. It was also double games, and rugby was on the curriculum. Take away the ball and what are you left with ? A group of men mud-wrestling and then having a bath together afterwards. Exactly.
So the following morning I waved the aged parents off to work whilst pretending to put on my school uniform, waited a decent length of time in case they had forgotten something and then got Dad’s ex-army Matchless out of the shed.
His other great hobby was shooting and after the usual initiation of air guns and then .22 rifles I’d recently graduated to a .303 Lee Enfield. I’d also been tearing round the garden on an old Tiger Terrier for a couple of years and was now allowed to ride the Matchless at the local outdoor range, where I could use it to put out the warning flags. These were meant to alert passing ramblers of the possibility (or rather likelihood) that they would shortly be sharing their enjoyment of the local rights of way with generous amounts of large calibre, high velocity ammunition.
And so for a quiet day in Derbyshire’s White Peak. Up through Tideswell, through Dovedale and along the Manifold Valley, exiting through the quaint little village of Butterton. What drew me to Butterton was THE FORD. The pinnacle of an exciting day which acted as the catalyst for a later decade of green-laning. Back then the term hadn’t been invented. We just used to call it ‘falling off’. And fall off I did. In the middle of THE FORD. Neatly, smoothly and gracefully.
No real damage except for a broken gear lever. Being an ex-WD bike, this was made of steel, as alloy was in short supply for Spitfires, Hurricanes etc. I managed to get going by replacing it with a pair of mole grips, and arrived home with an hour to spare before I was rumbled.
Luckily I knew there was a spare gearbox in the workshop. I quickly removed the lever and bolted it onto the Matchbox. The only problem was that it was alloy so I rubbed it all over with a dirty carrot to disguise the difference.
And nothing was said. I decided I had got away with it. A couple of weeks later I push-biked up the path, past the workshop and caught the sound of the clicking fastener on the flat belt that drove the lathe. I brewed up and went down with two mugs and assorted biscuits.
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Matchlesses on …
Some innocuous chat ensued, then; ‘What subjects did you study today?’
I reeled them off.
‘Not chemistry then?’
Alarm bells didn’t ring but somewhere at the back of the brain a forgotten solenoid clicked.
‘No – not today. Friday mornings.’
‘Oh right – you looked at alchemy yet?’
‘Not really, I’m not sure it’s part of the course.’
‘Pity. Base metals into gold and all that stuff – pretty useful, but I suppose you’d have to start with something more simple. Like, for instance… steel into alloy.’
And with that he grinned, finished his tea, and went back to machining the Land Rover half-shaft which was shortly to become the barrel of a .38 special.