As a child, I would love watching people mend, make or create. I would stand in awe for hours in the local carpenter’s workshop or blacksmith’s forge. How a plank of wood could be turned into furniture or bars of iron into bespoke shoes for a horse was simply magical. But it was not just the artisans themselves that fascinated me, there was also something special about the care and precision with which they used their tools. Even now I can see the blacksmith’s anvil, tongs, hammer and his long leather apron. Those elements of observation and discovery have not changed, and this blog tells of my most recent ‘indulgence’, as I have watched and questioned three gas engineers as they have replaced the pipes in our road. 

For years there was the occasional smell of gas outside our front gate. After much badgering and to my delight, a team from the gas company dug a hole, found and sealed the leak and then made good. Before leaving they told us that steel pipes like ours, which could well be a hundred years old, were now falling apart and that further leaks were inevitable.

As predicted, new gas smells were soon detected, but now the response was more radical – the company decided to overhaul all the pipes in the street. Letters arrived telling that major engineering works were planned adding that the work would cause noise, grime, dust and inconvenience, and would last around three weeks. 

With my love for watching people at work, the prospect of having gas engineers digging holes, changing the mains and re-connecting the new piping to each house, was exciting. While leaflets did not make clear the true magnitude of the work, all was revealed when, a few weeks ago, lorries delivered the materials that were going to be needed. Apart from umpteen tools and gadgets, there were two large, walk-in metal ‘sheds’, one for storing equipment, one for ‘welfare’ (pee and tea!); a caterpillar excavator (digger) with all the extras for attaching to its arm; a dumper truck; over a dozen massive steel plates for covering excavated holes and around 160 metres of wide plastic tubing in 6-metre lengths. For some, the morning’s delivery would have heightened concern about the impending disruption; for me the array heralded pure delight. 

When the work began I soon got to know the team who I discovered lived in the West Country and would come to London each week to work. The team leader, Mike,  graduated from university with a degree in finance and business, but then decided to work as a gas engineer. With him were his father, Gary and a longtime colleague Lou. Between them they had over a hundred years of gas engineering experience and had accrued the same number of diplomas covering all aspects of their work. Their know-how and skill were soon obvious and, although they were not happy with my description, I referred to them as artisans. Interestingly, as is common with artisans, they were happy to let me watch the work and to answer my questions. 

Now, for the work. The problem pipe – the 20 cm (eight-inch) wide steel main – runs down the centre of the street around a metre below the surface. Running off into each house – and there are twenty – are the smaller supply pipes. 

The team’s first, and key job was to decommission the old steel mains. To do this they threaded 160 metres of a seven-inch ‘replacement’ plastic pipe down its length (see illustration). Next they had to reconnect this new pipe to our houses. At every step the challenges were enormous: the escape of gas had to be avoided, the supply of gas in the area had to be maintained, and the risk of explosion kept infinitely low. Moreover, in principle, their work should be good for a hundred years. With so many demands, tensions were high. But all was made possible by the ingenious use of bypasses, of manoeuvres to seal off gas-laden pipes and of gear that could cut through steel without risking sparks. 

Seeing the team marrying new technology with the oldest of tricks was a delight. So at one moment on the kerbside they were using a special device to fuse together the shorter lengths of pipe to make the two, 80-metre airtight replacements. At the next they were checking for gas leaks by wetting the joints with soapy water and looking for bubbles.

Watching three artisans at work mending the gas mains outside our house has taken me back years. The pleasure of being allowed to be an inquisitive child again has far outweighed any inconvenience that the work might have brought.

The illustration shows a key stage in the gas repairs when the tip of an eighty-metre stretch of new yellow plastic pipe – here painted red and with a metal cap (on the right) – is about to be threaded into the valved, cut end of the now defunct old steel pipe (on the left).

For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Garry, Mike, Lou, Rohan and Vivien.

12 thoughts on “A Recent Episode in the Life of an Ardent Bystander

  1. Fascinating, Joe – thank you. I would have liked to have had more detail about the thing that cuts through steel without making sparks…


    1. Dear Merrily, Thank you for your comments. For cutting holes in ‘live’ pipes, they used a a special large, metal-cutting auger which was attached firmly to the pipe and slowly turned within airtight casing using long handles. Once the hole was made a thread was cut into its exposed cut surface which allowed a plug, or whatever was needed, to be screwed into it. Love, Joe


  2. Hi Joe,
    As a fellow ‘artisan’, I can appreciate how much the gas engineers must have enjoyed the welcome breaks from their labours occasioned by your persistent enquiries into every aspect of their professional skills.
    Not so your neighbors, for whom the period of disruption was consequently extended!
    Kind regards,
    John the Cheese


    1. Dear John, Thank you for your comments. I am not sure whether I slowed the work down but my bringing them cups of coffee and biscuits each day ensured that any tendency to flag might have sometimes been reversed. Yours, Joe


  3. Tee hee Joe the little boy! I have visions of you setting up a chair, flask with biscuits to watch the artisans at work… even volunteering to make up the soapy mixture and checking for bubbles!


    1. Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your kind comments. Part of your vision is indeed correct. On the day they threaded the plastic tube into the decommissioned steel mains I sat for an hour on a camp chair and with a cuppa waiting for the moment. Only by waiting could I capture the event which appears as the article’s illustration. Love, Joe


  4. Fascinating. I’m sure more people would be understanding and appreciative if they knew what went on beyond the digging of a hole. The same could be said for other areas of work/business/products too.


  5. Dear Andrea, Thank you for your comments. It is interesting how we discover about others and about what they do. I have learned enormously by observing and enquiring, often others learn through reading books. It takes all sorts. Love, Joe


  6. Hi Joe, Only you could bring such romance to the laying of gas pipes. You should have serenaded the guys with that song from our youth: ‘There was I, diggin’ this ‘ole, ‘ole in the ground, so deep and round it was, and there was I, diggin’ it deep; it was flat at the bottom and the sides were steep!’ Stephen


    1. Dear Stephen, Many thanks for your comment and proposal. Over my weeks observing the work I often thought of that song but refrained from singing. Perhaps I will before they go. Yours


  7. As another neighbour on the street I can add that Joe, once or twice daily, brought/brings tea/coffee to the team. Their hard work over long hours is humbling, especially given the cold temperatures. Joe, it is good to have your eloquent and informative record of this once in a working lifetime makeover of our street infrastructure.


    1. Dear Ian, Many thanks for you comments. In writing the piece it was nice to be able to share the pleasures I have had just looking and learning. Yours, Joe


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