Navvies' hard work got nation on track
How Britain Worked C4
"I STARTED at six years old on lawnmowers," says engineering enthusiast Guy Martin. "At 12 I moved on to trucks."
Good to see a young child getting a good amount of iron in their diet.
Martin, we heard, "is fascinated by the era when British workers and extraordinary feats of engineering made this country great". The Buttoneer, that kind of thing.
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This week, he was keen to praise the mechanical brilliance of one of the most celebrated feats of British engineering. Not the lights at Limekiln, the steam train.
"It is," said Martin, "the single greatest machine ever built by British workers." And certainly it knocks the Austin Allegro into a tin hat.
The steam train, noted Martin, one of the few men to out-sideburn Bradley Wiggins, allowed mass movement of the British people for the first time. People would holiday en- masse, and Millwall fans could riot round the country at will.
"Fares could be bought for a penny a mile," Martin revealed. Tuppence if you didn't want to sit on the coal truck.
While Martin admired the engineers, he reserved greatest reverence for "the hardest workers of them all". Not the women who manhandled the sausage rolls on to the buffet car, rather those who laid all 7,000 miles of track by hand – the navvies.
"Navvies," noted Martin, "were as famous for their hard drinking as their hard work." A bit like Legs & Co.
"They were shovelling 20 tons a day," he marvelled. "That's some going." True. Even stable boys don't do that.
"You've got to look at their lifestyle as well," he continued. "They were on two pounds of beef, two loaves of bread, and 10 pints of beer. It's not an athlete's diet is it?" Not unless you're Gazza.
The navvies, of course, carried with them a certain reputation. "Lock up your daughters," said Martin, "that's what it was like when the navvies were in town."
In many ways it was reminiscent of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference.
"When they were coming through, all police leave was cancelled." I refer you to my previous comment.
The British navvy was the envy of the world.
"The Europeans would try to poach them," claimed Martin, "and get them over there grafting – pay them twice as much." It's like when Ian Rush went to Juventus.
Martin despaired at the lack of such work ethic in the modern generation. "What's going on now?" he railed. "People leave school and want to be famous – they don't want to be grafters." It's a good point – I'd pay good money to see the X-Factor contestants made to dig a canal.