Bill Burnell was a simple man in every sense of…
Somewhere back in the 70s the cost of a visit by a vet was so cheap that I was kept busy, between surgery times, careering around the roads of Plymouth and surrounding countryside to fit in a dozen or more home visits every day. This was a very satisfying time, allowing me to bond with people and their pets in their homes.
One day my wife said to me, “As you spend so much time on the road, why don’t you get yourself a good car to enjoy it”. So I did, a low mileage Triumph TR6, garish in it’s body colours, which had obviously been someone’s pride and joy. The only snag was its clutch pedal, which needed a superhuman effort to depress. A kindly mechanic made me a raised wooden shoe which he fixed to the pedal to ease depression, but it still had a mighty kick.
When I first arrived at the surgery in it there was a lot of banter about mid-life crisis and bird pullers, but I rose above it all and I thoroughly enjoyed my time driving it. It had a hard removable top which spent most of its time suspended from the garage ceiling and a client made me a tonneau which covered all except the driver’s seat; but unfortunately I had the only two proper accidents I have ever had while driving. In both cases another car drove into me. In the worst incident I was travelling along a residential street parallel to Plymouth’s Alma Road when a car shot out of a side road and struck me on the left rear wheel, making my car spin through 180 degrees, so that I ended up facing the way I had just come. They say that in incidents such as this you see everything in slow motion and I can vouch for the truth of that. As my car spun round, I watched in dreamy horror as I aimed for a substantial looking metal lamp post. A yard short of impact my rear tyre burst with a bang and stopped my spin dead. Someone was watching over me that day.
Driving had not always been that luxurious. I learnt to drive and passed the text in a Morris Minor, that most simple and dependable of cars. After that I did not drive a car for two years, except for a one day hire of an Austin Cambridge. Geordie drives one in the latest series of Grantchester. It had a steering column gear shift and was a very boring car. We also, for a Norfolk holiday, hired an ancient Opel which jumped out of third gear up every hill and every 50 miles or so, deciding it needed a rest and refused to go any further until it had a rest in a layby or farm gateway. Then we moved to Streatley-On-Thames for the final, clinical, year of Vet College, and the only digs we could afford was an ancient caravan which be bought from another student for £150. When it came to vacations, there was no rest for vet students. We had to “see practice” somewhere and produce a written record of interesting cases witnessed. To be near the practice and night calls, it would be useful to tow our caravan to my chosen practice in North Tawton. It would need a powerful car to tow our heavy old 4 wheel van. On the forecourt of a garage in Pangbourne we spotted a big old Talbot 110 with a canvas hood, a running board and headlamps like searchlights. It had a pre-selector gear change on the steering wheel so that you set the required gear, double declutched and carried on your way. There was no choke, but a contraption called KiGas. This had to be pumped vigorously at least ten times and then you tried to start with the ignition key. If that did not work, it was out the front with the starting handle, which either put your back out or dislocated your thumb. So by the time you got it running, you had forgotten where you were going, but just felt the need to go indoors and have a lie down. But what a magnificent beast it was to drive. It cost me £110, of which I had to borrow £100, but I think they must have seen me coming because within 6 months the big end packed up and it was scrap. Still, it served its purpose gallantly, towed our caravan twice and finally, unencumbered by caravan, carried us and all our worldly possessions, which included a pregnant wife, from Streatley to Sidmouth to my first job with the big end clanking so loud that the staff of every garage on the old A303 came out to cheer us on our way.
(to be continued) – K. Watson