Blaze of glory:

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...

EDP Norfolk - - Inside - WORDS AND PHO­TOS: Richard Barr

Why a Nor­folk fam­ily bought a 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) “I had a fan­tasy of per­form­ing a heroic deed with the Green God­dess; noth­ing too risky, though; some­thing like ex­tin­guish­ing a lawn mower fire”

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

“We prac­tised un­til the able­bod­ied mem­bers of the fam­ily could have wa­ter spray­ing on the roof in 90 sec­onds”

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 ‘Am­bu­lancechas­ing 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

BE­LOW: Spray­ing the roof

ABOVE: Grenn God­dess equip­ment lock­ers

ABOVE: Green God­dess in its pomp

BE­LOW RIGHT: The ‘por­ta­ble’ pump

BE­LOW: The pump and con­trols

LEFT: The fire the Green God­dess did not put out BE­LOW LEFT: Off to its new home

ABOVE: Bees and the Green God­dess

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