Monday, 19 September 2011

Nottingham Central Fire Station - Tour Review

September 8-11 this year was "Heritage Open Days Weekend". This is an annual event which, according to the website,
"celebrates England’s fantastic architecture and culture by offering free access to properties that are usually closed to the public or normally charge for admission. Every year on four days in September, buildings of every age, style and function throw open their doors, ranging from castles to factories, town halls to tithe barns, parish churches to Buddhist temples. It is a once-a-year chance to discover hidden architectural treasures and enjoy a wide range of tours, events and activities which bring to life local history and culture."

Having only heard about the event a few days beforehand, BFTF had a quick look through the listings and found that there were oodles of events around Nottingham. Oooh, which one to go to, decisions, decisions. But when BFTF saw that tours of the Central Fire Station were being held on the Saturday, it was clear that search was over. . .

Saturday soon came around and BFTF plus kids found themselves at the entrance to the station, along with about 15 other members of the public. The tour was conducted by David Needham, a retired Fireman and was fascinating. So fascinating that it is probably best to break it down into parts.

The Building
The Fire Station was built in 1940, but you would not think it to look at the style of the interior, which is full of art deco touches from the 1920's. It felt a little bit like being in the skyscraper from King Kong, or as Dave Needham commented, being in a Hercule Poirot movie.

Two stone lions (again very much in art deco style) adorn the stair handrails on the first floor. One asleep and one awake they represent the two watches (shifts) of the station.

Gordon Bennet, that was a tough shift, time to turn in for the night

Grrrrr, just 5 more minutes sleep please

The bays where the Fire Engines live are full of little reminders from years gone by such as the floor covers that covered electrical leads previously used to keep the engines warm and ready to go, or the small named hooks on the doors for fire crew leaders long since departed. The brickwork surrounding this area has had numerous lumps knocked out of it, described by Dave as "the signatures of our less skilled drivers"

" the signatures of our less skilled drivers"

The Station has a number of levels below ground and one of these houses the social club. The walls here are decorated with all manner of fire fighting memorabilia, including pennants from fire crews around the world. On one side of the room is a large wooden wheel, perhaps 1.5m in diameter, with wooden spokes radiating from the central axle. It looks for all the world like something that belongs in the 19th century, along with Queen Victoria and flintlock rifles.

Last used in the 1890s, 1930s or 1980s?

But no, it turns that this is one of two wheels that were attached to ladders used on "pump escape" vehicles (like this) up to as late as 1987.

The station also has an air raid shelter that was used during WWII by non-essential station staff and by local residents. Dave described how these shelters could only protect the people inside to a certain degree and that a large calibre bomb would typically penetrate the ground to the depth of the shelter and then detonate, with predictably devastating consequences. This actually happened to another shelter in the city and Dave described how the casualty list made very sad reading, with grandparents, mothers and children of a single family all being killed in that single explosion.

Working Conditions
By 1939, the firemen had managed to win some significant concessions from the station management. They now had a full 1/2 day off work a week !
But, no sooner was this achieved than the UK was at war, and conditions went back to the 128hr weeks that had been the norm before.

Working conditions were very different back then. Firemen tended to live in a terrace of houses owned by the Fire Brigade and located close to the Station. Living in this accomodation had it's down sides. For example, couples needed a pass from the Station Commander if they wanted to stay out late. But that intrusion into their personal lives pales into insignificance when one hears that if a fireman wanted to marry, both he and his prospective bride were interviewed to ensure that she was "suitable". Crikey.

Perhaps inevitably, Dave described how things were much harder in his day than is the case for firefighters today. For one thing, he was expected to get changed on the way to the fire, which meant that the engine could be out of the station within 30seconds. This occasionally led to Firemen injuring themselves as they were knocked about the drive to the fire. To prevent this happening, firefighters now don their protective gear before they set off, which means that it now takes a leisurely 90seconds for the engine to leave the station.

Technology has also made a big difference, in Dave's day hoses would rot if left in a wet condition, so needed to be dried after use. This was done by laboriously hauling them up the training tower so that the water could drain out. Modern hoses are rot-proof so this is no longer required, and in any case the tower now has powered hose hoists (what luxury! when I were a lad. . . .)

World War II
Dave was particularly knowledgeable about the work of the station during WWII and, of the many stories he recounted, two have stuck in the mind of BFTF.

The first relates to a fireman who was on night look-out duty, scanning the city for signs of fires. Located on the roof of the station, he had no wall or shelter to protect him. As he was looking over the city an air raid siren began to sound and then, a little while later, he began to hear the sound of metallic objects landing on the roof around him in the pitch darkness. Alarmingly, these were not spent shell casings or similar ariel detritus but rather were 1kg incendiary bombs landing around him. Forbidden from leaving his post, he took a compromise approach of staying where he was, but lying down to minimise the chance of being taken apart by shapnel from the exploding bombs !

The second story relates to the bombing of Coventry, Dave describes how the air defense network knew that there was going to be a big air-raid somewhere in the south of the country, but not exactly where. So fire engines across the north of England were gradually being moved southwards so that they would be closer to the target, wherever that was.

Soon enough, of course, it became clear that the Coventry was the target, and a look-out described how, even from Nottingham, he could see the glow on the horizon from the fires. He described the sight as "like peas boiling in a pan", which is a pretty evocative turn of phrase. Dave explained that the "boiling" was due to the shock and blast waves from the bombs as they landed.

Well, BFTF certainly found the tour to be very interesting, and hopes that you, dear reader have managed to find a few nuggets of useful information in this summary.

Thanks are due, of course to Dave Needham for taking the time to be involved in the Heritage Weekend.

And thanks are also due, very unexpectedly to Number One and Number 2 sons. When BFTF got home, these two were asked to jot down bullet points of all the things they could remember from the tour. To BFTF's utter surprise the resulting lists were very comprehensive and have been used as pointers and reminders whilst writing this post. Well Done!