Working Lives

Bringing power to the marshes (1961-2019)

Location: Wymondham

Kerry worked for Eastern Electricity for many years before setting up his own company providing helicopter surveys. He describes the challenges of installing and maintaining overhead and underground cables on the marshes.

Early life

I was born in June 1945 in Stoke on Trent. Both my parents were born there and my grandfather ran a bus company for public service vehicles there. Dad had worked on minesweepers in Lowestoft throughout the war and knew the area and my aunt was already living in Great Yarmouth so, in 1954, my parents decided to move to Norfolk too. My first school was Abbey Hulton Junior in Stoke on Trent. I went to Cobholm Junior School when we first moved, then Mum and Dad bought a house in Gorleston and I went to Church Road Junior School where I passed the 11 plus, in 1956. I was at Great Yarmouth Grammar School till 1961, by which time we’d moved to Southtown, nearer my aunt.

As a teenager I spent many happy hours, with my friends, watching boat builders at work in the small boat yards on the river. They built boats from scratch, on the mud, steaming the timbers, which was fascinating to watch. A friend of mine had a gun punt on Breydon and we’d often go out wildfowling for ducks. At that time the herring fleet was still coming into Yarmouth, mooring up alongside the quay, about ten deep, almost across the river. We used to collect herring that had fallen out of the crans and take it home to Mum. It was wonderful to watch the Scottish fisher girls processing the herring.

Training for my first job

I left school after O Levels because I was interested in engineering work and Eastern Electricity was offering student and graduate apprenticeships. I went to a careers exhibition at Great Yarmouth Town Hall, signed up as a student apprentice, successfully passing enough O Levels in June 1961, and started with Eastern Electricity on the 11th September 1961. I spent nine months at the Eastern Electricity training school at Harold Hill in Essex, with a mix of 120 student, craft and graduate apprentices, all doing workshop practice and basic engineering skills. I lived in digs during the week and one day a week I was on day release at Great Yarmouth Tech studying for my ONC. In June ’62 I started work at Eastern Electricity’s depot and showrooms in Regent Road, Great Yarmouth. To begin with I worked with electricians and jointers doing cable joints, then, in December ‘62 I worked with the linesmen, operating from Great Yarmouth depot.

Winter 1963

I was in at the deep end, working through the very bad winter of 1963. Lines were brought down due to ice, and transformers blew up because they were overloaded. We had several interesting experiences repairing them on Acle marshes which were completely inaccessible due to the snow. We had to change a transformer which fed a cattle shed, cattle rearing and milking parlour, way out on the marshes. We dragged the new transformer behind a caterpillar tractor on a homemade sledge made up from curved Anderson shelter sheets and timber, and successfully replaced the faulty one.

From mid-January we had about three months of continuous very deep frost which froze everything. The river was frozen over and the sea was frozen to about 200 yards out at Yarmouth. A car was driven on the frozen river, all the way from Thorpe station in Norwich to Yarmouth. There were bonfires in the middle of Oulton Broad which was frozen solid, and Dad parked our Ford Consul on the ice with lots of other cars. Yarmouth wasn’t cut off but the roads were badly affected by rutted ice. We got about in Land Rovers and trucks. I was going to Norwich Tech, to do my Higher National Certificate, on my motorbike, along the impassable Acle new road where there was no traffic at all. That’s probably where I learned my off-road motorbiking skills because I never missed a day and I didn’t fall off!

We were defrosting pipes in the hospital using welding sets, repairing broken electricity cables that had frozen up, replacing water damaged electricity meters in people’s homes, we were dealing with all sorts of problems. We couldn’t lay new cables because the cable drums were completely frozen and we couldn’t unwind the cable so we had to bring the drums into the stores, warm them up for two or three days and repair the faulty section with the warm cable before it froze again.

Bringing electricity to the marshes

Most of the marshland was supplied by overhead eleven thousand volt lines. We did lay a few cables underground because of problems with the flight paths of geese and ducks on Breydon, and a number were laid across parts of Acle and Haddiscoe marshes but generally they were on poles, and the main lines were all on poles. The main eleven kV line from Great Yarmouth to Acle runs alongside the Acle new road where there are always some poles leaning over. It’s difficult to keep them upright in what is, basically, a peat bog. They have massive cruciform timbers bolted to the base to act as stabilisers, and lots of wind stays to hold them up at 90 degree right angles to the lines. In wet snow and freezing conditions the lines build up a layer of heavy ice which can be up to nine centimetres in diameter and can break the lines.

When I got my first engineering job at Norwich in 1966 we were still doing some rural electrification schemes. One was providing the first electricity supply into the Stratton Strawless area. We installed supplies for the first time into little hamlets and isolated farms well into the 60s and 70s. An overhead line to Acle, installed for a mains supply, meant that supplies could be taken off it to farmsteads on the marshes en route and, by the 70s, most homes on the marshes were connected and many wind pumps had been converted to electricity. I was involved in building the main primary substations all over Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as laying mains 33k volt cables.

When the Stalham bypass was built we put in a primary 33k volt substation at Stalham and I had to lay the cables along the bypass, past Stalham Staithe where the ground is completely waterlogged. Dig a foot down and you’re into water. We had to use dewatering equipment where you put perforated rods in the ground, suck the water out and back into the Broad, lowering the water table by about ten feet, using vacuum pumps, creating a dry, safe space to work in. All the time diesel-powered pumps worked to keep the area dry. Over Christmas 1969 I was out there every day, filling the diesel tank to keep the pumps working to avoid flooding, which would have been disastrous.


September 1986. 33kv line under construction near Long Stratton
September 1986. 33kv line to Long Stratton under construction. Hapton substation.

Access to the Broads can be difficult. When switch gear became obsolete we had to load replacements on to boats off a quayside, like Potter Heigham, take it upriver and unload it using JCBs or similar at the other end. Once, at Thurne, we had to borrow the Vicar’s boat to get the switch gear to the substation which was inaccessible. We got our linesmen and equipment onto site, over ditches and boggy ground, using a number of vehicles such as argocats and, where necessary, we hired caterpillar tractors. Often, we’d strap the poles onto a pole bogey and tow it across by Land Rover or Bedford 4 by 4 when the marshes were dry enough to take the weight, usually during the summer.

Latterly we pioneered the use of helicopters to transport men and equipment to the work site. We also specially commissioned 6 by 6 Land Rovers with flotation tyres. One of these was, at the time, the longest Land Rover in the world and the Board used it for a fundraising event which I took part in. We drove it down to Beaujolais in France for the Beaujolais Run, picked up the wine and raced back. The wine was then auctioned off and the proceeds went to a charity. We were sponsored by Land Rover and Kuwait Oil so it didn’t cost the Board anything.

September 1986. Tree surveyors ready for takeoff
Mid 1980s. Helicopter at The White House, Chapel Bell, Wymondham taking off
at start of line patrol with Capt. Gerry Hermer and Kerry Berrisford on board

Challenges and emergencies

Faults generally occurred in the winter so reaching the problem site could be difficult. I remember hiking for miles across Haddiscoe marshes in bad conditions, at night, to inspect the lines. Despite the problems of overhead lines at least you can see them. Underground lines are much more expensive to put in and much more difficult to repair. No overhead lines are built by the company I work for, as a consultant, though there are still reasons why, in areas like the Broads, they are the best solution.

Underground cables laid across a peat bog eventually sink in, particularly the old heavy cable which was lead sheathed . You lay a cable three feet deep and it ends up ten feet deep. Loops of cable occur where the ground level is variable, putting pressure on the cables and the joints pull apart. Around Wroxham, Horning and Wayford Bridge cables have been laid in boggy conditions making repair and maintenance work very challenging.

If the supply went off it was very difficult for farmers on the marshes as very few of them had standby generators. Before they had electricity they were reliant on their own resources but once they were connected they started up pig rearing units and milking parlours, depending on electricity. We worked hard to try and keep them on supply and make it as reliable as possible, as they do today, of course. Eventually many of them bought standby generators, when they could get hold of them.

As the wind pumps were getting old and failing the marshes were filling up with water which couldn’t be pumped out because the sails had come down in the gales. Many were converted to electricity-driven pumps but when the supply failed the farmers were in double trouble. They couldn’t pump out and were unable to heat their homes or cook but also had no lights in the cattle sheds, and couldn’t grind the feed materials for the cattle. Very difficult working on the marshes.

Sadly there have been a number of tragic incidents where farm vehicles have driven into overhead lines and people have been killed. I’ve been on boards of enquiry, looking into the accidents. Generally people have driven into the line with the back of the trailer up, got out of the vehicle, bridged the gap between the vehicle and the ground and got electrocuted.

I remember one incident at Beeston Regis, on the North Norfolk coast, where there was a system emergency and, of course, there were no mobile phones then. We had a separate Board radio system though the reception was non-existent in many places. There was a gale blowing, trees were down all over the place, no communications, people off supply, including a nursing home. I could see the disconnected line was an 11k volt line. I isolated it, couldn’t get in touch with control and although it was against the normal safety rules, I knew I would have to repair it on my own. I borrowed a ladder, got up the transformer to replace the wire, and, unluckily for me, there was a lightning strike on the line further up. It knocked me off the pole and burned my leg. I was dazed, on the ground, when a guy who’d been watching, said, ‘My goodness, are you alright? Does that happen very often?’ I said, ‘No, generally only once’. I wasn’t really hurt, just shocked but I got up, put the line jumper back on, switched it back in again and went home. I didn’t tell anyone about it and today I still have a mark on my leg where I’d had a 50 pence piece in my pocket when I leant up against the pole and it burned.

Characters on the marshes

I’ve worked with some interesting characters over the years. Robin Harrison, who was a storekeeper at Yarmouth, had a column in the Eastern Daily Press for many years, writing about his exploits on Breydon Marshes where he had a marshman’s hut. I often went out wildfowling with him. The fishing club had a boat, a converted lifeboat, which we used to go seal spotting on Scroby Sands. Robin was a well known naturalist, a great guy.

Some of the linesmen were amazing. They were hard as nails, out in all weathers, on top of poles in freezing conditions, getting people’s supplies on, in temperatures of minus 20 in 1963. Every piece of metal you touched, you froze to it. Unsung heroes to be honest.

People who lived and worked on the marshes were a distinct breed, completely resilient and quite happy with oil lamps, having lived with them all their lives. They led a frugal life, in their own environment and were generally content. There are plenty of tales to tell about bringing electricity into homes for the first time. Tom, a foreman, put a supply on to an isolated farm near Wood Dalling in North Norfolk. They erected a long section of single-phased 11k volt line with a transformer on the end of it. In those days you got one light and one plug. The day the supply went live Tom went to the farm to demonstrate the wonderful new electricity supply to the farmer. He said, ‘You can switch the light on and you’ve now got electric light’. ‘Thank you Governor, thank you very much’. ‘I’ll come back to see how you’re getting on in a week’s time, and see if you want any help with it’. So he went back in a week’s time and was met at the door by the farmer who said, ‘Cor, Governor, that bloody electricity, that’s bloody wonderful, that is! God, you lit that light the other day and the bugger ain’t gone out yet!’ And that’s true! They were so used to lighting oil lamps and dealing with wicks, they didn’t know any different. They thought it was all wonderful.

There were a few people still living on houseboats on the River Bure, just in Yarmouth near Vauxhall. They didn’t have electricity supplies as it wasn’t allowed. It was like living in a floating caravan. They were more or less self-sufficient, with oil and portable gas appliances. They were fine.

Early retirement and new prospects

In 1995 when I was 50 the Electricity Board offered me early retirement with full pension which I couldn’t refuse. I then set up a company providing helicopter surveys for electricity boards – condition surveys, surveys looking for tree problems, that sort of thing. I’ve now moved on and, since 2007, I’ve been doing consultancy work for an infrastructure company. I started on a monthly contract and twelve years on, I’m still there. We are now the largest infrastructure builder in the country, supplying electricity to over two and a half million customers, and we own the infrastructure for gas, communications, fibre optics and, in many cases, water supplies. It’s been very interesting to see the company grow from nothing. With 58 years of experience in the supply industry and electricity distribution it seemed a pity to let it go to waste!

About 1985. Helicopters used for underslung loads in emergency conditions.
Mid 1980s. Helicopter at The White House, Chapel Bell, Wymondham taking off at start of line patrol with Capt. Gerry Hermer and Kerry Berrisford on board

Thoughts on the future

There will always be problems living on the Broads. Infrastructure and rising sea levels will make life difficult in the future. You can build houses on stilts, and a number of holiday homes along the Broads are built as pile structures, down to hard ground. As long as you accept that there’ll be accessibility problems at times. One of the biggest challenges is the electrification of transport which is what I’m involved in now. As gas boilers are phased out the challenge will be how to generate electricity without using fossil fuels, using renewables, nuclear power and, maybe, fission, and how to decarbonise the grid without making use of either coal or natural gas.

A recent event shows how renewables have their own problems. They simply couldn’t deal with a ripple of low frequency that lasted less than two minutes when the grid and wind farm became unstable and switched themselves off, creating a cascade, with another power station, resulting in mainline trains switching themselves off, though they didn’t actually lose supply.

There are solutions but we will all have to rethink the way we travel, considering how much pollution is caused by cars and aeroplanes. However, I am not entirely convinced that some green initiatives are actually reducing carbon emissions once the calculations have been done. Growing crops to put into anaerobic digesters is fine but to then tow the digestate twenty miles by diesel tractors doesn’t make sense. We do need to apply common sense when addressing these issues. At 74 years of age it’s good to still be involved in the industry and put in my own two pennyworth.

Kerry Berrisford (b. 1945) talking  WISEArchive on 30th September 2019 at Crownthorpe.

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