Working Lives

Army surveyor, ground works to gardening (1970-2021)

Location: Norwich

Brian tells us about his working life, taking an apprenticeship in the army, working on building sites and gardening, as well as discovering aerobics and Ceroc dancing.

I was born in 1952 in the West Norwich Hospital, in Norwich. I was the last of nine children. My father was a printer – he worked for most of his life at Jarrolds in Norwich and I think that he did something to do with the dyes, the colours. I think that he used to mix the colours ‘cos he used to bring us home marbles which I think were used as a process for mixing the dyes. My mother had a really good job, when she was young, before she met my father, but after they got together she didn’t have time for work.

I went to junior school at Larkman Lane junior school where I got on very well. We had a good headmaster, Mr Ingham, and the school was very well run. I had a teacher called Mr Butcher in my first and fourth year. He seemed to take a bit of a shine to me, we got on good and he taught me well. I went to secondary school at Hewitt grammar school, but I only did four years there. I was one of the older pupils. I wasn’t a very good pupil and I felt as if I’d had enough of school. For some reason I was good at German and maths, but the rest of the subjects I didn’t have much time for. Oh, woodwork, I was very good with my hands, so woodwork and metalwork I was good at too.

Leaving school, apprenticeship with the army

I left school early and took an apprenticeship in the army, it was a bit of a hit and miss thing. I wanted to do engineering – three of my brothers had done engineering and worked in factories. The only thing that I could find on the list in the army was Surveyor Engineering, but it was something that I just dropped into. It was really good for me, the perfect subject. One of the things I was good at was algebra, you had to work out all your figures by hand, without a computer, so you had to be good at algebra because you had hundreds of equations to work out for all the different measurements and things..

I was very lucky, after my initial training I went to Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire and we looked after airfields. Basically we looked after airfields in Germany but we also did airfields all over the world. The first job I did was a runway up in the Isle of Skye, it was a real good job. I also went to Wildenrath in Germany with the Harriers, they had Harrier jump jets there. I was there for four months, but never got called upon to do active service. I think that this would be 1970 to 1974, I should have stayed until I was twenty seven but I came out when I was twenty four. I’d been posted to Ireland as section commander and they were supposed to make me up to corporal but because of my bad behaviour earlier in my career they wouldn’t so I decided to cash my chips in and buy myself out.

I came back to Norfolk. I’d lost my dad while I was in Germany, about a year before I left the army.

Back in Norfolk

The first job I got was at the Norwood Rooms as a barman, in 1974 I think. I’d been a barman before in the army, which was a silly thing to do, but I loved it. I was good at the job and even though I was drunk most of the time I still did a good job, earned a lot and saved a lot being a barman in the army.

I think that I did one maybe two Christmasses, that’s when they mainly needed you. I didn’t stay there long, I think they closed down. They would have a ballroom on the Saturday night, underneath the ballroom was a swimming pool. At Christmas time they used to have huge functions, parties, parties for firms, things like that. The functions used to go on and on, speeches used to go on and on, we were waiting the tables, and when they’d drunk all the wine on the tables they were bursting to get to the bar, yeah that was mayhem.

One other thing I’d like to say about that. They used to do turkey dinners, that was very well organised ‘cos there was an upstairs and downstairs and they had a lift, an old boy would bring all the barrels of beer up from the cellar in the lift. I went to the kitchen once and was told to get something out of the freezer. When they opened the door to the freezer it was like a huge room, and the whole of the floor was covered with turkeys, frozen turkeys. You could see the boot prints of the chef where he’d walked over the turkeys to get to something on the shelves in the storeroom. So yeah, that was an eye opener.

It shut down and I got a job working on a building site. WF Pointer, they’re gone now but they had their offices at Hellesdon, next door to the chemical factory. I worked for them for about a year and a half, two years, I was a labourer, we were doing footings for the houses, which is a concrete slab, drains, paving all that, all sorts, you know heavy stuff, but not brickwork or nothing. I was qualified as a surveyor but I couldn’t get a job as a surveyor, mainly because I was looking in the wrong places.

I got married whilst I was working for W Pointer, that was in 1978 and I got a job working for May Gurney, they made concrete fence posts for airfields, mainly American ones cos they were the biggest. We used to make the posts with a crank, what they call a crank top, they had a bent neck on them, on the top where the wire used to hang over the outside. We used to do thousands and thousands of those posts, I quite enjoyed that job, that was a good job.

Milkman in Dereham

My wife and I were living in Bowthorpe but then we moved to Dereham and I was a milkman in Dereham for a couple of years. The yard has gone now but it was a Milk Marketing Board yard at Sandy Lane in Dereham. That was a funny job, the first round I had was a country round, I used to go out to Elsing and Attlebridge, the full round was about 50 miles. Five days a week I’d do the round in one direction and then on Saturday I’d do it in the other direction to pick up the money that I hadn’t picked up Friday.

It was early mornings, I’d be on the road at four. I used to go to Lenwade and Witchingham, I delivered to Bernard Matthews, he never gave me a tip. The little old lady down the lane, she had three pints a week, three pints a week and she always give me a tip on the Saturday she give me a quid or an apple or something, always, she always had something for me and bloody Bernard Matthews never gave me a sausage. I used to deliver to his factory, sometimes I’d take 700 bottles of milk to the factory. I used to deliver to another turkey bloke too, to where the Dinosaur Park is now and some mornings I’d come round there and I’d forget that they’d got bumps and I’d go over the bumps. But basically I got on okay with the round, but we did have a few hiccups.

Ground works

I split up with my missus and went back to live with my mum and somehow managed to get a flat just off Dereham Road in Norwich and I got a job doing ground works. I went self employed and done a few little bits around Norwich, odd jobs and then got a job at Wymondham. I was working for a firm called Trell Construction, a Watton firm, that was a really good job but hard work. I remember one job, at what was like an old shunting station in Wymondham, an oil dump, now owned by Goff, but they didn’t own it when I was there, we did five and a half acres of concreting there. There used to be a railway line go there, probably linked to the mainline, it ended up in the hands of a firm called Archie King, a Norwich scrap metal firm. All the old steam trains used to end up there and Archie King cut them up with flame guns and scrapped them all. I spoke to one of the old boys who worked there and he said, ‘We were all fools’. He said, ‘Cos the boss said to us you can take whatever you like.’ He said, ‘You can take anything if you want it’, he said, ‘Take it’. So you know they took the copper and the brass for scrap but he said, ‘All the name plates and all the lovely things off the trains, we didn’t bother about. They were worth a fortune’ he said, ‘And we didn’t realise it.’ They took all the copper and brass ‘cos they knew they could sell for money but they left all the nameplates and all the lovely stuff.

Anyway when I went there it was a cleared site. It’s a huge area, and just next door now there’s a quarry, and there is a special stone, there’s a belt that run through Norfolk from the glacier that went through there. On the top there’s a mixture of clay and stone, what’s called hoggin, but underneath that was all beautiful stone, tons and tons of beautiful stone and sand, so it was like a natural base and they didn’t have to do anything to reinforce it. The monstrous oil tanks were just put on it, straight onto the ground.

There’s also a pipeline comes up there, if you look in certain places in Norfolk you’ll see a white post in a field or hedgerow. Them white posts mark a pipeline from Southampton, that’s a huge pipeline and they can send any sort of fuel you want from Southampton, you name it and that’ll come through. That’s all computerised and you tell them what you want and they’ll tell you when to open the valves and then that’ll come. That was a really good job for me., I earned a lot of money doing that.

I think that I got the sack from Trell, they used to sack us regular, if you were self employed they could sack you. When they run short of work they just sacked you and you had to go and find yerself another job. Sometimes you’d realise the job was getting near the end and you’d jump ship before they sacked you, but I was nearly always the one for getting sacked. Before I left Trell I worked on a site, Nunnery Way, Thetford, a council house thing; there was a firm from Southend working on one half and WF Pointer on the other half. There was about thirty flats and because they were building on top of the old nunnery you could not put a shovel in the ground without hitting a piece of stone, that was all the old masonry and you had to have a digger to dig the hole. When I got there the job was just about over running and they had a penalty clause, this meant losing money as every week it overran they’d have to pay the Council, the foreman was shot to pieces.

I was working with this Paddy and he had it really well worked out. The firm used to leave about 4 o’clock sharp to get back to Southend and the foreman used to leave with them. We always used to arrange to work after hours, fixing something, changing a drain, me and this Paddy we’d nearly always book till about 8 o’clock at night as overtime. We used to go in on a Saturday morning and clean the flats, we got paid five hours at time and a half. That was the best paid job I’ve ever had in my life.

I had some funny jobs, once with a country firm, proper old country boys. One old boy, we were really good mates and got on well, once I asked him how to drive a tractor because there was one on site and I’d never driven one. He got me on the tractor and showed me how to drive it and I said, ‘Where’s the accelerator?’ that had a lever for the accelerator but he hadn’t told me where it was, so he pushed the lever forward, the tractor just took off and he’s standing there behind me laughing himself silly because he knows that I don’t know where the lever is to switch it off. I was just driving away at about 30 miles an hour on the bloody tractor and I can’t stop. Yeah that was a good one.

After Trell I think that I worked for May Gurney working on the Hethersett bypass. I got the job as ganger man, we were doing the drains, on the side of the road they had stone drains. The water soaks through the stone into a carrier drain, in the middle of the road they had large concrete pipes, about two foot, and we used to lay those as well. That was a good job, yeah, well paid. That’s a concrete road and they had a thing called a concrete train, that’s like a mould. They set up the rails either side of the road, the width of two or maybe three carriageways and they rolled this bloody great thing along. They have lorries with side tippers and the lorries tip concrete into this machine and it just rolls along the rails and lays the road. So yeah, that was a performance. They had men working on there from all over the country, they were specialist concrete layers and they’d live in caravans while the job was going on and when that finished they’d go somewhere else and get another one.

I don’t know the exact spot, but as you come out of Norwich after the Thickthorn roundabout on the A11 heading towards Hethersett, that is actually very close to where the old road from Hethersett crosses the A11. That’s filled in now, they shut it off, but there was a water main going through. It was like an 8-inch water main and when they put the soil in the bulwark to overshoot the road, that must be about 10 metres higher than the original.They were supposed to turn that water main off ‘cos the weight of the soil on top would break it….and that’s what happened. The weight of the soil broke the pipe. They had diverted it but they didn’t switch them over, so the water was still going through that pipe while they were constructing it. They’re piling all the soil on and flattening it down and then suddenly the whole lot turned into bloody jelly because this water, through an 8-inch main, you can imagine the water coming off from there, it’s coming into it – suddenly someone realised, but that was a week late getting done because of that.

I was going to say, they got me re-laying kerbs and that is the world’s worst job. The first thing they do on a building site is the drains, then the roads and the kerbs. But while they are building the houses they trash all the kerbs and a bloke will come round from the council with a little spray and put a yellow mark on all the kerbs that have to be changed. You have to break the kerb out, it’s set in concrete, break it out, take it out and put a new one back in. Well, you have to butt them up so you have to get every piece of cement and dirt and muck out from underneath and lay it back on the bed, but you got to slide it in between the other two kerbs. Sometimes you’d chip the bloody kerb next to it or you’d chip the one you’re laying, the effort it takes to the lower that back in is bloody ridiculous. Sometimes I used to drive home and when I get out of the car I was so stiff, I ached, was so stiff I could hardly get out of the car.

Oh, another little job I didn’t mention, in between jobs I worked for my brother, who was an engineer. He used to work for a firm in Norwich called Balding Engineering and they used to make Beaver milling machines. They were the only people in this country making milling machines, I think that they made lathes as well, but they finally got done out of business by the Japanese, they couldn’t compete as the Japanese could make the machines cheaper than we could. They had a huge factory off Sweet Briar Road, opposite a garage and they did do good business for a while.

Aerobics and Ceroc dancing

As I said, after doing all the work on the kerbs, I ached and my bones ached and I was so stiff I could hardly get out of the car. Well, one of the things I did was, I went to the Norman Centre in Norwich and did aerobics, mainly with women. That was nice watching the women doing aerobics, but I had to stand at the back ‘cos I was hopeless, I should have been good at it but I wasn’t, I was hopeless. I couldn’t keep in time and I’d put all the others off, so they used to make me stand at the back. I did that for a while and someone suggested trying it at Lakenham. So I went to Lakenham to find out about aerobics and they were doing Ceroc dancing and they said that I might be better off doing that. I started Ceroc dancing and that’s where I met my present wife, in 1995 and we married in 2009. You don’t always have to be able to do it just a long as you’re on the floor wiggling your arse and having a bit of fun, that’s the main thing. Me and the missus have been doing it in lock down. On a Saturday night we put the record player on and have a wiggle and that’s lovely, that really is.

Birchams, Loddon

One of the firms I worked for was Birchams from Loddon, I had a lot of good memories of working there, I got on well there. They had a lovely old boy, I can’t remember his name, he used to do the fencing and turf. He said to me, ‘I’m giving up Brian, you could do what I’m doing’. Derek, that’s his name. Yeah, I took over from Derek, he said that he’d put in a good word for me. He didn’t know how good I was at fencing or turf laying or anything but he knew I was a good ground worker, and I used to lay slabs on the site and do people’s gardens.

I’d been doing that for years, and while I was doing the ground works I’d also be laying slabs for people in my spare time, you know Saturdays, Sundays. So he got me a job at Fakenham, doing the fencing and the turf for Persimmon Homes and that’s how I really took off, what I’m doing now. That must have been about 1990. They were a good firm to work for but then they changed, changed the way they did things, got very cheap and I couldn’t do it for the money, but while I was doing it I did earn quite a bit of money. While I was there the contracts manager asked me if I’d like to redo the show house garden. I think what happened, they were selling houses there, then the market for houses went tits up and they shut the site for about nine months, a year. Then they reopened it, started selling houses again, that was an awful site, down by the river and the soil was really stony, the gardens were awful. One old boy complained. He said, ‘You told me I had eight inches of topsoil in my garden, you can bloody well have it back’. And he said, ‘And I’ll have eight inches of proper topsoil’. There was more stone than anything else, it was awful soil.


I got the contract to do the show house gardens for Persimmon and that was the best work I’ve ever had in my life really, because I could do whatever I liked. Because I’d been trained as a surveyor I could draw and measure so I used to draw plans, all to scale and priced. They never quibbled one of my plans, never asked me to change anything, I just basically did what I liked. The contracts manager, a lady then, might mention this here or that there but basically it was left to me to do what I like. If I had materials left over from another job I used to work them into it, so a lot of the stuff I was doing, I wasn’t even having to buy. That was such a lovely job.

I really did enjoy garden design, because I had a free hand. I met a bloke called Frank, he got me started. I was working on a site at Wymondham , where the old Briton brush factory used to be, that’s the worst, another lousy bit of soil, awful, absolutely bloody awful. Frank was the fork-lift driver on site and he turned up to lay some turf for Persimmon, I think for a show house garden. He was trying to rake the topsoil, we were responsible for bringing the topsoil in, we’d tipped it in for him to rake out. It was bloody awful, so I went and got him soil what I thought was better and helped him rake it. When I went to Fakenham he was the fork lift driver there and when I said to him I had the show house garden to do he said, ‘I’ve got lots of plants Brian, don’t worry about the plants, I’ll bring you some plants’. He had a little squashed transit truck, the back was full of plants, the cab was full of plants, he had plants everywhere. He said, ‘you can have them for sixty quid, Brian’. Well there was something like two or three hundred quid’s worth of plants there. He showed me how to lay them all out first in the pots, lay ‘em out in the borders and then when you’re happy with where they all are, then put them in. We did two or three jobs together, me and Frank. He told me that if I wanted shrubs, to go to Wisbech auction, they had thousands and thousands of shrubs and they were dirt cheap and that’s how I got going.

A new lady come as contracts manager. She had her own gardeners there so I lost the contract. I put a plan and a price in and they never replied, so they didn’t say that my plan hadn’t been accepted, they just never bothered replying, so I realised that I’d lost the job.

I was still doing some of the turf for some of the sites, but they wanted me to lay the turf for £2 a square metre and I couldn’t even buy it for £2 a square metre, the standard of the workmanship on them gardens really went down. They never used to bother breaking the soil, they just put the turf however it came, sometimes half the turf was dead. They just laid it on the soil that never got raked or levelled or nothing. They got what they were paying for really.

Now I have private customers. Today I do two hours every two weeks for one lady, and I’ve now done three and half hours at another garden at Morley.

Changes in the season

I’ve seen slight changes in the seasons, not huge, but the downpours that we had just recently, so heavy and for so long. Down at Morley, what should have been like a ditch into a stream was like a river. That was absolutely torrential, and the temperatures now are really high, just gone through the roof and when it rains you just don’t know when it’s going to stop raining. This winter the river Tas – the beginning of the Tas is only a stream but it must have been, I don’t know something like 50, 60 yards wide. I am convinced about climate change, I am definitely. Me and the missus went to Canada and we went on the Athabasca glacier, I went there when I was in the army and that’s nearly all gone. Nearly all gone. Such a huge lump that’s gone. That’s just beyond belief.

I’m coming up for sixty-nine and I’m going to keep on going. I’m going to cut down. I’ve always done physical work, the only time I didn’t do physical work was when I was in the army doing surveyor work, that was fifty-fifty office work and manual work, so that’s suited me. I don’t enjoy getting wet, I try not to get wet, but I simply have to put up with it, yeah, no I enjoyed it. Hopefully we got plenty of time to go before I hang up my boots.

Brian Budds (b. 1952) from Tasburgh talking to WISEArchive on 21st July 2021

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