Chapter 9 – Southampton
From 17th June until 28th October, 1965 I worked as a cartographic draughtsman for the Ordnance Survey at their office in London Road, Southampton. I never intended to stay there long: I wanted to gain some experience before becoming a freelance cartographer. I understood that one could always leave a job, but I didn’t realise how unsatisfactory it was to do this without a reason. Since then I have tried to avoid jobs that look as though they’re going on for a long time. As a result I have had a wide variety of occupations. I have spent more time driving taxis than doing any other sort of work, but I have also been a van driver, chauffeur, courier, forest worker, wood-yard labourer, farm worker, soft-drinks salesman, leaflet distributor, clerk, postman, milkman, street photographer, film extra, broadcaster, river watcher, graphic artist, proof-reader, indexer, illustrator, publisher, cartographer, surveyor and author. In 1989 I was a taxi driver, chauffeur, author, cartographer, illustrator and publisher at the same time.
On 5th September 1965 I saw a notice to say that the inaugural meeting of Southampton Motor Club would be held a few days later. I went along and found myself appointed the editor of the club magazine. I produced the November and December editions; then I left so that I could devote myself exclusively to saving up to buy a rally car. For most of 1966 and 1967 I worked as a taxi driver for Minicabs (Southampton) Ltd from eight o’clock in the morning until half past twelve at night, seven days a week.
The worst mistake I made at Minicabs was to take some passengers to Fawley, a village thirteen miles from Southampton, when they wanted to go to Hamble, a village seven miles from Southampton in the opposite direction. For some reason they waited until we got to Fawley before they pointed out my mistake. The boss couldn’t see how I mixed up the names when they sounded so different, but he didn’t understand how my mind worked. The two names were the same length; they both had an ‘a’ in the first syllable and an ‘le’ in the second; and both villages were situated on estuaries. It was a mistake waiting to happen.
Once, when we were not very busy, I was put in charge of the office. Before long a phone rang and I said ‘Hello, Minicabs’. Then another phone rang, so I put the first phone down, picked up the second one and said ‘Hello, Minicabs’ again. Then the third phone rang. By now I should have learned my lesson and let it ring, but I didn’t have time to think. I lifted up the receiver and said ‘Hello, Minicabs’ a third time. Then the boss’s wife came in and sorted it all out. I was never put in charge of the office again.
My longest run ever was from Southampton to the far west of Pembrokeshire. The British editor of the Irish Post happened to be in Southampton when he learned that an Aer Lingus plane had crashed into the Irish Sea. My longest run from Aberdeen was to Dundee; my longest run from Kendal was to Edinburgh Airport; and my longest run from Bridport was to the village of Olveston near Bristol.
In October, 1965 I bought an old houseboat for £70 and moored it on the mud of the Itchen estuary. The first time it rained I discovered that the roof leaked all over the place. I pinned some waterproof paper to the ceiling, and this kept me dry for nearly a year. I found that the easiest way to travel across the mud was to stand on a sheet of corrugated iron on one foot and kick off with the other. Arthur New, who lived in the houseboat next to mine, made model fairgrounds. He had two sons, both of whom were called Roy. The older one was known as Big Roy and the younger one as Little Roy, but when they grew up Little Roy turned out to be taller than Big Roy.
One of the problems with a houseboat is that you have to spend a lot of time bailing water out with a dustbin. It was pointed out to me that this problem could be avoided by drilling a hole in the side of the boat and closing the hole with a bung. Then, at low tide, you pull the bung out and all the water runs away. It turned out that this was not a good idea, because one day the bung became dislodged and I woke up in the middle of the night with the boat half-full of water. My brother very kindly let me stay in his house while I dried out all my possessions.
From March, 1967 until October, 1969 I rented part of the Grange, a Grade II listed mansion in the Southampton suburb of Swaythling. There was no electricity or sanitation, which meant that the rent was cheap, and, because nobody else would want to live there, I wasn’t depriving anyone of a home. The house was old and rambling and ramshackle, and full of junk. Among the interesting things I came across when I moved in were reindeer antlers, buffalo horns, scrap books from 1830 and 1915 and a collection of old maps of Southampton going back to 1611. Later I found an old fur-bound book of photographs showing the Grange in its former glory all brightly painted and intact, when the wilderness was lawn and a swing hung from the horse chestnut tree. The path to my front door was inclined to be muddy, and I covered parts of it with gravel that I had carried from the adjoining stream in a bucket. Outside one of my windows was a beautiful magnolia tree. Once, while I was living there, the Southampton Motor Club held an autocross and didn’t have a Union Jack to start the race, so I asked my landlady whether there was one amongst all the junk in the Grange, and sure enough she found one! The song that I associate with the Grange is ‘The Spinning Wheel’.
According to the Hampshire volume of The King’s England by Arthur Mee, the Grange was once the home of Richard Cromwell, but I have not been able to find any references to this elsewhere. According to other sources he lived six miles away at Hursley Park, where my niece Sarah-Jane started working in 1995.
In August, 1968 I went to Winchester and discovered Cheyney Court, one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. Other discoveries of this type I have made include Lavenham (1959), Hawkshead (1978), Berkeley Castle (1979), Chipping Camden (1984), Port Isaac (1986), Robin Hood’s Bay (1994) and Dent (1999).
In May, 1970 I went up St Catherine’s Hill near Winchester, where I had always meant to go since I saw it from the train on the way to the Isle of Wight in 1953. I also visited the gatehouse of Hyde Abbey to which the Grange was attached when it was first built and where King Alfred was buried.
In January, 1968 I went to Stewart and Ardern in London and ordered a green Mini Cooper S for £790. When I collected it I took it to the B.M.C. Special Tuning Department in Abingdon to be prepared for rally driving. In my student days I competed in rallies that depended mostly on the navigator. Now that I had my own car I concentrated on rallies that were won on the special stages, and these depended on the driver.
The most important event I entered was the Scottish International Rally. I was in a team with Charlie Miller, who was leading the Scottish rally championships at the time, and Nick Britain, who was the Rally Editor of the magazine Motor. I didn’t deserve to be in such distinguished company, for I failed to finish the rally because of mechanical trouble, and on none of the stages was I in the top third. Ten months after that I decided that I was never going to make a rally driver, and I sold my car.
Some years later I came across a machine designed to test people’s reaction times. To be a good rally driver you need to have fast reactions, but the machine told me that mine were exceptionally slow. Then I remembered playing snap when I was young. Cards from the top of a pack would be turned over one at a time, and if a two was followed by another two or a jack by another jack and so on we put our hands on the pack and said ‘snap’. The winner was the player who did it first. I always lost. It is not surprising that I was no good as a rally driver!
Kemp’s Aerial Surveys
On 7th August, 1968 I started consulting the Southern Evening Echo to look for a suitable job. On the very first day I read about a vacancy for a cartographical draughtsman at Kemp’s Aerial Surveys, which was based at Southampton Airport, less than a mile from my home! I started work six weeks later. Among the projects I worked on was the construction of a new London underground line called the Fleet Line, which was later to be renamed the Jubilee Line. I remember that there was a lady at Kemp’s called Jean who married a Mr Jean, and so her name became Jean Jean.
On 21st February, 1969 I received a note in my pay packet to say that I had been made redundant and given a week’s notice. All the drawing office and field staff had been sacked except four. Nobody had any idea why, and nobody could see how those four were going to cope with all the work. Within half an hour of receiving the letter one of the draughtsmen announced that he had got a job with Cartographic Services at Landford Manor. The following Saturday I had a look at the manor. It was absolutely isolated, midway between Southampton and Salisbury. It was even nicer than the Grange, and bigger. The front was Georgian, and the rest Elizabethan, with beautiful stone-mullioned windows. I read in the public library in Salisbury that its history went back to Saxon times. A few days later I went there again and applied for a job. They gave me some work which they estimated would take me about ten hours. It took me twenty hours and fifty minutes, but I was only paid for the ten hours. Three months later I went back to work for Kemps, where I was paid for the actual time the work took. This suggests to me that when I was at Kemps I was paid roughly twice what I was worth.
From the 9th to the 13th of May, 1969 I travelled round the country looking for somewhere to live, preferably with a beautiful view. On my way I discovered Chester, Edinburgh and the countryside around Church Stretton. On 27th September I bought a motor caravan, the first of the eight that I was to own throughout my life, and I set off again, adding Ludlow, Shrewsbury and Tewkesbury to the list of my favourite places. When I was on the Stiperstones I found an empty cottage 1350 feet above sea level. From there I set off across the moors and came across what I thought was an identical cottage on the other side. Then I realised that it was the same one, and that I had gone round in a circle. I didn’t think that it was possible to do this. When I got back I resumed work with Kemps and continued sleeping in the motor caravan, which was parked outside the office.
On 16th May, 1970 I went with my parents to High Wych church near Bishop’s Stortford and found the graves of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents, all of whom died before I was born. After that we looked for the cottage in Durrel’s Wood where my great-grandfather lived when he was the gamekeeper for Stansted Hall, and where my grandmother was born, but we couldn’t find it. Then an old lady invited us into Stansted Hall, where we located the cottage from a map on the wall, so we went back and photographed it. It was in a beautiful situation nearly a mile from the nearest house. Later I learned that the cottage had been demolished to make room for the new railway to Stansted Airport.
At the end of 1966, after my houseboat sank, I replaced my scrap book with three new volumes in the form of large guard books with green covers.
Volume 1 consists of 22 pages from the original scrap book, 58 pages of maps and drawings that I have produced, 60 pages of Bumff Board editorials and 58 pages of other things that I have written.
Volume 2 consists of 44 pages relating to rallies I have organised, 9 pages relating to magazines I have produced, 67 pages from my collection of student periodicals, 12 pages of contributions to the Bumff Board, 9 pages relating to school, 44 pages relating to college and 23 pages relating to university. There are also press cuttings in which I am mentioned, printed maps, rally results, photographs, membership cards, headed notepaper, licences and library tickets.
Volume 3 consists of items that there weren’t room for in Volumes 1 and 2, with later additions, including my collection of matchbox labels.