Those who know of my early life will appreciate the service I gave to Her Majesty over twenty fun years. The devil is in the detail they say and it may not be common knowledge that I spent three years gaining a BSc in Civil Engineering. Some of you may wonder why two years at Sandhurst, the military academy, wasn’t enough? Well, the Armed Forces needed officers who were able to make a meaningful contribution to the development of future equipment and, to ensure that, those of a science bent went to the Royal Military College of Science (RMCS); those of an Arts bent were disregarded!! (See PS) I had joined the army with the intention of doing my bit for Queen and Country ….. and resisted the news I had a place to read an engineering degree; I didn’t want to! In characteristic institutional fashion the short answer was “Tough. Get on with it!” So 18 months after being commissioned, in September 1969, I started at the university, reading Civil Engineering as it had parallels with architecture, which had been an alternative career to wearing a uniform. My experience leads me to encourage those not really suited to an academic course to do something more vocational.
RMCS was based at Shrivenham, which should have been a sleepy village on the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire border. But it was on the main A420 road from Oxford to Swindon; in those pre-bypass days (see note) the road ran straight through the middle and traffic had to negotiate a tight S-bend in the village centre. Most of the larger lorries carried pressed-steel car bodies, made in Oxford, on their way to the automotive manufacturing and assembly plants in Swindon; ‘sleepy’ it was not! But the establishment nestled under an escarpment on which ran the ancient Ridgeway, a path in use for some 5000 years. It runs from just to the west of Marlborough to the north west of London, a distance of some 87 miles. From my bedroom window I could see the Uffington White Horse, a huge chalk figure cut into the hillside during the Bronze Age. This was very much a rural campus.
The Uffington White horse
I was one of two non-Royal Engineer officers doing Civil and it was suggested I should gain some hands-on ‘engineering’ experience. At the end of the first year, our general year, I spent 6 weeks with Alexander Gibbs & Partners, the consulting architects for the construction of a section of the M4 Motorway between Newbury and Swindon. Apart from memories of checking levels and survey points, I can vouch for the fact that the tall transmitter mast at the Membury Service Station is within a few seconds (of degree, obviously) of vertical!
The Army didn’t accept that us military students should have the same length of vacations enjoyed by our civilian counterparts and ensured our holidays were busy. They had a point as we were being paid a salary!! In addition to my time on the embryonic M4, we went off to coastal South Wales on a geology field trip one Easter and went ‘wow!’ and ‘oh!’ and ‘that’s so ….’ about synclines and anticlines, conglomerate rock formations and Freshwater Beach.
Survey is an important part of a civil engineer’s skill set, so apart from doing a great deal of outdoor surveying and plotting, we spent two weeks at the School of Military Survey at Hermitage (awarded its Royal accolade in 1997 on its 250th birthday) during one summer vacation. Surveying is all about mathematics and during our examinations we had to use both slide rule and mechanical calculator. The latter are completely extinct but for dividing Log Sines by Log Cosines to six places of decimals (for whatever reason!) they were a godsend. Every time you got a decimal place the bell rang.
A state-of-the-art mechanical calculator
On the second summer vacation we had to attend a three week ‘Workshop Practice’, when we spent time in the foundry, in the turning shop and in some other workshop with an unremembered name. In the first we learned how to make a mould and fill it with some molten metal; if your first visualisation is of white hot metal rods and steam, we were of a slightly smaller scale! I copied a brass doorstop and my mother-in-law’s front door’s Georgian door knocker, which I still have – I have been looking for a door on which to hang it ever since!
In the second we spent time turning metal rods, using a lathe to cut threads etc. I have kept a little bollard I made, with a movable collar. It still amuses me after 47 years!
Our instructor in the workshop with the forgotten name had an accident while we were there and we had a day off; his tale of woe is hard to make up. In his kitchen, he was putting down some floor tiles with Evostick, a very effective glue. Halfway through, he thought he could clean the glue off his hands with a piece of newspaper. When finished, he threw the balled-up newspaper into an open coal fire. Sadly a part of the newspaper stuck to his hand; as it caught alight and flames began to burn his skin, he tried to pat it out ….. with his other hand – which also had some glue on it. Big mistake! Both hands needed hospital treatment!! Ouch!
Of the subjects we studied the only one that really brings a smile to my face was ‘Materials of Construction’. It stood apart from Squiggly Amps & Ohms (my name for the Mechanics of Electronics) and Mechanics of Fluids, where we studied, for instance, Water Hammer, by its practical aspects. Can you imagine getting excited about breaking a concrete beam? Well, for even greater pleasure was the ‘Concrete Slump Test’!
Ah! Yes! University!
Richard 14th December 2018
PS. You know how it is at school; you begin to concentrate on subjects which you seem better at than others (note in my case not ‘good’ but ‘better’!) So I left school with very average scientific A Levels …….. and in my next life would like time for some of the more creative aspects of human existence.
PPS. Having graduated I thought, and hoped, I would never go back to ‘university’. However as part of our Staff training, I spent another year there seven years later completing a quasi MSc/MBA!
Note: Part of our Survey module was to design a bypass around the village. I wistfully hope that one of our designs was actually used but think it highly unlikely!