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Motorway Memories: Raymond Robertson

Monday 29 March, 2021, by Karen Griffiths

The manuscript of Raymond Roberton’s recollections of his time working on the construction of the M6 motorway was kindly sent to me by Hilary Wilson.

M6 Construction Sedbergh Road to Tebay. My experiences working on the M6 motorway by Raymond Robertson, Old Tebay

I started working on the M6 Motorway in the spring of 1969. Before the construction started some roads were to be widened and Cox & Allen had to build several hundreds of yards of new walls from the top of Grayrigg Hause down to where John Laing’s construction builders had their offices etc, also from Beckfoot to Sedbergh Interchange and I worked on those. One of the other jobs was to erect a hostel for the work force. It was built behind the old school at the top of the village and also the old woodwork shed and cookery building. Offices and workshops were erected down the road from Grayrigg Hause to Beckfoot. The main offices were in a large mansion near Grayrigg.
The first part of the construction was to make a haul road from Sedbergh road to Old Tebay. There were many bridges to construct over the river Lune.

I recall one Saturday there was very heavy rain in the Lune valley. I played football for our local team Lunesdale United and as we set off by coach to play Windermere the river was coming up. As we passed the Cross Keys I could see a tractor parked next to a foot bridge over the river and further down near Lunes bridge a large digger had been left parked on the river side. On our return the water was almost at the top of the digger and the tractor was only visible by the top of the exhaust showing. Quite a lot of timber and other materials had been washed away.
When I started working for Laings I believe my hourly rate was 7s 11d (40p in today’s money) as I was a stone mason I was paid 1 or 2d an hour more than a general labourer.

My first job on the Motorway was to work in what was called a coffer Dam near to the railway at Lunes Bridge. Some interlocking poles were driven in a circle about 5 metres in diameter with all the earth being removed by diggers as far as they could reach, then the rest was to dig out by hand. A large tub was lowered down which three of us filled. One was a foreman the other was an Irishman who traveled with the firm. One day after dinner break Paddy was the first down the ladder, by the time myself and the foreman got to the bottom Paddy had broken both his shovel and the foreman’s. The earth was partly clay, if you dug in deep and pulled back the handle as he did you would easily snap it. I believe the most spades he broke in one day was 10. The worst part of the Coffer Dam was a large pile driver driving some H type girders deep into the ground next to us with no ear muffs as protection in those days. My head was still thudding all night that may have been the cause of my hearing loss in later life.

On Thursday when the pay van came round Paddy showed me his pay slip, he had 2s and 6d and when the sub van came round the following day he took a sub out again for that week’s work, and be left with the same for next week. Sadly he died in his caravan at Morecambe when it took fire.

A few days later I was to start doing some pitching which I had never done or seen before. The first one was up Grayrigg Hause opposite the layby on the Tebay-Kendal road. The base of all the cascades would be about two metres wide with two wing walls just over a metre. There was a workforce of three of us again one being a labourer who kept me supplied with stone and cement, the other was a ganger man who was supposed to know how it was done, unfortunately he hadn’t a clue. I ended up doing it my way, it was hard work but I was very fit in those days. The next one was lower down the road opposite the railway and motorway big bridges, the third one was on the other side of Borrowdale River it was split in two as there was a farm track leading up to Jeffrey’s Mount. On this one we had to have some scaffolding erected, on the bottom end of the scaffold was a petrol driven hoist which had a cable which was connected to front of a barrow and handles. One day there was some blasting so we walked down to stand under the railway bridge on the old Kendal-Tebay road, when we got down there the area they were blasting was a very large flat area, when we came back the blast must have been a very good one as the earth had just lifted up six foot or so high and hardly a stone out of place. It was at this time that we had a new tractor driver by the name of Ken Balmer. Ken was very strong and I sometimes struggled to lift some of the stone which he brought us. They would all be collected after blasting has been done. Ken was originally from Ravenstonedale area where his brother lived and farmed. Ken was killed in a tractor accident several years later on the farm. The next tractor driver we had was Tom Stavely from Kendal who was the brother of our local water bailiff who knew me quite well (I wonder why!). We then moved on to the largest cascade in the centre of Jeffrey Mount. There was a photo taken of the scaffold at about its highest point. When working there we had to be aware of any blasting just below us on the motorway section. Sometimes we would sit under the scaffold as stones could quite easily fly up towards us. One day when the siren went for blasting we decided to go higher up the hillside, the blast was not a very good one as some stones landed on the fell behind us, rather frightening as we could see them high above us with no idea where they might land. We were lucky not to have sat where we usually did as one stone about five or six inches in size hit one wing wall and under the scaffold where we usually sat and hit the other side and across the hillside. This was the last of my big pitching jobs.

My next job was working on the drainage system where the foreman was an ex-army man called Fred Johnson who was the only man to wear a red safety hat. He had the military way with him which, did not go down very well with some of the workforce but I got on with him quite well as I always did a fair day’s work. I sometimes helped the pipe layers and did a bit of dry stone walling or any smaller stonework jobs. The main part was to bench all the manholes on bye roads and all the large ones in the central reservation of the motorway over the bridge of the river Lune at Old Tebay and to the bridge over Borrowdale River. Benching is where you have to form a channel the shape of the pipe from the inlet to the outlet. The benching was a very difficult job to do as you could not stand on the cement. The only way was to have a board resting on the bottom step of the manhole ring and work off that. The manholes were about four foot in diameter and two foot high and set one on top of the other. It was difficult as working by myself I had to carry all concrete and mortar down with no help and some manholes could be up to seven or eight feet deep but mostly four or six feet deep. I had to insert a nine inch stopper in the inlet to stop water running through.

One day before I was going on holiday for a week I managed to finish the last one in line of five or six which stretched half a mile. When I came back off holiday I was in for a shock, Fred the foreman asked me where the stopper was but I had no idea so he told me to jump in the land rover and have a look for it. As we drove past one or two manholes I saw they were full to the top with water so I knew where the stopper was. The problem now was how to release the stopper with a few thousand gallons of water pressure. As I was pretty good at sorting out problems I came up with the idea to tie a rope around the stopper stem and stand on one of the steps which were on the other side. There were two handles on the stopper and I kicked them loose, the stopper flew across and hit the other side where I was standing just out of the way of it. I quickly climbed out through the hole in the lid which was no more than two foot square. I must have been out in two or three seconds and the water followed me out. I was very lucky the stopper did not hit me as I may not have been here to tell this story.

All the time I was doing these jobs the dump trucks were delivering rock and earth from the south section and Jeffrey Mount to build up an embankment to level out between the large bridge over the River Lune and railway at Low Lane and the next and last bridge at Old Tebay. There was four sizes of dump trucks, Laing’s own dump trucks were the largest of them with AB Plant Hire following. There was no love lost between Laing’s drivers and AB drivers. I do believe some of the larger ones could push the smaller ones off the road.

The manhole rings had to have six inches or more of concrete to surround them. This was a job for a joiner. Some of them were four foot or so high so were quite easy to shutter around, the higher ones more difficult. They had a variety of plywood sheets to fit around supported by acrows or timber to stop them collapsing. The young joiner was not up to the job so I never saw him again. Fred told me to do them myself. I did them for a few days until I was told to do no more as it was going to cause a strike. I believe everyone was supposed to be in the union. It was while working on the manholes that an inspector called Peter Cosgrove used to stop for a chat as well as see that all was alright. I never saw him once the motorway was finished until about four years later in Kendal when he said seeing me had made his day, sadly I never saw him again.

Where we lived at in Old Tebay a lane led down to Town Foot farm which was demolished with two houses and all farm buildings. Laings had built the lane up and flooded my garage, I mentioned this to Fred and he said I had to take time off to prepare it for some concrete, so I did and true to his word he sent the concrete the following day.
A lot of very large boulders had been set where the bottom of the south bound slip road is now and had to be drilled and blasted. Some were just a hundred yards from our house and some small pieces landed in our back garden thankfully the children were not out playing there at the time.

There were several bridges on the north section, a large one over the Borrowdale river to take the motorway and a small one on the Tebay-Kendal road close to Lunes Bridge, there was a large one over river Lune, railway and motorway, about two hundred yards further on another bridge over river Lune again. An underpass was erected over Roundthwaite to Tebay Lane which was under the railway. The next one was over the railway and river Lune near Galloper Park, another over the slip roads and the last one over river Lune at Old Tebay. On the largest bridges there was an area where the beams to cross the river were cast on site as they were too large and heavy to come by road. The steel for them was delivered on trailers and one trailer had to be moved by crane, the crane had been too high and touched an electric cable, the driver and a man sat on the trailer survived but another man walking by the trailer with his hand on the steel was electrocuted. There was also another death where a workman on a tip where surplus earth was being levelled out was run over by a large tracked vehicle.

On the rock face on Jeffrey’s Mount men were drilling several yards into the rock face where bolts were inserted to prevent rock slips. Once all the rock had been taken out of there the drains and manholes could be put in the central reservation. I was working in one manhole when the siren went off for blasting. Some pipes had to be blasted out. Not daring to stay there but did not know which way to go, as I came out a man waved me to go across to him. The blast was not in the pipeline but was very close. When the blasting finished there would be men keeping a check on the railway which was close by. Once the manholes were completed I would do tractor driving.

One day the ground was frozen and I was driving a tractor with a large four wheeled trailer and had to travel up a very steep climb from the haul road bridge over the river Lune up onto the motorway at Low Lane, half way up the tractor skidded to a stop. I could not reverse it as it was not the normal type of trailer being a four wheel trailer with two wheels on the front. Luckily one of the smallest of the AB dumper trucks came down the slope and pulled up to help. He managed to tip the body of the dumper and reversed behind my trailer and pushed me onto the top, I could not believe it could grip so well.

I ended my time on the M6 doing odd jobs. There were not many locals working on the north section. One or two drove for Scott Wilson and Kirkpatrick, and some driving Laing’s small tipper wagons. Some men had their own wagons contracted to Laings and one man was lucky enough to drive a Laings dumper truck.

One of the foremen on the site at Borrow Bridge used to kick anything that was cluttering up the site, so one day someone drove a short piece of scaffold tube into the ground and put a tin on top of it, sure enough the plan worked as he gave it a good hard kick, cursed and hobbled off.

I quite enjoyed my time working on the M6 and have left my mark with the cascades still visible.

Construction work on the M6 near Low Borrow Bridge, 1960s. Courtesy of Hilary Wilson
Construction work on the M6 near Low Borrow Bridge, 1960s. Courtesy of Hilary Wilson

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Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


2 Replies to “Motorway Memories: Raymond Robertson”

  1. Brian marsh says:

    I also worked with laings on that section of moterway my last job was labouring for 3 masons on the grayrigg bridge

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