WHILE most individuals return from the Christmas break somewhat refreshed, even if a little groggy, I managed to return to a seven-day week. Five days in the mill and two days in the wagon. The cold, damp weather hasn’t helped either, as I’ve developed pains just below both knees, seemingly in the bones. I’ve attributed this to getting wet feet, despite covering my boots in dubbin almost every day. A quick search on the Net pointed to ‘overwork’, a little worrying for the first week of a new year. The remedy, of course, is either rest or a change of activity to something like swimming or cycling – fat chance of that!

Trying to reduce my workload is proving something of a challenge as I’m not doing this out of greed or micro-management, but out of efficiency. I can get any amount of people to work on a single task, but link the tasks together and expect a little initiative and ‘oh dear’! The situation is no more acute than when doing deliveries. The moment the wagon leaves the yard you’re in the lap of the gods and you have to trust the job will be done safely, legally and on time.

A short time ago I had a model driver who sadly left due to ill health. In the five years she worked at the mill, she never once rang the yard after setting off on a job. If she encountered a problem, she solved it. This took a huge amount of pressure off my shoulders.

The next incomer, however, was a totally different story. Initially, on first impressions, he seemed a safe pair of hands. As a man in his 50s he appeared a ‘Steady Eddy.’ Despite being told never to go off road as it’s a wagon not a tractor, he managed, on the first day, to do just that and became marooned on a golf course. Every day, the wagon would return with some kind of damage; lights missing, bumps and scrapes, cracked wing mirrors and so on. He reversed into numerous gates and gate-posts before progressing to a greenhouse and then, shortly after, a caravan. The end came when I actually witnessed him do a hit and run on a nearby Land Rover and I promptly gave him his marching orders. Needless to say, this is the abridged version.

Forestry Journal: Packs of wood ready for uplift.Packs of wood ready for uplift.

The mayhem of this chap didn’t start and finish with the driving. On one occasion, when I was away from the mill completing my HGV test, I’d left specific instructions with him regarding the securing of a particular load. He arrived at his destination with half the load missing. When I quizzed the lads in the mill as to why they hadn’t checked before he left, they rightly pointed out that they were busy working and anyway, it was his responsibility as the driver to do so. I suppose they had a point. On another occasion, he drove straight through a farmer’s shed and having misjudged the height, he wrecked the superstructure of the vehicle and helped to partly destroy the shed. In the short time he was with us he provided enough material for a book, any serialisation of which would feel like a series of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em starring Michael Crawford (for those with a long memory).

This chap was then followed by another guy who seemed quite capable, but turned out not to have a legitimate licence. The net result is that I’m now running the sawmill Monday to Friday and driving at nights and weekends. My better half is understandably unhappy with the situation, as is my body. It strikes me as bizarre that we live in a society obsessed with health and safety and rules and qualifications, yet good old-fashioned ‘common sense’ appears to be on the wane.

Just before Christmas, I did a biggish order for oak. This was for a town house. I’m generally reluctant to cut green oak for this type of job as, once inside and subject to the ravages of central heating, the oak buckles and twists as it dries out. On this occasion, the oak was being used to build a deck on a veranda and some big chunky stair treads. It was being bolted into position inside a steel frame and although it would shrink slightly, it was unlikely to move. The customer understood this and even wanted it to crack and shake in order to add character.

As it transpired, the customer had really struggled to find a supplier for his requirements, having tried the major timber merchants in the area, and I was very grateful he’d found us as it was quite a lucrative order at an expensive time of the year. After putting a major effort into producing what the customer required, I loaded the oak onto the wagon and set off on the delivery. When I reached my destination, I became aware that there was nowhere to put the oak other than in the upstairs bedroom. There was a telehandler on site, but the property was surrounded by steel scaffolding, making access to the upstairs window very tricky. We could lift these long oak batons up on the telehandler, but then someone would have to lean from the scaffold to swing the batons around, so we could get them through the patio doors where the balcony would be.

In order to do this, a piece of scaffolding bar had been removed, but it meant no one had anything to hold onto while trying to manhandle the batons off the telehandler. One of the lads was trying his best and it looked like something from a Tarzan film as he swung around on the remaining bars. The situation was highly dangerous and I could anticipate a serious accident. I climbed up onto the scaffold and then noticed, to my horror, that the ‘boards’ were made up of 12 mm chipboard and were bending under my weight. Add a 4-metre-long piece of oak and the whole thing was likely to collapse.

At this point I did the sensible thing and took control. We cleared the access of all obstacles and cleared the bedroom into which the oak was to be stored. We reattached the scaffolding poles and doubled the boards with two layers of marine ply. Once the system was organised, we hand-balled the oak into the bedroom, which proved to be a fairly easy task. We were watched throughout by the 12 other tradesmen working on the property, including the two scaffolders who were in the process of leaving.

Forestry Journal: These food troughs are a good example of the diversity of products we have to deliver.These food troughs are a good example of the diversity of products we have to deliver.

As I drove away, I couldn’t help wonder why no-one within the group had offered to take charge. Even the furniture was in situ, covered in dust, being sat on and worked around while interspersed with piles of rubbish. This, I reminded myself, is exactly why I have to get a driver with a bit of common sense.

My next delivery was to a remote farm located on the side of a steep incline. On arrival there was no one to be seen. However, a telehandler had been left strategically nearby with the keys in the ignition – clearly there for my use. It had no glass in any of its windows, no lights, no doors and little sign that it had seen a grease gun for many years. It was parked on a steep slope which suggested something worked, but as soon as I jumped in, the brake pedal bounced uselessly off the metal floor. I had parked the wagon well away just in case and the handbrake did work, but only on the final notch. The engine roared into life and it handled the two heavy packs of timber with ease.

As I drove the old Caterpillar back to her berth, I couldn’t help but admire what a great old beast she was. She exuded quality. When you watch Ice Road Truckers and Building Alaska, everything is Caterpillar. Surely, I thought, someone could apply some grease and fix the brakes, as to replace her would cost about £80k?

My next delivery was to yet another farm, only this time there was a brand new JCB Teletruck to help. It had ‘4WD’ on the side, but when one of the wheels went into a pothole, the other three stopped and the one in the hole kept on spinning. Maybe there was something wrong, but I couldn’t find a button to lock the drive and so was forced to select an even and smooth path to my stacking location – not easy in a farmyard. This situation yet again highlighted the need for a delivery person with common sense; someone who can work things out for themselves.

Talking among my peers, we all seem to be in the same boat. Society has definitely changed. This generation has been raised on computers and mobile phones and is averse to risk. We were raised on tractors, chainsaws and old cars and having to fix things if they broke down – which they usually did. When you fell out of a tree, you picked up speed very rapidly and the landing hurt. You learned! When you were racing your mates on a 250 cc bike and tried to take a corner at 80 mph and came off, you also learned. You learned that it wrecks your bike, you learned that as you enter the field at 80 mph it scares sheep, and you also learned that, had you hit a tree, you’d probably be dead or at least very badly injured. You learned that if you come off your bike in the rain on the cobbles in Alston, then you’ll probably have trouble with your kneecap for the rest of your life. Or, if you drive County Tractors with no handbrake, the riding position of your foot will probably lead to ligament trouble in your leg in later life.

Maybe I should finally learn that being a dinosaur from a bygone era isn’t helping the current situation. If I can’t get any help then perhaps I have to start thinking about doing something else. It’s a big decision and maybe for another day. However, in the meantime, the sun is staring to shine and the days are getting longer and who knows, I may even get out on the Harley!