Posts Tagged ‘Fred Dibnah’

Three cheers for Prince Charles!

Sunday, 7 June 2009


HRH, The Prince of Wales, Zac Goldsmith and others at the launch of the Revolve Eco Rally at Hampton Court in June 2007.

(From a photo by RevOlvin, click to see original and details of licensing.)

Three cheers for the way The Prince of Wales responded to the D-Day crisis, and with scant regard for protocol, obtained an invitation from President Sarkozy to honour the British soldiers who gave their lives on the Normandy beaches. We have no private source of information whether the absence of an invitation to the Queen was the result of President Sarkozy’s determination to keep the commemoration an American-French affair or whether the cause was Gordon Brown’s wish not to be up-staged. In the event, Prince Charles’s performance was regal and dignified, in stark contrast to the political posturing going on elsewhere.

Prince Charles suffers from a hostile press which mocks his beliefs and regularly ignores the valuable work that he carries out through his charities such as The Prince’s Trust and PRIME. While some of this may mirror the drop in the Prince’s popularity following his disastrous marriage to Diana Spencer, and the manner of the Princess’s death, in fact the hostile press articles started well before his marriage got into difficulties. It difficult to escape the conclusion that the Prince’s espousal of causes such as organic farming, holistic medicine and traditional architecture has upset major vested interests who have manipulated the media in an attempt to clip the Prince’s wings and limit his influence.


TRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall, with A1 Trust chairman, Mark Allat, looking on, name brand new Peppercorn A1 class pacific, Tornado, 19 February 2009.
Photo A1 Trust

For lovers of Britain’s railway and industrial heritage, the Prince plays a vital role as a national figurehead. He fills the space vacated by the death of stalwarts such as Sir John Betjeman and Fred Dibnah. These days, there’s scarcely an important heritage railway event which the Prince does not personally support, whether it is the reopening of the Severn Valley Railway after major flood damage, or the naming of the A1 Trust’s Peppercorn pacific Tornado. The Prince helps to provide public recognition of the amazing achievements of British railway enthusiasts. This recognition helps them with their negotiations with all the official bodies who have to be brought on side before a railway project can be nursed to its ultimate success.

We have it on very good authority that when Howard Jones was collecting his MBE, the Prince congratulated Howard on all the good work he was doing to preserve the Polish narrow gauge railways. Howard was understandably somewhat miffed because his amazing achievement was in persuading PKP to leave at Wolsztyn as the last steam shed in the world servicing standard gauge locos rostered for regular mainline passenger traffic. Perhaps, the Prince – a keen supporter of the Welsh narrow gauge – had in mind the extent to which Howard’s Wolsztyn Experience helps to cast an international spotlight on Poland’s minor railways as well?

In Poland the future of the country’s railway heritage hangs on a thin thread – the victim of a shock transition from communism to Latin-American style capitalism, Poland’s burgeoning bureaucracy, the lack of official recognition and absence of public support. Perhaps it may be unrealistic to hope that on his next visit to Poland the Prince might find time to visit Wolsztyn and travel on the footplate (or even drive!) one of the Ol49s on the Wolsztyn – Poznan turn and maybe even drop in to see the Smigiel Railway next door. Wishful thinking or not, in a country which lacks a powerful national advocate for its railway and industrial heritage, such recognition would give the Polish railway preservation movement the shot in the arm it desperately needs.



No beer at Fred Dibnah festival

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Fred Dibnah’s statue being unveiled in Bolton on Tuesday 29th April 2008. The sculptor, Jane Robbins, points out a detail to the Mayor, Mrs Barbara Ronson.

Photo Terry Wha (cc) Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0

(click to see the rest of Terry Wha’s pictures of the ceremony)

Explaining Fred Dibnah to a British audience, is about as pointless as telling people that Shakespeare was a playwright. However, BTWT has a goodly proportion of its readership living outside the British Isles, so here for their benefit is a thumbnail sketch of this larger than life figure.

Fred was born on 28 April 1938 in Bolton, the son of Frank and Betsy Dibnah, who worked together in a factory. After leaving school he briefly attended art college, then worked as a joiner before being called up for National Service. He was demobbed in 1962 after serving in Germany. He had been fascinated by chimneys and steeple jacks while still at school. He started working for a building company, but in his spare time he taught himself the craft of steeple jacking.

In 1978, at the age of 40, Fred came into the public eye when the BBC broadcast a short news item about his work repairing the clock on the tower of Bolton Town Hall and the producer, Don Howarth, made a one hour documentary, Fred Dibnah: Steeplejack, the following year. This featured Fred at work, both repairing and demolishing chimneys. Much of it was taken up by Fred philosophising while climbing chimneys and spires, The highlight was his demolition of a tall brick chimney. The documentary won several awards and Fred’s career as a TV personality had begun.

A series of 8 half-hour programmes followed observing Fred at work and, the cameraman climbing with Fred to dizzy heights. Fred also had restored a steam roller which appeared in the programmes. A further 6 half-hour programmes which also showed the effects of becoming a TV personality. In 1992 Don Howarth filmed Fred for the last time, made The Fred Dibnah Story in four 30 minute episodes. It was broadcast by the BBC together with a book of the same name in 1994. Six more series were to follow, directed by the BBC’s David Hall: Industrial Age (1999), Magnificent Monuments (2000), Building of Britain (2002), Age of Steam, (2003), Dig with Dibnah (2004), Made in Britain (2005).

With the income Fred received from his TV work, he built up his workshop in the garden of his house. It was equipped with vintage machinery that Fred had salvaged and powered by steam. Later on he was to start sinking a mineshaft in his garden to demonstrate mining techniques of the Victorian age, but the project was halted when neighbours, terrified that Fred’s mine would effect their houses complained to the local Council. It would be fitting if Fred’s garden workshop could be saved for posterity, as a permanent memorial to Fred, but without the agreement of all of the parties concerned, and a major sponsor, rather unlikely.

Though Fred was a national celebrity, but he could still be seen at traction engine rallies, where he would bring his steam roller and live-in trailer. Many will remember Fred a pint in one hand a hot meat pie in the other talking the night away about his beloved steam engines. No one has done more than Fred to promote the magic of steam and the value of Britain’s industrial heritage to a non specialist audience. So its apt that today’s Fleetwood Tram Festival should be dedicated to Fred’s memory. It’s just a little ironic that the Wyre Borough Council has decided to ban the consumption of alcohol in the open air in Fleetwood for the day.

More about Fred Dibnah: