A Dorset life for me
By Roger Guttridge; the illustration is by Becky Blake
Published in April ’15
There was a time, in the distant days when I was a news reporter, when I was known to colleagues as a ‘chaser of fire engines’. This may not have been intended as a compliment, but I chose to see it as one – as a tribute to my enthusiasm. I was, quite literally, the guy who saw a fire engine’s blue flashing lights as a cue to perform a U-turn and set off in pursuit.
Deprived of a blue light or siren of my own, I was at a disadvantage. But if I lost sight of my quarry as it steamed through the East Dorset traffic, I reverted to plan B – following the telltale water-trail left as the fire engine’s brimful tank sloshed its contents overboard at every turn and roundabout.
If the ‘shout’ (as the firemen term a call-out) turned out to be a false alarm or an innocuous chimney fire, I would return with my journalistic tail between my legs. But often I arrived ahead of the game – sometimes so far ahead that it brought me trouble as well as a story.
There was such a scenario one day in 1979: I collected my wife and two-year-old son from playschool when a Wimborne fire appliance went screaming by. I glanced at my watch. Whilst these days the Bournemouth Echo is printed overnight, in the 1970s our deadline was 12 noon. If I hurried, I might make the first edition.
‘Sorry, can’t go home yet – got to follow that,’ I shouted as I performed my U-ey. Five minutes later we were at Whitesheet Plantation, an area of tall conifers between a giant refuse tip and a fishing lake. I’d covered numerous heath and forest fires before, not least during the infamous summer of 1976, but as forest blazes went, this was a cracker. Fanned by a strong wind, the flames leapt twice as high as the trees themselves, according to my story in the Echo (so it must be true).
Using all my experience as an habitual fire-chaser, I did a directional assessment of the vast smoke-cloud, parked the company Renault off-road and directly upwind and left the family while I went off to do my job. No mobile phones in those days, and no phone box at Whitesheet either. After a quick chat with a helpful fire chief, I headed for the nearest bungalow and borrowed their phone to dictate my story.
I was still dictating when the room suddenly went dark. Had day unexpectedly turned to night? Had there been an unscheduled eclipse of the sun? Either would have been sinister but for me the reality was even more ominous. I immediately realised what this meant: the wind had changed direction.
I hastily finished reading over my story and legged it back towards my makeshift parking bay. Now I was really worried. Not only was the area enveloped in smoke but the fire had done a U-turn of its own, jumping the road and setting light to vegetation on the other side – the side where I had left the car.
When I reached that point, there was no car or family to be seen – just a lot of scorched trees and bushes where they had been. Given that the wife didn’t drive in those days, I couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or alarmed. Where on earth had they gone? More importantly, were they safe?
A firefighter pointed east and I followed his directions. Eventually I spotted the car… and heard the story: ‘When the wind changed I could see smoke behind the bungalow and then flames coming up behind it,’ Mrs G recalls 36 years later. ‘It got very dark as the smoke was blocking out the sun. Then people started walking past us and away from the area. I sat wondering when it would be time to get out of there, but expecting that you’d turn up at any moment. I was thinking we might have to leave the car and walk. I didn’t know what to do. I felt very abandoned.’
Enter the British army – and a truckload of squaddies from the RAOC petrol centre at West Moors, who were helping with the firefighting.
‘This very sooty, sweaty sergeant-major came over and said, “What are you doing here?”’ says Mrs G. ‘I told him my husband was a journalist covering the fire. He said, “In a few minutes this place isn’t going to exist any more. You’d better get out of here.” I told him I couldn’t drive. Then he saw the key in the ignition.’
The RSM promptly leapt into the driver’s seat, started the car and drove off as his troops broke into a chorus of, ‘Cor! Go on, Sarge!’ and other ribald military-speak.
‘He drove us up the road to safety. But he wasn’t very impressed with you. And when you finally arrived, you were in a panic because the car had disappeared. And when we went past the spot later, it was completely blackened.’
True. But at least we made the front page. ◗