I was too young to remember seeing steam engines on the mainline, but I had a childhood consolation. Just 10 miles from my Cardiff home, I could clamber over hundreds of steam locomotives without anyone telling me to stop. That playground was Barry scrapyard, steam’s graveyard.
At the end of steam in the 1960s, Dai Woodham bought hundreds of withdrawn steam engines from British railways for his scrap business at Barry Island. He intended to scrap them but delayed doing so while he focused on scrapping redundant railway wagons. As a result, railway preservation societies flocked to Barry to select locomotives to restore to operate their lines. Out of almost 300 engines sent to Barry, almost three quarters were rescued from the graveyard, and over half lived to steam again.
On my visits to Barry scrapyard, I was drawn to the ex GWR engines, especially the last monarch, King Edward II, which I saw miraculously reborn in 2011, and the engines that sustained the Welsh coal trade. But 40 years ago today I was enjoyed a spectacular sight. Twenty years of Welsh sea air had revealed the pre-nationalisation (1948) livery of a Southern Railway S15, with the SOUTHERN legend clearly visible. As you can see on the photo I took that day (above) there are actually three logos: the two British Railways lion symbols as well as the Southern lettering.
According to my 1982 diary, I had finished my A level mock exams the week before, so must have taken advantage of a lesson-free afternoon to get the train to Barry Island, before spending time in the sadly-missed Lears bookshop in Cardiff’s Royal Arcade. I bought a book about the Cambrian Railways, the Welsh line graced by some of the GWR Manor class engines I’d just seen at Dai Woodham’s scrapyard.
It was 40 years ago today that the snow came. It wasn’t unexpected: in my teenage years, winters featured regular heavy snowfalls. In 1978 rugby fans were stranded by a blizzard returning from an international in Cardiff. The winter of discontent, 1978/79 was characterised by blizzards as well as strikes. But 1981/82 was different: the snowiest winter since the great winter of 1962/63.
Little did I know, when I pleased myself by marking the date in snow on our greenhouse, that the winter of my A level year would be so special. My first diary noted that there had been a rail crash claiming four lives at Seer Green (Sear Green, as I spelt it) in Buckinghamshire. I had no idea that I’d commute from that village station for several years 20 years later.
We had further snow over the Christmas holidays. The photo below, taken on Boxing Day 1981, shows brother-in-law Julio, Siân, aged 14 months, sister Boo, Mum and me.
The serious snow arrived in the new year. It snowed continually for 36 hours. It’s hard now to imagine that kind of snowquake. Urban landscapes were transformed. The photo above of Heath Junction in Cardiff tells a story. No trains were running on the Coryton line, so you’d never know it was a junction were it not for the old GWR signal box and signals.
The photo above shows the snow at Heath Low Level station untouched by trains or people as British Railways didn’t attempt to run any services on the Coryton line while the snow persisted.
I eventually cleared a path to the garage and drive as seen below. The 1960s Hillman Imp was Mum’s car.
I eventually helped clear a path to the garage – as seen above and below.
The sheer weight of snow changed the landscape for ever. The old Sophia Gardens pavilion, which was a venue for the 1958 British Empire & Commonwealth Games, collapsed under its weight, as did the bowling club in Rhydypenau.
One day, I walked into town, past the scene near Cardiff Castle seen above. It was a great adventure.
Days later, we were due to go to London on a school trip for a series of history lectures, five months before our A levels. One of the star lecturers was GR Elton, who featured heavily in our A level Tudor history course, and was well known for his clash of theories about Henry VIII with rival historian JJ Scarisbrick. We were due to travel by train, but bizarrely the trains were blocked while the M4 to England was still open.
Dad, Bob Skinner, was working flat out during the blizzards of early 1982. As public relations officer for South Glamorgan county council, he was the spokesman for the Welsh capital’s council as it kept people informed about how its services were affected by the great freeze. By early January, he was desperate for a break, and planned a rare holiday in Palma, Majorca. He was picked up by a Land Rover to get him on a train to Birmingham to get a flight to Spain. Dad recalls the delight of sinking into his seat on the plane.
You can see in this shot how high the drifts reached – over the wall between our front garden and the pavement.
I was concerned that our eight year old cat, Spot, would be adrift. So I built paths (above) and a tunnel (below) for her. It’s fair to say she needed a bit of encouragement to use them!
Eventually, the snow melted and life got back to normal. We’ve never had a winter like 1981/82 in the intervening 40 years. Will the snow ever return in such a magical way?
The path seemed clear to A levels. But none of us could have know that Britain would be at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands during those exams…
It was a symbol of Welsh industrial might: a locomotive hauling a coal train that seemed to go on for ever. A century ago Welsh steam coal powered the world. Yet Wales has become one of the first countries to join a global coalition of nations aiming to phase out fossil fuels: the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. It’s comes as criticism grows of the weak response of the COP26 climate conference to the climate crisis.
I grew up in Cardiff on tales of King Coal. As I lay in bed I could hear the growl of locomotives hauling coal trains along the old Rhymney Railway line from Caerphilly. And I loved visiting the mock coal mine at the National Museum of Wales – appropriately located in the basement. The museum is in Cardiff’s magnificent civic centre, part of the impressive architectural legacy of the immense wealth created by the coal boom, along with elegant ship and coal owners’ mansions such as Insole Court, Llandaff.
Back to the Seventies. That has been a theme of the past few weeks as a fuel crisis looms, with rocketing prices and supply problems in Britain.
Few people will remember, but the early 1970s also saw one of the biggest changes in British domestic and industrial history. The discovery of gas in the North Sea in 1965 led the nation to switch from town gas, which was produced by heating coal. As a result, around 40 million gas appliances in Britain had to be converted to burn natural rather than town gas. Britain used to have over a thousand local gas works, but North Sea gas made these manufacturing sites redundant, with gas now being stored rather than made locally.
Our family was very unusual as our gas cooker was converted not once but three times. We were living in Whitton, Twickenham when London converted from North Thames town gas to North Sea gas. But soon after, we moved back to Wales – which had not yet switched. So we had to convert the cooker back to run on town gas, before switching yet again when Cardiff converted. The change had another legacy: a huge banner advert for High Speed Gas across the front of Cardiff Central station, which hid the legend ‘Great Western Railway’. (On display again since 1985.)
It wasn’t our only big fuel switch. When we moved into our house in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside, in 1971, we inherited a coal burning central heating boiler. I remember a frightening drama soon after. The pressure gauge on the boiler was moving into the danger zone, and Mum and my sister were getting worried it was going to blow up. (Dad was in Japan at the time on a coveted Winston Churchill fellowship.) My uncle Bert came to the rescue, and I think they poured water over the furnace to put the boiler out and end the crisis. Soon after, we switched to gas central heating, and the coal shed became a storage room.
Gasholders like the famous one behind the Oval cricket ground in London were a familiar part of the urban landscape for years. Originally they were part of a town’s gas works, storing the gas produced there. For the past 50 years they have stored gas from the North Sea, but from the 1990s onwards they were condemned as unnecessary and few now survive. How ironic that Britain’s acute lack of gas storage capacity is such a feature of the growing fuel crisis. (The country has storage for just four or five days’ winter demand; Germany has 16 times as much.) The government’s decision allow the closure of the Rough storage facility in the North Sea in 2017 now looks like an act of self harm. Maybe we shouldn’t have pulled down all those iconic gasholders.
PS: I played a very minor part in the privatisation of British Gas in 1986. I was a management trainee for Nationwide in Newport, Wales, and gave a presentation to British Gas employees in Cardiff explaining the sharesave account used for the staff share purchase scheme.
PPS: we even had a gas fridge when I was very young, but got rid of it before gas conversion.
In March 2020, as coronavirus took hold in Britain, my father Bob Skinner started a blog to record his day to day experiences during the pandemic. We have now published the diary as a Kindle book.
Bob has a true reporter’s eye for the events of the year that changed our lives for ever, explaining how he recovered after three weeks in hospital with coronavirus. He also recalls his first reunion with his family, shown live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Moving and often amusing, Pandemic: My Care Home Diary gives a unique account of what life was like for Britain’s care home residents during the worst pandemic for over 100 years. It was a pleasure and a privilege to edit the blog and prepare it for publication. We think Bob’s book will be a lasting tribute to the carers who risked their own lives looking after their vulnerable residents.
Here are a few extracts from the book. You can buy it at the Kindle store here.
Sunday 22 March 2020
It’s Sunday. It’s chilly but the sun is shining, a rare, welcome sight after dark weeks of wind and rain. A normal Sunday in Cardiff? No, it is unique, historic. Looking out of my window in Cyncoed Road, the city is strangely quiet. Far fewer cars, no buses, just the occasional dog walker and young jogger. Not an elderly person in sight.
Last week it was busy, with nonstop traffic, people going to work, children off to school. Last Sunday, the bells were calling people to worship. Today they are silent, and the church doors are firmly shut. Members are no doubt fervently praying at home for normal life to return soon. How many centuries ago was it, I wonder, when people were banned from leaving their home?
Friday 3 April
No trouble finding something to write about today. I made the news myself.
Yesterday, I was having an after-dinner cup of tea in our bistro when Virgil, the deputy general manager, came over with a message from Sunrise headquarters. They had seen my coronavirus diary entries and asked if I would go on ITV to talk about our carers. I agreed.
So it was a new challenge. Was I too old, too rusty? I would see. Later in the evening came instructions on how the makeshift operation had to be done in lockdown. My living room became a studio. What a difference. No camera or sound equipment, just a laptop on my coffee table.
‘Are you ready, Bob?’ ‘Yes, fine,’ I replied. I was on air. It was all over in minutes. I remembered most of my key words, did not move, and think I made the tribute to carers that they deserve. A lot of phone calls and emails today. Fame at last – and it’s only taken 93 years.
Sunday 12 July Reunion with Robert
Yesterday was a special, memorable day. My first visitor after four months – my son Robert. He spent the day, five hours of driving, to have just an hour with me.
It was more than a happy reunion after those unreal months: proof that brighter days lie ahead. It was far from normal. We old people are being carefully looked after – guarded – and that made the difference. I had been looking forward for so long to today and was standing by the window watching for him to arrive, but I had to wait.
He first had to be ‘made safe’ by being kitted out with apron, gloves and face mask by a carer. Then he was taken to the gazebo set up in front of the building. Inside were two seats, the regulation two metres apart. I was taken out to join him. No hug or handshake allowed. After a wave and a laugh we lost no time in getting down to chat, making up for lost time.
The unusual visit ended with us being filmed and briefly interviewed as part of a planned ITV Good Morning Britain broadcast on Monday morning for which my grand-daughter Ria has been invited to Sunrise.
Sunday 16 August A forgotten army
The Welsh government’s advice to vulnerable people to shield to reduce the risk of coronavirus ends today. They can resume as normal a life as possible. Good news for them and their families after a debilitating five months of loneliness and worry.
But there is another, larger section of the community that is waiting for signs of release from lockdown – we care home residents. I am beginning to think that, like the men who fought in Burma, we are the forgotten army. Reacting, reasonably, but belatedly, the government clamped down on us. And we are still in a vice-like grip.
While the rest of the country starts to experience the pleasures of normal life, our freedom is still very limited, and, worse, there seems little prospect of change.
And who is thinking of us, speaking up for us?
Saturday 26 September
I have coronavirus
This is one diary entry I did not expect to make but the Sunrise luck has run out. I was at the art class this morning when a few of us were asked to return to our rooms. That sounded ominous, and it was.
I was told that five residents had been tested positive. I had expected to find that I was one of them as I have not been feeling too well for a few days; a bad cold and a cough. A few hours later I was told that I had indeed tested positive for coronavirus.
So it’s all change. We are all confined to our rooms with a carer looking after us.
Sunrise has almost shut down, the restaurant closed, activities suspended. What a shame. I feel sad after all the effort they have put in over the months, but there it is. We have to put up with it. I am feeling pretty good which I hope will continue and I will make the best of the temporary new life style.
Being alone most of the time does not worry me as I still have plenty to keep me occupied. And it is no use worrying. Everything has been so uncertain for so long that a little more uncertainty will do no harm.
Monday 26 October
Recovering in hospital
Seven months ago, coronavirus cast a cloud of uncertainty and fear over the world, affecting the lives of billions of people. Despite all the efforts the cloud still hangs over us.
My life changed again when I was one of eight Sunrise residents tested positive and I obviously wondered what form it would take.
For the first week or so, it wasn’t so serious. It was like having a bad cold. But then I started feeling much worse, with nausea, swings from being too cold and too hot, sleeplessness and even delusions. A fall in the bathroom early one morning proved disastrous. I was rescued by two carers who got me back into bed via a hoist. My condition worsened and I was taken to hospital with a broken ankle as well as coronavirus.
After three weeks in hospital and some very difficult days the nursing and treatment is now working. Progress was slow until a few days ago when I was given some new tablets to stop the pain and enable me to sleep. There was an immediate effect. I asked for an increase and there was a remarkable effect. The pain is less than for months, I can get out of bed and am starting to walk again and manage to look after myself. What a difference from being helpless and reliant upon others.
Thursday 12 November
Watch out Lewis Hamilton
After giving up driving a car after more than 70 years, I thought I would miss being behind the wheel. But I have found the answer – my shiny blue and silver electric scooter. With its headlights, direction indicators and even a horn, it is ready for the road, top speed 8mph, or 4mph on the pavement.
This week it became my lifeline. With my heavily strapped broken ankle making movement painful and difficult, the scooter came to the rescue. Now I am driving again all day, indoors. It’s my mini Monte Carlo circuit. Top speed indoors is about 1mph across the 30 foot living room with detours into my bathroom and bedroom – watch that chair!
Tired after a day ‘on the road’, it’s time for bed. My last journey. Into the dark bedroom, driving straight for the bed. Headlights blazing, I tumble in. Hard work driving, but exciting.
Watch out, Mr Hamilton.
Monday 21 December
The shortest, saddest day
Today is the shortest day of the year, the darkest of the winter. This day, 21 December, in 1942 was one of the saddest days of my life. It was wartime and we were facing a stark Christmas. The war news was grim, there was rationing and shortages. It was the day my father, Frank died.
At sixteen I had just started work as the Penarth Times reporter and was in Penarth police court when called home. My father was seriously ill. I knew before I got there that he had died. It was from a heart attack. He was 52.
Like this year, it was an unusual Christmas with families separated, celebrations muted. I remember very little of those few days, and have no recollection of Dad’s funeral. I did go out one evening, to join our church’s young people’s group carol singing. Mum thought it would do me good to get out of the house for an hour.
Looking back, the saddest part was that I had so little time to get to know Dad. Two days before war was declared our family separated, never to be all together again.
Christmas Day 2020
A Christmas like no other
Christmas Day. A day so different this year from any other. A strange day, with most of us missing the usual family gathering, and millions with no family, unable even to give their elderly parents a hug. A day to remember, and to forget.
My day started with Christmas greetings by Zoom from Robert, Karen and Owen (plus dog Rufus), all three resplendent in Christmas jumpers, Owen’s a spectacular Welsh one. Nadolig Llawen!
I was sporting my first ever Christmas bow tie. After trying to tie it for nearly an hour last night one of the carers managed it in a minute this morning. Then it was downstairs for the get together and to receive our gifts from Sunrise. I was patient, opening my presents under my Christmas tree mid-morning.
The festively dressed carers and Sunrise team were as cheerful as ever, making it another happy day although I would love to see those masks and visors removed.
But thank you, everyone, you made it a special day, again.
Friday 22 January 2021
It’s vaccination day at Sunrise. A day of relief, and celebration. Mass vaccination.
As usual, the care home got it right. Organised to the minute. Calm and relaxed, just right for us old people. And, a happy touch, flags and balloons to cheer us – a bright idea. Having a jab is never fun but today it was relished, welcomed with open arms.
The troops were on parade, with our sticks, walking aids, wheelchairs, ready and willing. The long wait was over. When the call came we went into the temporary surgery, rolled up our sleeves. It was over in a flash. I did not feel a thing. Then into a lounge for a rest and a glass of orange juice. To mark the historic day we had our pictures taken and then it was time for lunch, happy that a milestone in the long, arduous pandemic road pointed the pathway to safety.
Well done, Sunrise, and the NHS!
Wednesday 10 March
Freedom in sight
Sitting looking out of my window onto the sunlit street below, the world looks inviting. Normal. Not exciting. People driving cars and vans, riding bicycles, pushing prams, jogging, walking. Across the road a man is working in his garden. Beyond, I see the lighting towers of the university training ground.
A typical suburban scene on a typical afternoon, but it is deceptive. Almost a mirage. I cannot go out to join it. Like countless millions throughout the world, I am a prisoner in my own home. Trapped. For a year, because of the plague stalking our planet, creating a living horror story.
The world has seen many fanatical leaders, dictators and despots who have held their subjects in thrall, but this is Britain in the 21st century, beacon of democracy. Over 60 million of us can no longer call our lives our own. Leaders have changed the rules and laws. Unlike heroes of the past, we have not rebelled, risen up in anger to break the chains. We have agreed with our leaders, followed their dictats and changed our whole way of life – voluntarily.
But freedom is nigh. Human ingenuity, courage and patience are winning the battle. Apprehension and danger receding, we hope we face only a few more months of isolation before we will be free to resume normal lives.
And I will happily ride my scooter out onto Cyncoed Road and rejoin the real world out there.
On Saturday, I clocked up a series of firsts. My first drive over 10 miles since March. My first motorway journey and trip to another country – Wales – since lockdown.
I was on my way to see my father, Bob Skinner, for the first time since his care home closed to visitors in March. (I have blogged about that unforgettable visit here.)
I loved the drive – I treasured the time listening to music and Jack Thurston’s Bike Show podcasts. All things I used to enjoy on my daily commute. Working from home has been enjoyable but I have missed these audio moments.
Crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales, the motorway signs proclaimed: WELSH COVID RULES APPLY. It was a graphic reminder that Wales has, sensibly, taken a more careful approach to relaxing lockdown rules. The only reason I was able to make the journey to Cardiff was the scrapping of the Welsh ban on travelling more than five miles, allowing Dad’s Sunrise of Cardiff care home to allow visiting. It was nice seeing the familiar Welsh road signs: gwasanaethau (services), Caerdydd (Cardiff) and canol y ddinas (city centre).
I was very happy to drive the 300 mile round trip to see Dad for an hour (the maximum visit) but thought it would be nice to see something of my hometown after saying goodbye to Bob. So I hopped on my Brompton folding bike, and headed along Cyncoed Road and down Pen-y-lan hill towards the centre of town – canol y ddinas…
The roads were quiet, and I made up my route as I went along, threading through the streets of Cathays and emerging by the National Museum in Cathays Park. Cardiff has closed the roads around the castle to cars, and it was a pleasure to arrive at the imposing gates of the castle.
Entry to the grounds is currently free, so I wheeled my bike in, and enjoyed a few tranquil moments, reflecting on my visit to Dad.
I made my way back to Cyncoed via childhood spots such as Roath Park Lake, and past my childhood home in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside. My Brompton is the electric version, so it made the climb back towards Cyncoed Road very easy.
I’m looking forward to a longer Welsh bike ride when we’re in Tenby in August.
I popped the Brompton back in the car, and enjoyed another easy drive (no queueing past the Brynglas tunnels at Newport). A memorable and enjoyable day.
None of us will ever forget living through the coronavirus pandemic. But for me the sweetest memory will be visiting my 93 year old father, Bob Skinner, in his care home, Sunrise of Cardiff, on Saturday. This was our first meeting since February – I was due to visit on 20 March, but Sunrise closed to visitors the day before. (Dad and I had already agreed a visit was not wise given the fast escalating COVID-19 crisis.)
We meet again!
Mine was one of countless family reunions happening around the country as lockdown restrictions eased. But, unusually, ours was featured on television. After Bob so eloquently praised care home workers on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in April, the programme asked to film him meeting his first visitors since March. Virgil from the Sunrise team in Cardiff filmed my visit for ITV. Then Bob’s granddaughter Ria visited live on Monday’s show. You can see it here.
Dad and I reunited – as seen on TV!
All smiles: Bob meets Ria
Ria and I both loved the experience of seeing Bob face to face (two metres apart) after months of Zoom calls, phone chats and emails. I noticed how well he looked – the Sunrise care has done him a power of good! Viewers to the show will have been struck by his energy, enthusiasm and eloquence. (Kate Garraway referred to how positive Dad had been throughout.) He started a blog – Bob the Blogger– about his coronavirus experience back in March, and blogs almost every day. You can read his post about his latest TV appearance here.
I couldn’t give Bob a hug – that was tough, but I gave myself a gentle hug as Dad came towards me as a symbol of affection. Good Morning Britain presenters Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway spotted that and commented that we can’t give the hugs we want to. Dad said how much better it was to see family face to face. It is the start of better times.
Kate recalled Dad comparing the coronavirus crisis with the Second World War during his earlier GMB interview. Bob explained the key difference today is we are fighting a totally unknown, deadly enemy, and don’t know how to deal with it. He discussed this contrast in more detail in a blog post yesterday.
Dad talked about how happy he has been at Sunrise. It was a blessing that he moved from his home in Penarth six months before the COVID-19 lockdown began. It would have been a huge worry had he still been living alone, although his former neighbours in Penarth such as Therese and Brian would have been wonderfully supportive. As Dad said, he has had no worries and has been happy from the moment he moved in.
Later in the interview, Ria stepped onto the ‘stage’ to say good morning to Bob and to the presenters. It was a wonderful moment, live on national TV. As Ria said, it was rather overwhelming seeing Bob for the first time for many months. “It’s marvellous to see you!” Bob exclaimed with a broad smile to Ria.
You can watch the Good Morning Britain segment with Dad, Ria and me here:
Monday’s edition of Good Morning Britain was an emotional one for other reasons. Writer Michael Rosen spoke with huge affection about the care he received as he recovered from an almost fatal encounter with COVID-19. Talking about the NHS staff who saved his life, he explained: “Just massive and incredible, they saved my life several times.”
Interviewing Michael was an emotional experience for presenter Kate Garraway. This was her first day back after a four month break while husband Derek Draper was in intensive care and came close to death from COVID-19. Movingly, Michael said he hoped his experience gave Kate hope. Welcome back, Kate, and heartfelt best wishes to Derek and Michael.
Today’s sad news that Hereford United FC has been wound up in the High Court brought back childhood memories. In April 1976, I was one of 35,000 people who watched the team play Cardiff City at Ninian Park in Cardiff. Hereford were leading the old third division and City were placed second. Cardiff won 2-0 that unforgettable evening.
Cardiff has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. It’s hard to imagine how different the old Tiger Bay docklands looked before the Cardiff Bay redevelopment and Cardiff Bay barrage was announced by Margaret Thatcher’s Welsh Secretary Nicholas Edwards in 1986.
Dad and I visited the docks regularly and took these photos on a bitterly cold day at the start of 1986. We liked the look of the imposing warehouse on the right (east) bank of the Bute East Dock.
Tan thought that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United pedigree would save the day. The opposite has been true: Solskjaer’s team has conceded an alarming number of goals without unduly threatening the opposition. By contrast, Mackay achieved some famous results, including defeating title contenders Manchester City, drawing with Manchester United and beating arch rivals Swansea.
At least we don’t have to worry about second season syndrome…