Clifford Abbott: common sense, mechanical aptitude and bicycles.

IMG_5760  Clifford Abbott, October 2019

Four or five years ago, new neighbours moved into the house next door to my mother, Jean Mayes[1], in Grimston Lane. With a considered nod, she declared herself well pleased with their arrival for they had been known to her for some years; every confidence was expressed concerning their ability to be good neighbours. In short, she liked them both. The newcomers, were Clifford and Sandra Abbott, formerly of Blacksmith’s Cottage Falkenham. With no perceptible effort on their part they slipped into our tiny community quietly and with plenty of amiability. Our particular stretch of Grimston Lane is now excommunicated from the long stretch leading to Grimston Hall, due to the closure of the pedestrian crossing earlier this year. You could say we are a niche community nowadays as no one comes down our broken part of the lane without a good reason; being a good neighbour is perhaps even more important now.   It takes time to develop a solid relationship and with good humour, the two households began to learn about each other as well as the necessity to jog along comfortably together. Readers may recall I interviewed Sandra earlier this year and it had been at the back of my mind to ask Clifford if I could also talk to him at some point. This week the opportunity arose and it was a case of, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” It was also a case of cometh the bicycle for this method of transport has figured large in Clifford’s life.

When we sat down together, Clifford began at the beginning, telling me about himself with modesty and good humour. There is a three generation connection to Newbourne where his grandfather took up a small holding in 1945 which he held until his retirement in 1962. Clifford’s father, Walter Abbott, spent much of his working life in Newbourne[2] and his son described him as something of a bright spark.  He believed his father would have liked to have been a mechanic but instead his parents sent him out to work in Newton, in old West Suffolk. Later, he became a staff member of the Land Settlement Association (L.S.A)[3] and as a consequence, Newbourne was to be Clifford’s birthplace in 1948. The Second World War had not long finished, clothes and food were still rationed. Clifford recalled his mother acquired a parachute and used it to make clothes, possibly for himself. When Walter’s funeral was held, a kit bag with part of the parachute was displayed next to the bier.

Because Walter was on the staff of the L.S.A.,  he was moved to other settlements in England. And if Walter moved, then so did all the family, including Clifford. Firstly, at the age of four to Chawston in Bedford and then later at the age of thirteen he moved to Dalston, near Carlisle, in Cumberland. As a schoolboy in Bedford, he recalled cycling up the A1 to school. Even in the late fifties, the traffic on the A1 was challenging despite the speed restriction of twenty mile per hour for lorries and school when he reached it, was described as “chronic”. Statutory education was not a comfortable environment for the growing boy, Considering the young Clifford’s dexterity in taking things apart, there would seem to have been an absence of perception on the part of his primary school teachers because significantly, he could also manage to put them back together again. Maybe the opportunity to observe this skill never arose in the vicinity of his teachers for he was never accorded any recognition for his aptitude with spatial awareness and the operation of mechanical technology. It was not until the family moved to Cumberland, his potential was glimpsed, thereby giving hope for the future.

After three years in Cumberland, his father Walter realised his job was not going anywhere and the decision was made to move back to his father’s settlement in Newbourne to be near “the olds”. Having left school in1964, maybe with a sigh or two of relief, the next move was the omnipresent world of work. Things mechanical were his calling and for a scant three months, Clifford began his career by cycling to work at the now defunct Bull Motors[4], on Foxhall Road in Ipswich. It was short lived because as he couldn’t tolerate working indoors all day, he left. His next career move was to prove more successful when he started working for Melton Engineering, now known as Thurlow, Nunn and Standen[5]. One again, he cycled to work and also as a young apprentice whose block release training was based in Witnesham, it was the bicycle that got him there. Could he remember the route he took? Probably via Humber Doucy Lane, he thought. His four year apprenticeship course was in agricultural mechanics and he finally completed the course in 1969.  Clifford’s studying included welding because he was told,

“If you can weld, it helps!”

and his work involved working on farms within a twenty mile radius of his work place. All of which was an extensive experience and workload.

The end product of all this hard work was a highly successful.  Formal education had finally come through for Clifford and with it significant recognition. He gained a First in Agricultural Machinery and was awarded First Prize. This took the tangible form of a bronze medallion. As a City and Guilds graduate, the beautiful and prestigious medallion bears the impressed Coats of Arms of the most important of the one hundred and ten Livery companies[6] of London.  Engraved on the reeded edge of the medallion is Clifford’s name and details his first prize award.

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The bronze medallion awarded by the City and Guilds Institute to Clifford as part of his First Prize.

IMG_5752  Clifford Abbott’s success as reported in the East Anglian Daily Times in 1969

 Clifford remained with Melton Engineering until 1972 when he moved and started work for Mann Egerton on Princes Street. Clifford can recall the changes taking place in Ipswich at that time when the Willis Faber Dumas building was constructed as well as the Wolsey Theatre, the underused Greyfriars complex and the restaurant under the roundabout which has now been filled in. He remained at Mann Egerton for nine years, until 1981. His work involved running the Horticultural workshop, servicing garden machinery. By now, such was his skill and expertise, he had two members of staff under him and could call on the services of any available apprentices.

During this time other important things happened, not least of which was his engagement and marriage to Sandra[7]. By this stage in the conversation, aspects of Clifford’s understated and rather quirky sense of humour began to emerge. With regard to the engagement, everything was done according to the rules of propriety at the time. Sandra’s father was approached for permission to speak to Sandra; permission was granted; the question was popped; Sandra graciously agreed to marry Clifford.  But as an added fillip, Clifford had also asked for Sandra’s parents’ permission to place his engagement gift in her bed. The gift? A garden spade and fork. Unused, I assume and immensely practical.  And then, they married. Children arrived. Following the introduction of wedding anniversaries, he followed up his practical garden engagement gift with one which commemorated Sandra. He purchased a tractor or more specifically, a Fergusson Grey Gold, which was very nearly of the same vintage year as Sandra herself.

But to return to the world of work. By 1981, he was becoming frustrated by workshop based work and he decided to bite the bullet and become self-employed. During this period, he started to carry out work for Notcutts until eventually they offered him a job. He remained there for twenty years working on estate maintenance and all things mechanical that came his way.

“…I had an apprentice, P.J. Williams who was especially good. He went on to specialise in older machinery…”

Notcutts was an old-fashioned company when Clifford started working there but gradually it moved on, introducing modern management techniques. His time there was productive but he remembered one Boss who may not have had as much common sense as Clifford. It was Clifford who pointed out something to him that a particular something was nonsensical for as he said,

“Suffolk people don’t suffer fools gladly.”

The disagreement between them disagreement culminated in a written warning but Clifford remained in situ. The incident highlighted his sublimely common sense approach to work and his unique provision of practical solutions to things which required them.

 This is evident in some of the situations he described. One of these was at the Chelsea Flower Show when the garden being created required the construction of a dead tree bearing a swing. It was Clifford who pointed out the structure needed a counter balance to prevent it, from falling over if Felicity Kendall was to sit on it. Apparently, his observation was successful because she did. Another of his bright ideas was the remarkable Removable Gate Post. When he first mentioned this I have to confess, confusion filled my mind.

“…A round post in a square pole…”

was his succinct description. “What?”, I rather crudely and ignorantly thought; Clifford kindly proceeded to enlighten me as follows.

We’re all familiar with farm gates and the necessity for having them, although sometimes the width of them is insufficient for the width of vehicles accessing the field beyond. You may wish to access the field through a small gate if you are on foot or a larger one if you are on a tractor, for example. But suppose it was a larger vehicle such as a combine harvester. Ideally, you would want both the spaces of pedestrian and farm gate but only for occasional use. Why not have a removable gate post which would provide a temporary solution? Clifford made them. He made a modified clapping post which is the gate the shuts onto as opposed to the hanging post which is the one the gate is hinged upon. (I think I have explained this correctly.) The finished product was exhibited at the Suffolk Show  and he thinks he received a cash award for this common sense idea which had never been thought of before. It was successful and published in the Profi Farm Machinery[8] magazine and also in Farmer’s Weekly.

“Wait a minute! I think I have the publicity we used for the Show…”

 I waited. And yes, there it was. The simple ingenuity of the gate was obvious.  The square around the tubular post with a flange steadies it in the square hole. The explanation below on the time-stained posters explains how it works.

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IMG_5756 Posters of the removable gate post. Courtesy Clifford Abbott.

Clifford’s skills continued onwards and are now deployed in the domestic sphere. Following the move to Grimston Lane from Blacksmith’s Cottage in Falkenham, the Abbott’s Welsh Dresser didn’t quite fit its appointed spot in the dining room. Remedial work was required and it has now been reduced in depth by four inches; a great practical solution and all his own work.  I could also mention how Clifford packed Sandra’s Fascinator for a recent trip to Italy but would it break the bounds of decency? Perhaps, depending on your sensitivities, so let’s leave it there..

To return to the Bicycle and the year 1990. How do Anneka Rice and Clifford share a space in the same sentence? The answer is that although they have never met, her visit to Edradour Distillery in Perthshire[9] lit a spark in him. Inspired by the scenes of Edradour, he decided he would like to do a cycle ride all around Scotland touching base with as many distilleries as possible in the Highlands and Islands. This was a solo project; Sandra remained at home. He took himself and the bike to Glasgow by train and set of through the Gorbels and along the Banks of Loch Lomand to Pitlochry, taking two days to complete this stretch. He was away for a fortnight and during that time cycled at least six hundred miles. He reached Edradour and then headed due west and over to the beautiful but bleak Rannoch Moor, famous setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, “Kidnapped”; Clifford was touching the bottom of the cloud base. He reached the remote station of Corrour on the Crianlarich-to-Fort William/Mallaig branch of the Western Highland Line and then he and his bike took the train to Roy Bridge, where midges were rampant. On he went to Oban, Isla and Kintyre where he spent a damp day whose conclusion was to be the start of nearly a year’s worth of illness.

He discovered a tick on his body and instantly removed it but it would seem the damage was done. Mostly ticks are harmless but if they have already come into contact with an infected animal, the infection may be passed on causing Lyme’s Disease[10]. Although it was never fully diagnosed, it seems likely this was the cause of intense illness and eleven months spent in hospital during 1990 and 1991. His time was spent in Ipswich Hospital and Hammersmith Hospital. He was released, while still ill from the latter and in the absence of ambulances had to organise his own way home to Ipswich and Falkenham. This was only achieved through the kindness of a friend. According to Clifford, it was a time when the whole village of Falkenham pulled together, caring not only for himself but also for Sandra and their children.  He was also fortunate as his Notcutts, his employers also stood by him during the long period of sickness.

Clifford returned to work eventually, continuing for another ten years and finally finishing in 2001. What happened next? His bicycle is still in evidence. Grandchildren, practical work in his ‘workshop’ are still part of his life. His rare quality of good common sense remains very much to the fore. Behind him lie long lines of agricultural machinery, tractors, bicycles, lawn mower and other mechanical tools. He continues to produce practical solutions to life’s everyday technical problems with modesty and good humour.

And next time you are out walking, look for any of Clifford’s remarkable removable gates. Who knows where they are?

IMG_5755 One of the original photographs of a removable gate post.

 

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If you have any comments or would like to be part of this Trimley St. Martin project, please contact me at:

trimleystmartinrecorder@gmail.com

LR  11/10/2019

[1] Jean Mayes, former Trimley resident (Born 16th December 1925, moved to Trimley St. Martin, August 1964, Died 31st July 2019)

[2] For the few of you who have not yet heard of “Newbourne in Short Trousers” by Leigh Belcher, this excellent book is your first call should you wish to learn more about the Land Settlement Association.

Newbourne in short trousers.  Belcher, Leigh. 099307460X   Half-Pint Publishing    2014

Available from Suffolk Libraries.

[3] https://lsact.wordpress.com/history/

[4] https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Bull_Motors

[5] http://www.tnsgroup.co.uk

[6] http://liverydatabase.liverycompanies.info/static/livery_companies.html?sortorder=Precedence

[7] https://trimleystmartinrecordersblog.com/2019/01/17/one-hundred-years-of-connection-trimley-st-martins-school-and-sandra-abbott/

[8] https://www.profi.co.uk/magazine

[9] The original show containing Edradour Distillery was first shown on 23rd March 1989 on Channel 4.

[10] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/lyme-disease/

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