Trade Plating Around England, Part Eleven

Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash

This time, Security & breathalysers, Southampton, tracked vehicles and a sad tale.

Brief recap, I spent two and a half years trade plating round England with the occasional foray into Scotland and Wales.

On any night there can be up to forty cars left in the yard, the keys are kept in a “key room” along with all the trade plates. During the days, a lot of the drivers cars are parked up as well. Security has got to play a big part in the company’s procedures. The website states that they have CCTV and 24hour security on site. There are cameras all round the site including looking at the only way in and out. The steel gate is locked by the last person to leave the office and only regular drivers have keys to open it. The same key also unlocks the padlock on the steel door to the key room. There is also a magnetic lock and  keyfob system to get into the key room so the office can monitor who unlocks the door. Cameras are also fitted outside and inside. The inside one is to check the times that drivers sign in and out to make sure they aren’t fiddling the times they put down on the “sign in” sheet.

About fifteen feet from the key room and in a corner of the yard is an old portacabin. It originally was the office but two newer portacabins had been setup nearer the gates. This old portacabin was now the home of the “security guard”, who provided the night time cover. The reality was that the security guard was a driver, Russell, who lived in the portacabin rent free in exchange for opening up the gate for drivers who didn’t have a key. The only problem was that he was very fond of a drink or three and if he fell into a drink induced sleep then there was very little chance of him hearing you either peeping your horn or phoning him. Drivers without keys had to hope that another driver may arrive with keys to let them in. The last resort was to ring the night phone and they would grudgingly call another driver who lived nearby to come and open the gate. I arrived back at the yard one night just as the other driver who had been called out arrived to unlock the gate for an agency driver with no key. I got out my vehicle and was unlocking the gate as he came down the lane on a bike. He was wobbling all over the place, he looked absolutely plastered. He cycled up to the now open gate, pulled the brakes on, and forgot to put his foot down to steady himself. He just fell to one side still holding on to the handlebars. We disentangled him from the bike and sat him and old tyre that was used to hold the gate open during the day. Eventually he stood up, called everyone round him “f*cking b*stards for wasting his time, got back on his bike and wobbled off back up the lane.

On one morning I had a 05.30 start from the yard. The gate was usually opened by the first driver to leave the yard at around 04.30 and I drove straight in. Oddly the car belonging to Pete, the main man was parked next to the office, I had never seen his car left in the yard overnight and I guessed that it had broken down the night before. There was a group of drivers standing around as normal, as soon as I had my plates I joined them. Amongst them was one of the bosses from the agency. They turn up every so often to meet with Pete to discuss any issues with the agency drivers or to make sure a new driver knows what to do. Everybody looks a bit sombre and no one was saying much. Pete sticks his head out of the office door and calls me in, “he didn’t break down then, what’s going on”, I thought as I walked in. He was back inside the office and looking at me through the hatch. “Blow into this” he said thrusting what looked like a packet of cigarettes with a tube on the top. “What is it”, I asked, “Breathalyser, we are testing everyone this morning”. “I hope that’s a clean tube then” I said, “I don’t want to put my lips round anything that someone else has had in their mouth.” “It’s a new one each time, now blow”. I did as requested knowing that it would come back negative. “You’re clear” he said. “Nothing personal, everyone is being done this morning”. I went back outside to join the group outside. “One agency driver has been caught this morning and is now banned from site” said one of the others. Hence the boss from the agency. “What about Russell, has he been done”. “He has the day off, no driving for him today, he is still asleep”. “Just as well” said someone else, “that would leave them without any security if he got caught.”

Later that morning as I’m driving I wonder if the breathalyser was brought out on a day they knew that Russell was not working.  Later I found out that one of the self employed had also been caught still over the limit. The breathalyser test was then done on a random but regular basis, whilst I was there no one else was ever caught.

I had a run down to Southampton Docks in a top end Mercedes that was due to be exported to Cyprus. All I had was the name of the shipping company and Gate 10 as the entrance, no phone number to call up if I couldn’t find them. TomTom could only give me directions to the gate and no further. Hopefully someone there would point me in the right direction. With all the breathalyser interruptions, it was after 06.00 when I finally got going, I was going to get stuck in all the traffic round Coventry and Oxford. The police are very sneaky, as you go round Oxford on the A34 at the Botley Interchange, there is a section of the road where the speed limit drops from 70 to 50mph. The police sit on the roundabout above the road just as the speed limit drops catching those drivers who are slow to react to the change. It’s almost 10.00 when I arrive at Gate 10. The security office is set between an “in” and “out” pair of barriers and I pull up at the window. I say where I am to drop off the car and I am given directions to the shipping company’s compound. Driving round docks is a different experience, there are all types of vehicles moving around in all directions, lots of cargo and containers being moved about. I pass one of the cruise terminals where an enormous ship is tied up. They always look top heavy. I find the compound and drive in through open gates and park up next to a 1960’s red soft top Alfa Romeo. There is a portacabin with a sign above reading “Stevedores”, there is no other office type place so I head over and go inside. There is a counter and an open plan office with several people there, some in Hi-viz  some in normal clothes. A Hi-viz heads over to me and asks what I want, I tell him I’m dropping off a car, “Where’s it going”, “Cyprus” I reply, “Where is it”, “Next to the Alfa in the compound”. “Keys and paperwork”, this guy is obviously a man of few words. “Do you want to check it over before you sign for it” I ask. “Nope, we don’t sign anything”, with that, I left him the keys and paperwork but told him I was going to take a photo of them on the counter with your office in the background to cover myself. There was no reply but he did give me time to take a pic before he swept them off the counter. I went outside and decided to take a few more pics with the car in the compound just to be on the safe side.

I was going to have to walk back out of the docks to get to a bus stop for my next collection on the outskirts of Southampton. It seemed very strange that here I was, in Southampton Docks having got in easily and now walking back towards the gates with little or no security. I’m sure that if I had a mind to it I could have easily found my way into the more secure areas of the docks.

There are very few pavements, only a white line painted on the road surface, however there are vehicles parked everywhere making it easier to walk along the road moving to the side when a vehicle is approaching. As I turned left at the end of a row of low dock warehouses I saw the impressive building that was once the Rank Hovis flour mills, It is a huge building painted white with the company name still painted, but now fading, along the top of the building. How it survived the German bombings can only be put down to good luck. On leaving the docks, It was another mile to walk to the bus stop and a bus out to the collection. It was a car going to Exeter. I didn’t have long to wait and I was at the collection and had the paperwork done by 12.15. The run over to Exeter was a pleasant drive through the New Forest to start off with and then a lot of countryside. With the car dropped off, I have to walk around half a mile to Exeter St. Davids station for the train to Exmouth for my last job of the day. Pick up car going back to the yard. The trains to Exmouth are roughly every half hour and I’m in no rush. It a little two coach train that stops every few minutes and after five stops I arrive in Exmouth. The station is fairly close to the coast and on getting out you can hear the seagulls calling and smell the sea. Exmouth is built on a hill, not a great hill, but enough to feel it as you are walking up it. I had rung the customer earlier and the car was out on the street awaiting my arrival. A brand new car was on the drive. Quickly sorted and the offer of a coffee gladly accepted I was soon on my way back, if all goes smoothly then I should be back by 20.30.

Another bread and butter job was inter branch transfers of vehicles for a large plant hire company with depots all over the country. It could be anything from a maintenance fitters van up to a directors car. Whenever someone left or joined there was usually a vehicle movement involved as well as the regular return of vehicles to head office for storage or disposal and new vehicles to be delivered. On all our job sheets there was always a line that read “Drive courteously. Most vehicles are tracked. All aspects of driving are monitored, in particular speed and braking.

In most cases it wasn’t true, however with this company it was true and it was rigorously policed. If anyone went above 70mph, broke the speed limit, was continually breaking sharply or accelerating to quickly there would be a phone call to the office, sometimes whilst the journey was still ongoing. Every car was monitored 24/7 with reports being generated every time a parameter was exceeded. Everyone was forewarned about the company, the self employed hated doing these jobs as there was no opportunity for them to speed if on the motorway, thus it fell mainly to the agency drivers, some of them didn’t care and were soon moved on to other work.

A large amount of the top of the range cars have trackers fitted during manufacture. The customers are not told that they are fitted and they are only ever activated if the car has been sold or leased directly by the manufacturer. If the customer defaults on the payments and attempts to make them pay or surrender the car have failed and the finance company has been to court to recover the car, they can then turn on the tracking to locate the car and send in bailiffs to retrieve it.

The jobs for the following day had just arrived by email and the day looked OK. A car from the yard over to Stoke on Trent, public transport to Newtown in Wales and a Fiat Ducato van to be delivered to near Glastonbury followed by a car from Bristol going to Leeds but probably ending up back at the yard. 07.30 start and I am dropping off in Stoke just as the garage opens up. The walk to the train station in Stoke is two miles away and a good half hours walk. The train goes at 09.04 and 09.44, the earlier one looks doubtful so I will have plenty of time for a coffee. As I am walking to the station, the office call telling me that the second job has been cancelled. The River Severn has flooded roads around Newtown and there is no way to collect the vehicle. “What next then” I ask, “give us ten minutes” was the stock reply. I carried on walking towards the station knowing that it would be more than ten minutes and I could wait with a coffee. An hour later they call back asking where I am and that another driver would pick me up and take me to Bristol. Lazlo is the driver picking me up, he has picked up a truck in Warrington going to Weston Super Mare. I tell him I will wait at the end of the road near the station. It’s not much of a detour for him, off at one junction on the M6 and back on at the next one down. He picks me up around 11.30, I climb up to join him in the cab, he’s one of those drivers who would work all the hours available and never turns down a job. During the journey down, he tells me that he is saving as much money as he can so that he can either buy or build a house in his home country when he goes back. Three hours later He drops me off outside my final job and I thank him for the lift. The run up to Leeds is nearly four hours so I check with the office and as I thought, the car is to go back to the yard and someone else will finish the job the next day.

A couple of weeks later I get the Newtown to near Glastonbury job again, however this time there are no other jobs on the sheet, just that one. There is a note on the email. “Yemi will take you to Shrewsbury station, Get the train to Newtown. 05.30 start.” There was nothing about other jobs or how I was to get back from there.

Yemi was a well rounded west African whose accent was so strong, it made it difficult to understand him at times. We chatted for a bit and then fell into silence during which I nodded off a few times. There was a train at 07.30 which I was aiming for and he made it with plenty of time to spare. I bought a ticket and a coffee, the train was going from Birmingham to Aberystwyth so I had to make sure I didn’t doze off again on the way. I had checked the night before for bus times from the centre of Newtown to the collection point and Google didn’t have any information, it didn’t have any bus times for the drop off either but as I didn’t know what the office had planned I thought I would sort that out en-route. I walked into the town and found where the buses stopped, according to the boards there were two different bus companies operating in the area. When a bus pulled in I asked the driver if there were buses running to where I wanted to go. “No” was his reply. When I had arrived in Newtown it had just started to rain and now it was getting heavier. I didn’t fancy a two mile walk in the rain so I rang the customer, I had sent a text over the night before saying I would be collecting in the morning and the reply had come back saying OK. I rang and a lady answered the phone, I could tell by her voice that she was elderly, I said who I was and asked her if she knew of any buses that passed near her house. She thought for a moment and she also said no. She asked me where I was and I gave her my location. She said she would be there in fifteen minutes to pick me up. I asked for the reg no. of her car and thanked her, I stayed in the bus shelter until she arrived. When going over the paperwork the previous evening I looked at the registration number and thought it was either a private plate or an error by the office as it started with an “F” followed by three numbers and three letters. Whilst waiting I also thought what an elderly lady would be doing with a Fiat Ducato van. Once picked up I said that it was my job a couple of weeks ago but it was cancelled. She said there was no way in or out for days. As we drove up towards her house, a feeling of dread started to creep in, the only thing in the street that looked remotely like a van, was a very old camper van sat on a driveway. Sure enough, the lady pulled onto the drive next to a 1987 Fiat Ducato camper van. I thought, “will this make it to its destination”, I hoped it would. On getting out, I was offered a cup of tea which I gladly accepted. She opened the door to the house and passed me the keys to the van while she went off to make the tea. I opened up the camper and started to do my checks I did the interior checks and was doing the outside when she returned with the tea and some biscuits. I thanked her and she disappeared back inside the house. Doing the outside checks in the rain is not easy, getting decent pics of any damage to the bodywork is difficult when there is rain running down the side of the camper. Back inside the van to drink my tea, I look round and she has left a CD player and a box of CD’s on a shelf, On opening one of the cupboards there are cups and saucers, plates and cutlery, another cupboard has pots and pans, it’s like they just came back from a trip and left the camper. The glovebox is full of maps. Having drunk my tea I knock on the door to let her know about the stuff left inside. She comes to the door and I tell her what I have found. “I know” she says and goes on to tell me what had happened. She and her husband owned the camper from new and had been all over the UK and Europe in it, It was their pride and joy. Her husband, she said, had a heart attack and died not long after they had finished their last trip. She had not been inside since he died. I asked if she wanted me to take everything out for her. “No, I want it all gone, I don’t need anything from the camper van to remind me of the times we had together.” The van was going to an agent who would sell it on her behalf taking a commission for himself. I felt quite sad for the lady and tried to be as sympathetic as I could be while finishing off. She handed me a ring binder with every bill and receipt for the camper. I thanked her for the tea and asked her if she would be OK once I left. She said she would and was in some ways glad that it was going. I said goodbye and she went into the house, I don’t think she watched out the window as I drove off.

The camper van drove remarkably well for being nearly 35 years old, it didn’t like to go much above 50mph so I kept it at that once I got onto the motorway. It surprised me by running faultlessly all the way down to the drop off. I got to where TomTom told me the drop off was but I couldn’t find anywhere that looked like the right place. I was in a hamlet with a church, a few houses and some farm buildings. I pulled into a driveway to call in for directions, The guy who answered the phone said he could see me and that I was across the road from a farm track that would take me round the back of one of the houses to his workshops. Sure enough, there were several campers and a large workshop where he refurbished new arrivals. I asked him if there was any value in the aged Fiat I had just delivered, he assured me that once it had been through his workshop there would be people scrambling for it.

On the way down I had phoned the office to find out what was happening once I had dropped off the camper van, “We’ll get back to you as soon as we know”. I was offered a lift into Glastonbury which I gladly accepted, he said he did it for all the drivers as there is no public transport. On the way I asked him if the site of the Glastonbury festival was nearby, “no, it’s eight miles away on the other side, it’s nearer to Shepton Mallet than Glastonbury, It’s a pain in the arse” was his not to complimentary reply. He dropped me off in the centre of the town and I took a few minutes to get my bearings, I found the bus stop, spotted a cafe and some outdoor seats to sit and watch the world go by. Glastonbury is a strange place, alongside the type of shops you would see in any small town were an array of “new age” shops selling crystals, stones, incense and cannabis related paraphernalia. It was the same with people, typical country types and a mixture of hippies and goths. At 12.00 I called the office back and was told that there was no jobs and no one local. I suggested that I make my way to Bristol during which time they might come up with a plan. This was agreed and I headed to the bus stop I had seen earlier. There was a bus at 12.30 which got into Bristol at 14.00. Once in Bristol, I headed to Temple Meads station for more coffee and hopefully another job. The office had still not come up with anything. At 16.00 they rang and said there was a driver coming up from Exeter and he would pick you up. They sent over the driver details, it was Russell who doubled up as the night time security in the yard, and I gave him a call. The office had already spoken to him and he was waiting for my call. He asked where I was and when I said Temple Meads Station he said there was no way he was coming into Bristol at rush hour to pick me up. I asked him what time he would be at Bristol. “About five thirty”. “What about Cribbs Causeway, the shopping centre just of the M5” I suggested. We agreed on this and checking on Google maps, there was a bus that would get me there at just about the right time. It was a busy bus that stopped every couple of minutes, standing room only for part of the journey. It was nearly 18.45 when I got off the bus. I called him again to find out where he was and he said which car park he was in. I walked round till I found the car park and then looked for the car he was in. I got into the passenger seat and asked him if he wanted me to drive. He said he was OK and as we drove up the M5 I relayed just how crap my day had been. We were back just after 20.00. At work for fourteen and a half hours and only driven for around 3–4 of those. Once I had dropped off my plates and signed out, I drove home thinking of the sad old lady and her camper van.

Next time, Security vans, a trip to Rochester and a stranger in my own country.

© 10210ken 2023