Category Archives: Allied Steel & Wire

Saying Your Goodbyes


Whenever I left one job to go to another, there usually wasn’t much of a goodbye involved, and even less so as time wore on.

When I left the laboratory of professor Dilewijns, there was an informal get together with the technicians, but as far as I can remember no speeches and no presents. Maybe followed by a few pints in the pub, that’s about it.

The farewell was a little bit more official in Iscor, with a conference room booked and full of people that I’d known and worked with in the technology department. Can’t remember too much about the speech, apart from flattering my audience by saying that South Africa would always have a friend in me. I received a watch as a present, although it can’t have been a very good one, since it fell apart within half a year of me receiving it.

The farewell from Allied Steel & Wire was a bit more awkward given the circumstances, but there was a skittles evening as the Christmas do, which doubled up as a farewell do for me. I must still have the pewter cup its the AS&W logo, but it’s packed away somewhere – I still don’t see the point in putting it on display. In my reply to Tony Franks’ speech I stated that, while I would miss them as colleagues, I wouldn’t miss Allied Steel & Wire as a company.

And that was really the last of the official farewells. When I left Tinplate R&D for Ebbw Vale, it was initially only as a secondment, and by the time the secondment became permanent due to the reorganisation of R&D set-up, there was no-one left to say goodbye to. Likewise when I left Ebbw Vale for Llanwern: by the time I was making the move there were very few people left to say goodbye to.

The move from Llanwern to Port Talbot turned out to be so gradual that there hardly seemed to be any point having a farewell do, because by the time my move to Port Talbot became official, I had already spent quite a bit of time there.

When I finally decided on my retirement, I was so busy until the very last day that all the farewell consisted of going to see a few the closest colleagues and shaking their hand, receiving two £25 vouchers as a thank you for services rendered, and a final email containing the message “So long, and thanks for all the fish” – I didn’t want to come across as too sentimental, and I thought the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reference couldn’t hurt my geek credentials.

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Canteens


Canteens have been around in most places from my student days to my final days in Port Talbot, although I must admit that most of the time I didn’t make use of their services.

During my days as a student, it was only in my first year, when I was still commuting between Bruges and Ghent, that I made use of the student canteen in the St. Pietersnieuwstraat. In subsequent years I just returned to my rented student room or stayed in the “Plateau” cafeteria as the whim took me. Afterwards, during my time as a researcher, I totally failed to make use of the canteen facilities, even though it was only next door to professor Dilewijns’s laboratory – instead we tended to consume our sandwiches in the technicians room whilst having a lunchtime chat.

The first few years as engineers-in-training at Iscor we often made use of the canteen facilities, although this was more an excuse to gel as a social group of people in a similar situation of immigrants in a foreign country. Later on, I either had my own sandwiches, or had a snack in one of the smaller facilities near the Technology building.

Allied Steel & Wire didn’t really have a proper canteen, just a place where you could buy sandwiches and assorted snacks. That’s why most people brought their own lunch, or went outside to the nearby shops, rather than buy something similar at inflated prices.

At Tinplate R&D the Port Talbot canteen was only across the bridge from Welsh Labs, but even then it was a rare occasion that we gave it a look-in. The option of a canteen did not exist in Ebbw Vale as far as I can remember, so by the time I moved to Llanwern I had got out of the habit of using a canteen and relied on my own sandwiches instead. There used to be a canteen near the far side office blocks, but this one disappeared soon after I joined once the heavy end had been demolished. I heard that there must have been some sort of canteen in the mill end of the shrunken site, but I never found out where it was.

Anyhow, once I returned to Port Talbot I had got so much in the habit of bringing my own sandwiches, that I did not make use of the canteen, either the main one near the site entrance, or the one next to the Hot Mill offices. That changed once I joined the Operational Research team in the AGO, where we got in the habit to either visit the Welsh Labs canteen, the nearby Tollgate park on a nice day, or the main canteen if all else failed. Some team members bought the food on the menu, especially on curry days, but I stuck with the habit of having my own sandwiches.

Which meant that when I moved to the Coke & Iron Admin block, and the distance to the canteen became too large for an easy lunchtime transfer, I continued with the tried and tested routine of sandwiches, apple and can of coke at my desk.

All in all, I can’t really comment on the quality of the good on offer, since most of the time I brought my own. All I noticed was that once Port Talbot stopped subsidising the canteen food, and the prices started to reflect the real cost, many people stopped buying the meals on offer, and either brought their own grub, or stopped coming to the canteen altogether.

Animals and the Steel Industry


You wouldn’t think of wildlife whenever the topic of steel plants turned up. And you would be right – mostly anyway. Even when there’s been some effort to embellish certain parts with greenery, many steel plants are a collection of concrete, roads and dusty bits in between.

Still, being near the sea, both Port Talbot and Tremorfa Works had their fair share of seagulls, which, I’ve been told, could be quite a hazard if you had to work on the corrugated roof of some plant buildings, especially during the breeding season – a hard hat is definitely not a luxury under those circumstances. You were not even totally safe when entering Tremorfa Works from the Splot entrance, where the low workshops past the entrance were often occupied by cackling seagulls.

A little less threatening were the foxes in Port Talbot and Llanwern. Still, they paraded like they owned the place, and sometimes they were even seen in the coil yards where the crews fed them on leftovers. I’ve also seen them on a number of occasions near the canteen, presumably looking for something to scavenge near the bins. Maybe that was one of the reasons why Port Talbot’s canteen only managed a 4 out of 5 for hygiene.

Whatever the case, the UK steel plants could not compete with South Africa, where the team doing slab yard inspections once encountered a rinkhals (a type of spitting cobra). Or the time I visited the iron ore mine in Thabazimbi in the northern Transvaal with the engineers in training, where after a downpour enormous snails and millipedes could be seen. Or during the same trip in Grootegeluk when a rather large bat had managed to get its wing stuck under a door, and I had to try and rescue it by placing it on a nearby tree.

Sometimes the crews also fed feral cats, and even though one in the Tremorfa Bar Mill looked well-fed, at one time I saw it eying up a pigeon. On my return on the same route, I noticed a large patch of feathers, so presumably the cat, well-fed though it might have been, was adding to its diet by catching the odd bird as well.

So although it wasn’t common place to see animals around, it added some interest when it happened.

Rebar in India


The year was 1994, and I had gone on an organised trip to India, one week in the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur triangle, and another in Ladakh.

At the time I was working for Allied Steel & Wire, and consequently I was very interested how rebar was being used in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Normally in Britain rebar is either supplied as 1.5 or 2.5 tonne coils, or as 12 metre length straight bar. In Leh, however, I saw how a bundle of straight rebar had been bent in half, and the resulting V-shaped bundle was pulled by a donkey using a rope attached to the bend in the rebar.

On a different occasion, I observed work in progress on a building on the opposite side of our hotel. The rebar was in place, and the concrete pillar was gradually being filled in a wooden frame, just as it often is done in Europe. However, the way the concrete arrived on the scene, was not by use of any of those modern concrete mixers we’re used to over here – they wouldn’t have fitted in the narrow roads anyway. The workers were mixing the concrete on top of a piece of jute and once the mixing was complete, fed it into the wooden box.

You could see the result on completed concrete pillars, where every foot or so, the boundary of one batch to the next was clearly visible. I remember at the time wondering whether this might damage the structural integrity of the building in any way.

Still, it was an interesting insight into a low-tech approach to processes that in Britain would have required far more machinery and far fewer people. I can only assume that things have changed in India in the intervening years.

Hotels


Hotels are strange places if you’re there on business. In the end it turns out to be just a place to get yourself some food and a night’s sleep. Also strange is that, as time wore on, the use of hotels shrank, until in the last ten years of my career I hardly stayed in one at all. Possibly this had something to do with austerity measures and restricting travel to a minimum, in preference of having meetings via video link.

Most of the time, hotel stays were paid in advance, either because you were part of an organised group, or because the company had an arrangement of prepaying on booking a hotel room. That happened to be the case in Allied Steel & Wire, so once I moved to British Steel it was a bit of a shock to have to foot the complete hotel bill yourself. So much so that on my first stay for a visit to Heinz I had to be rescued by a colleague who paid my hotel bill for me.

At the time I didn’t have a credit card, so I applied for one, but the application hadn’t been completed yet when I stayed in the Post House near Newcastle-under-Lyme, and was quite shocked to be treated as a potential petty thief when I said I was going to pay cash and I was asked to pay in advance, and again the next morning before having breakfast. After all, I was working for a reputable British company, did they really expect me to do a runner ?

I can see how this arrangement could be financially beneficial to the company. You spend the money from your own pocket first, and that’s all cash that remains in their coffers until you claim it back on expenses. That’s why the use of a credit card was imperative, since you were likely to have your expenses repaid before you had to settle your credit card bill.

On the one hand, staying in hotels with other people can help establish relationships beyond the workplace; on the other hand staying in a hotel all by yourself can be pretty bleak. As an example of the former, I once stayed in a hotel with Norman Leah for a visit to Impress Deventer, and I’m sure the wining and dining together gave him a better view of me as a person rather than merely bring his boss.

However, being on your own just a few days prior to Christmas for trials at CMB Braunstone was pretty lonely, and a good thing too that most of the day was taken up by witnessing trial runs by CMB. Or the time I took part in an introductory Matlab course and stayed in a Travelodge near a dual carriageway leading out of Cambridge, where there was absolutely nothing to do apart from be in your room and watch television.

Hence that in later years, when I no longer was flitting about going to customers, and when the stays in hotels first reduced to a trickle and later dried up completely, I didn’t miss hotel rooms at all. It may be nice for a change, but I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis as part of my day-to-day job.