Saturday, 13 August 2016

A Drive to the North: Bandit Country, Redwoods, and Shelter Cove

For day 1, see here.

Our plan for the second day was to drive north from Covelo, taking the long dirt road that leads 50 miles northwards through truly empty country.

There is just one problem. The triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties account for a large part of California's marijuana production, worth billions of dollars. Nearly all of this is illegal, though enforcement is rare. The geography is perfect, with plenty of rain and plenty of empty places to hide in. The growers aren't in a big hurry to be discovered, so as a visitor the last thing you want to do is accidentally stumble across a plantation. They also aren't especially nice people. They do enormous damage to the environment, diverting streams, destroying forests and generally acting with no accountability. Legalisation, likely to happen later this year, will be a huge improvement, regardless of whether or not you use the stuff.

Violence is commonplace. Just two weeks before our visit, two growers right in Round Valley itself, no doubt stoned out of their minds, set upon each other. One is dead, his body found in a shallow grave, while the other fled to the other side of the country but has since been found. Our journey that day led through the tiny and oddly-named settlement of Kettenpom. If you look it up, the first couple of pages are all about a double murder, and double attempted murder, that happened there five years ago. The perpetrator, who was killed shortly afterwards in a car chase, had stolen money and dope from the victims.

But everyone we spoke to assured us that as long as we stayed on roads and didn't venture onto private driveways or hike into woods or fields, we'd be safe. The biggest danger, we were told, is the huge water tankers that zoom around blind bends way too fast - marijuana takes vast amounts of water, and we certainly saw plenty of those. We took bends very slowly, and way over to our own side of the road.

The first part of the drive was on the hardtop road through the Indian part of the Valley. There is absolutely nothing to distinguish this from the southern part - there is the same mixture of modest but well maintained houses, dilapidated shacks, and decrepit trailers surrounded by junk and rusting cars. Soon though the road changes, it starts to twist and climb and becomes a dirt road. It was well graded throughout and could easily be driven by any car, even my Audi TT.

There are "no trespassing" signs every few yards, nailed to trees and fenceposts. Many of them have a light green star as a background, exactly the same colour as the crop they are protecting. It really doesn't leave any doubt.

Middle Fork Eel River, from the only bridge that crosses it.
After many miles of twists and turns, the road descends a steep zigzag to a valley. And there, miles from anywhere in any direction, is a very impressive concrete bridge across one of the bits of the Eel River. It's the only place in the whole 35 mile or so length of this fork that a road comes near it, which gives an idea of just how empty this area is. Soon after, the road passes through what's left of the settlement of Mina. There's a nearby ranch, but that's all. Yet there was a post office - and presumably some people who wanted to use it - until 1938. What on earth did those people live on?

Next the road climbs to the top of a ridge, running along for several miles at over 3500 feet. The views in both directions are spectacular, tree covered valleys in the foreground, then successive mountain ranges behind them. And there is not a single sign of human habitation or existence in sight anywhere, in a few hundred square miles. It is very impressive.

The road becomes hardtop again exactly where it crosses the line into Trinity County. But the hardtop is in very poor shape, with many deep holes where it has disintegrated. Even in a normal car, the dirt road would be easier and a lot more pleasant to drive.

After 35 miles, the odd mailbox starts to appear, the first sign of any kind of civilization. One valley away is a smaller version of Round Valley, a tiny agricultural plain in the middle of the hills. It even has its own airport - private, but charted - with the odd name of Heller Highwater (CL45). I noticed it when I was flying over, but I doubt that they welcome visitors. It's very odd, the business of which private airports are charted and which aren't. In the backcountry there are numerous private strips, often shown on the USGS topological maps, but rarely shown on FAA charts. Which is a shame, because if the engine stops over the mountains, you need all the help you can get.

Shortly afterwards the road leads to the tiny hamlet of Kettenpom, with its general store. This gained notoriety in the double murder of 2011, when one of the non-victims raised the alarm by showing up there gushing blood from an attempt to slit her throat. The two non-victims were only involved because one of the actual victims had managed to make a 911 call before dying. But the nearest presence of the Trinity County Sheriff's Department is a couple of hours away over the kind of road we'd just driven. So they called the nearest neighbour (half a mile away) to "pop round and see if everything is OK". Which it seriously wasn't, and the already-double murderer made a serious effort at finishing them off too. The latest twist to the still unfinished saga is that the surviviors are now suing the Sheriff's Department. It's an exciting life out there in the middle of nowhere.

Kettenpom - sinister truck not in shot!
I like these country general stores, making a living on the needs of a few dozen local residents and the occasional tourist (extremely occasional on this road), filling their need for booze, tinned food, and expensive gas. We stopped to go inside, but just then a big black pickup arrived and two very sinister looking guys got out. The looks they gave us, as they spat on the ground and hushed the sullen pitbull that remained inside the truck, suggested that they were very interested to know who we were and why we were there, and anyway would much rather that we weren't. It seemed wise to oblige them, so I still haven't seen what's for sale in the Kettenpom General Store.

The end of the road is a few miles later at Zenia. The general store there has closed - maybe the competition from Kettenpom was too much. But amazingly there is still a post office, and it was even open - though we didn't have anything to post. And to prove what we had achieved, there was a sign showing the distance to Covelo as 51 miles. It had taken just under two hours, including stops.

Our next planned stop was the Avenue of the Giants, a stretch of road through the Eel River valley completely surrounded by Redwood forest. The road is the original two-lane US 101, now bypassed by a modern highway. The obvious way to get there was straight to Garberville then north on 101. But some studying of the road map and the topo map showed there was a more interesting way, with more dirt roads that would take us straight to the central part of the highway.

So, passing an intriguing looking car, loaded up to the gills and surrounded by way more Chinese people than should ever have been able to fit inside it (what on earth were they doing in the deeper wilds of Humboldt County?), we set off on yet another just-barely hardtop road. Our initial aiming point was Fort Seward, on the Eel River.

A word about the Eel River. Pretty much every stretch of water in Humboldt County is called the Eel River. My personal suspicion is that "eel" is a word in one of the local Indian languages meaning "river", just like the several River Avons in England ("avon" is a Celtic word for river). They are distinguished by modifiers like South Fork, North Fork, Middle Fork and various other Lesser Forks. Isabelle says it reminds her of all the Hounslow stations on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, of less than fond memory.

The old Northwestern Pacific main line passes through the Eel River valley. Mostly it is all by itself, with no accompanying road. Trains haven't run there since some natural disaster (a flood, I think) did tremendous damage in 1996. It must have been a magnificent line to travel, back in its day when it was the only way to get from San Francisco to Eureka. Before it was built, as late as 1914, the only way was by boat up the coast - what a pleasure that must have been during a Pacific storm.
Our picnic spot in the Eel River valley.

Fort Seward was a whistle stop on the railway. It started life in 1861 as a military fort, against the Indians, but the fort didn't survive its first winter. While the trains were running, it was a busy little place, with a sawmill and a post office. There isn't much left, though we didn't get a chance to look round since even the roads were marked with light green "no trespassing" signs.
View into Eel River valley.

We did manage to find a trail that led down to the river. That was where we ate our picnic, in complete tranquility, sitting on the vast gravel banks with our toes almost in the water, FJ happily standing guard over us. The Eel River (all of them) has tremendous variations in its flow - in the winter it completely fills the valley, but in summer it's relatively just a trickle - one one-hundredth of the flow. Occasionally it floods - in 1964 the flood left a huge trail of destruction, washing away whole towns.

Thus refreshed, we set out for the Avenue of the Giants. The road was the usual mixture of graded dirt and gravel, and past-its-best hardtop. The views down into the valley and across the hills were magnificent.
The drive through the redwoods is very impressive. They are... well, giant. The road has been threaded through them and you are always under their very dense canopy. Under them, the only thing that grows is ferns. There is an excellent visitor center with a very impressive display of the local wildlife.
From there we drove along a side valley to the "Giant Tree", which claims to be the biggest redwood alive. It's certainly pretty big, once you find it - it's on a long loop trail through the woods, which isn't really signposted. From there we had two choices to complete our journey to Shelter Cove. One was to continue along the same side valley, leading eventually to a dirt road down the coast. The alternative was to go back to 101 and take the much longer route through Garberville. But we'd had enough back roads for the day, so we went for 101. Even so we ended up on a long, just-barely hardtop road going past the airport in Garberville, where I'd been a couple of weeks earlier. On the map it looks like it would be reasonable to walk into town (if it wasn't 104ºF), but the reality is different - it involves a long descent down into the valley, then a long climb back up the other side.

It's a long, twisty road across the mountains to Shelter Cove. The mountains rise very abruptly from the sea, so the road drops 2000 feet in just the last couple of miles.

Shelter Cove is essentially a runway surrounded by houses. The runway was the first thing to be built, while the developer tried to sell the building lots around it - there's a picture in a bar showing the state of things in 1964, with just the runway. Before then, it was a tiny fishing port, with a sheltered beach forming a decent natural harbour - there is still quite a bit of fishing activity. It's still a tiny place, with a permanent population under 1000. It has several hotels but they're all small with maybe 50 rooms between them. We'd chosen ours, right on the beach, because it had a good restaurant - the only one there. Except it didn't - they'd told us the previous day that it was "temporarily" closed.

That left two choices, a bar and a take-out pizzeria. We visited the bar, which supposedly served food, but we didn't see any evidence of it. They did make a good margarita though. All the other customers were locals, fishermen for the most part. When we went to the bar, two guys who were having a very quiet conversation conspicuously moved out to the terrace. We would have liked to have our drinks there ourselves, but we didn't dare follow them.

There remained only the pizzeria, at the opposite end of the town. It was a bustling place, with people sitting at the few tables and a long line. It was a long wait for our pizza - long enough to go for a walk along the cliffs - but well worth it, with an excellent crisp base and perfect toppings as well. If there's only one place to eat in town, you really can't count on it being good - but luckily it was. We took our pizza back to our hotel room, and opened one of our bottles of Saracina Malbec to go with it. It was a very pleasant (and inexpensive) evening, and we didn't regret the hotel restaurant at all.

I'm still intrigued by the question of just who would own a home at Shelter Cove. The houses around the airport are big, but you'd have to be retired, or not need to work, to live there permanently. It really is a long way from anywhere else. It's a 5-6 hour drive from the Bay Area, too far for a weekend place. The only towns close enough are in the Eureka area, but that's not an especially wealthy area and anyway Shelter Cove would just be more of the same. Isabelle's theory is that it's a retreat for the growers and dealers from inland, but I'm not so sure.
For the next day, see here.

A Drive to the North: Lost and Found Coasts, with some Wine

For previous days, see here and here.

The Shelter Cove General Store - if you look carefully you'll
see that the truck on the right is carrying everything
including the kitchen sink!
Shelter Cove is right in the middle of the so-called "Lost Coast", the 50 mile stretch of coastline which is completely inaccessible by road. The mountains rise directly and almost vertically from the sea to 2000 feet or more. When Route 1 was built along the California coast in the 1930s, it was decided that this part was too hard. A few miles north of Fort Bragg, Route 1 gives up and turns inland to twist over the mountains and merges with US 101, which joins the coast at Eureka.

After my flight to Shelter Cove, I was looking at maps and realised that in fact there is a road which runs close to the Lost Coast. The southern part is called Usal Road, running from Shelter Cove to Usal Beach and then a few more miles to join Route 1 where it departs from the coast. One of the goals of this trip was to drive Usal Road. From the map, it looked as though it should have fantastic views of the ocean and coast from high up on the mountainside.

First we wanted to visit the Sinkyone State Park. (It's pronounced "sinky-on", named after the local Indian tribe). This has to be the most remote State Park in the country. It's reached by a steep, rutted dirt road, descending from 1200 feet to sea level in just over a mile - a ruling gradient of about 20%. I was very glad we had FJ.

It is well worth the drive though. The trail arrives at the coast at a place called Needle Rock. Once, this was an active port, shipping logs for the construction of San Francisco. But now, all that is left is a visitor centre, an old barn, and a primitive camp site. It's a beautiful and tranquil place, with magnificent views up and down the coast as far as Shelter Cove a few miles north. When we arrived a group of elk were ambling along the coast.

Needle Rock, surrounded by strange-looking seaweed.
We had a long talk with the warden - he probably doesn't get to talk to many people. He told us a lot about the way the marijuana industry works, and the damage it is doing. He lives there for a month at a time - just as well, it would be a terrible commute. Amazingly, his wife's car, which was also there, was just an ordinary VW Golf. I would not like to try and get that up and down the trail.

Shelter Cove from Sinkyone.
When we mentioned our plan to drive the Usal Road he said, "Why on earth would you want to do that? It's a terrible road, much worse than the trail down here. It's long and you can't get above 5 mph."

"I thought the views would be magnificent," I replied.

"There aren't any. It's in the trees the whole way, and anyway it's mostly on the wrong side of the ridge."

There was another guy there, talking with the warden, who was three quarters of the way through the round-trip walk along the Lost Coast - he'd spent four days so far, and was expecting to need another two. There is a hiking trail which goes from Route 1 in the south, all the way to the Mattole estuary in the north, the next place accessible by road. It's 50 miles from end to end, and there are long stretches along the beach which are submerged at high tide - so careful planning is needed, or in the worst case you can drown. The southern part goes up and down the mountains - there's a great blog about it here. It's only for the seriously fit.

We did a much shorter walk to see the eponymous Needle Rock. The northern coast is studded with rock formations, often, like this one, pyramidal in shape. But this one had a nasty accident - in the 1906 earthquake, whose starting point was close to here, its top fell off, a ten-foot high chunk of rock which now sits in the water next to what's left of its parent.

We drove back up the narrow, twisty trail to Four Corners where the Usal Road departs to the south. Despite the warden's disparaging remarks, we thought we'd give it a try. FJ has dealt effortlessly with plenty of challenging trails.

Usal sounds like it ought to be an Indian word. But actually it's short for USA Lumber, who logged this part of the coast and created the road.

The first mile was easy enough, dirt with a few ruts but mostly driveable at 10-15 mph. After that things got rapidly worse. The ruts were continuous and up to a foot deep, so we were mostly travelling slower than walking pace, gently dropping the wheels one by one into a rut then climbing out again. Even at that speed it was uncomfortable, especially for a passenger, and taking a lot of concentration. A quick calculation showed that it would have taken four or five hours of this to reach the other end. Finally after about three miles we looked at each other and agreed, "Enough". We had seen nothing but trees the whole way - very pretty trees, it's true, but not the magnificent coastal views we'd hoped for.

FJ resting at our picnic spot after the traumatic drive
along Usal Road.
We turned around and found an idyllic clearing where we ate our lunch. After that, 15 more minutes of the painful trail took us back to Four Corners, from where we could take the much longer but still faster and much more comfortable road back to the coast.

The first part of the route is through the hamlet of Whitehorn. Something we noticed here and everywhere else on these little roads is that nearly every single house has a solid wooden fence in front of it, completely blocking any view into the surrounding lot. Sometimes the fence seems to go all around the lot, but often it's just alongside the road. There is an obvious explanation - but really, every house? Is everyone here growing illicit pot? And even if so, is it really a good idea to draw attention to the fact with a massive - and expensive - fence?

The long way round back to the coast is very long, and it ends with the very twisty mountain crossing at the northern end of Route 1. Just when you think it's over, at the point where it rejoins Usal Road, it suddenly dives back inland again for the next few miles. Finally it reaches the coast just north of the tiny settlement of Westport.

From there on it is one of the most beautiful roads in the world, even more spectacular than Big Sur and with a lot less traffic. Every bend and every bay is breathtaking. The sand is dark, almost black, and the bays and headlands are dotted with rock formations.

Eventually it passes through Fort Bragg, the only real town along the whole coast from San Francisco to Eureka. It's an unlovely place of strip malls, car dealers and such, but it does have the only Starbucks on the whole coast, which made a welcome break.

Beyond Fort Bragg, the next place is Mendocino - which is more fancy tourist trap than real town. After that, there really is nothing but tiny hamlets right down to Marin County.

But our destination for the night was Boonville, inland on Route 128. This initially follows the gorge of the Navarro River, deep in the redwoods with 2000 foot mountains on either side. It is really a beautiful road, equal in every way to the more famous Avenue of the Giants but with hardly any traffic.

After the redwoods, the road turns into the Anderson Valley - really just the upper part of the Navarro Valley. It's famous for its wineries, which thanks to the influence of the ocean breezes blowing up the valley can produce wines very comparable with the Alsace region in France. But that was for the next day.

The garden of the Boonville Hotel.
At Boonville we'd booked a room at the best hotel in town, the Boonville Hotel. One reason was their restaurant, so were disappointed to learn that on Sundays they have a single-serving table d'hôte dinner, which was sold out and anyway we were too late. We went across the street to a small tapas-ish place called Aquarelle, where we ate and drank well.
Next day the plan was to take a look around some wineries before going back to the coast for a gentle, scenic drive home. Only problem is, we prefer red wines, and not pinot noir, and the Alsace-style wines of the Anderson Valley are mostly either white or pinot. Since the wineries open at 11, we spent much of the morning at the hotel, taking advantage of our little terrace looking out over their beautiful garden. They grow a lot of their own fruit and vegetables for the kitchen, in a superb mixture with flowers and other decorative plants. The hotel is a real pleasure, marred only by their eye-watering prices and the little problem with the dinner.

Our first call was at Roederer, owned by the famous French champagne house. Their regular champagne is OK, no comparison with a good French champagne but eminently drinkable. The big surprise for us was the identical champagne, but bottled by magnum (a double-size 1.5 litre bottle). It was a completely different wine, much more rounded, much deeper, and really comparable to a French product. We bought a magnum although I'm not sure when we'll drink it.

We visited a couple of others, but we weren't really impressed. The grapes for the deeper reds (Syrah, Zinfandel) are trucked across from the warmer inland valleys. It's de rigeur in California for a winery to make some of everything. Even if their local climate is totally unsuitable, they have to make available everything from Sauvignon Blanc (cold) to Syrah (hot) and everything in between.

At Point Arena.
Point Arena lighthouse.
From there we drove back to the coast at a place called Elk, and then gently southwards. It's impossible to resist stopping at practically every bay and every twist and turn in the road, the scenery is so magnificent. But there was one problem. I hadn't seen a gas station in Boonville, though there must surely be one, and by now FJ with her famously unfrugal appetite was getting seriously low. Just as we pulled into the parking lot for the Point Arena lighthouse, the low fuel warning lit up. That means at best 20 miles before running dry. I was very grateful for the 5-gallon can on the roof, the first time I've ever actually needed it. My new siphon pump worked a treat, and we managed to transfer all of it without spilling a drop, never mind the usual experience of getting it all over my shoes and trousers.
Manchester, California, from the air.
The harbour at Point Arena.
Just before that we passed through Manchester, California. It's a bit of a contrast to its counterpart in northern England (or even New Hampshire) - the population is under 500, and there isn't even a gas station. I have a picture of it that I took from the plane on my flight to Shelter Cove but even that makes it seem bigger than it really is.

Of course a couple of miles after using our emergency gas supply, we found a gas station, in the village of Point Arena. We were very happy to see it. From there we planned to have lunch at a famous chowder house out at the fishing port on the estuary. And indeed we did, but honestly it was a disappointment - more potato soup than chowder, with a handful of gritty, chewy clams. But the onion rings were good, even though each one is enough to harden the arteries of a whole football team.

Pelicans at Jenner.
The beach and Russian River estuary at Jenner.
And then, more coast, as lonely and as hauntingly beautiful as ever. We passed through a string of little places that I'd only ever flown over previously, like the vastly etiolated retirement and second-home community of Sea Ranch. The further south we went, the busier the road became. At Bodega Bay we turned inland to join 101, and the urban route back home. It had been a wonderful journey.

On our way home!

A Drive to the North: Day 1, to Covelo

North of the Bay Area and west of the Central Valley, California is trees, mountains, a lonely and beautiful coastline, and very little else. The population of this whole area, 15% of the area of the state, is less than 250,000 - less than 1% of the 37 million people in California. I've flown over it many times, fascinated by the wilderness. You can go a long way without seeing more than the occasional dirt road or ranch, whole valleys with just trees, trees and more trees.

This adventure started several years ago when, looking for a destination for an afternoon's flight, I chose Round Valley (O09). This is a rare populated area right in the middle of the wilderness, a circular plain about three miles across high up in the mountains. You'll never go there by accident - the only good road into it goes no further, so there's no such thing as passing through. I flew back there a couple more times, including the time we arrived by sheer chance on the day of the annual rodeo. We had a wonderful time that day, at our first ever rodeo.

A year ago I chose as another flight destination Shelter Cove (0Q5), a very isolated airport on the so-called Lost Coast, of which more later. The weather went from poor to terrible in the time it took me to shut down and secure the plane, and I was very lucky to get out again in just-barely VFR conditions. But still I was intrigued by the place.

Round Valley and Covelo from the air
Then just two weeks back I went to Garberville (O16), 20 miles inland from Shelter Cove. It was hot, over 100ºF, and I got out of the plane only to seek some shade to eat my lunch. On the way back I flew inland, towards the tiny, remote airport at Ruth (T42), buried deep in a steep valley, then back south over the totally uninhabited mountainous back-country. On the way I passed just east of Round Valley, the perfect position to take a panoramic aerial picture.

We were talking about my trip the next day, and Isabelle said, "Let's go there". So we planned a four-day, three-night weekend, staying the first night in Covelo, the only town in Round Valley. And the adventure began.

The drive to Covelo is straightforward, up 101 to the little town of Willitts, then route 162 into the Eel River valley and over the mountain into Round Valley. Route 162 has a strange existence. It fizzles out as a one-lane road in the hills to the east of Covelo, but continues as an unnumbered dirt road over the 5000 foot Mendocino Pass and down into the western borders of the central valley. Then it becomes 162 again and continues eastward to Chico. In this it is like route 190 further south, which is interrupted in the middle by Mount Whitney - the highest mountain in the Lower 48. I guess it's easy to overlook this kind of thing when you're a road planner.

We stopped three times on the way. Once was for lunch in a vineyard. Afterwards we visited the Saracina Winery, in Hopland. We had a long talk with the lady there - probably we were the only person she saw on a quiet weekday. She told us a lot about the vineyards in the area - the upper valley of the Russian River, southwards from Ukiah. They're separated from the sea by a mountain range, so the hot climate allows them to grow serious red grapes like Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Syrah. We bought a few bottles, for which we were grateful later in the trip. Hopland is an interesting little town. Unlike Cloverdale and Geyserville further south, which look unchanged since the 1930s, it has a bit of a revival going on, with several tasting rooms, art galleries and so on. It's just the right distance from the Bay Area - far enough to seem to like a real outing, but not "are we there yet" too far.

Our third stop was at Willitts, to visit the home of the Skunk Train. Properly known as the California Western Railway, it was built a hundred years ago to connect the port of Fort Bragg with the main Northwestern Pacific line from San Francisco north to Eureka. When traffic started to decline in the 1920s, they started running gasoline-powered railcars. The story is that they smelled so bad, the locals called it the Skunk Train - and the name has stuck. It still operates as a tourist service on summer weekends, but keeping the line in good shape is a major headache and at the moment it is blocked by a landslide towards the coast, limiting the service to an out-and-back shuttle from Willitts. We had a long talk with the lady in the gift shop, who also turned out to be one of their diesel locomotive drivers.

The road follows the Eel River for a while before branching off down its Middle Fork, which drains Round Valley by a very circuitous route first to the east, then south, and finally westwards to the tiny settlement of Dos Rios where it meets the main river. For some reason the road takes a shorter, but very twisty, route directly over the mountain, climbing to 2000 feet at Inspiration Point before descending nearly 1000 feet into the valley. The view from there is, well, inspiring, with a panoramic view of the whole valley laid out in front of you. I've seen it from the air, but even so this view is spectacular.

Round Valley from Inspiration Point
It's a short downhill drive from there to the long, straight main road through the valley. There are a few shops and such along it, but we didn't find our hotel - the Golden Oaks Motel, the only place to stay in the valley. It turns out to have a very large and conspicuous sign - but facing north, which is to say never the direction people will arrive from.

The motel is pretty basic, but clean, modern and in good shape. It's as good as you can expect in an out of the way place like this (I gave it five stars on Yelp). Once we were checked in, I set off again to drive to Mendocino Pass. Isabelle had had enough of FJ's creature comforts, so I went alone. It was a very pleasant drive. The first few miles are on a twisty hardtop road that eventually meets the main river again. Then, even more in the middle of nowhere, is the Black Butte Ranch, a campsite, modest resort and general store.

From there the road is dirt, climbing steadily up the flank of a side valley. It rises 3500 feet in a few miles, yet it never seems particularly steep. It was freshly graded and could easily be driven in a regular car, though that may change depending on rainfall. I'd hoped for a panoramic view across to the Central Valley from the summit, but the mountains are too convoluted for that. The best views are back westwards towards Round Valley. It is possible to continue eastwards, eventually hitting the eastern hardtop section of route 162 to Willows and Chico. The round trip just to the pass took me over two hours, so it would be a slow way to travel, though certainly faster than the alternative for the rare traveller who really needed to get from Willows to Covelo.

It was dinner time when I got back to the motel. There are exactly as many dinner choices as hotel choices: one. The North Fork Cafe, right on the central crossroads in Covelo, had good reviews. It has about a dozen tables, of which a handful were occupied when we arrived. As far as we could tell, we were the only non-locals - everyone very obviously knew everyone else. We had a very pleasant server, and a very enjoyable meal of baked halibut. After some discussion we tried a couple of fairly local red wines, which were both very drinkable. Some vines are grown in Round Valley itself, but there are no wineries there - these wines came from the upper Russian River valley, that we had driven through earlier.

We'd parked just behind another FJ, very smart in the recent dark green colour. Someone had obviously spent a lot of money on it - the suspension was lifted with good equipment, and it had after-market metal bumpers and a winch. I asked inside whose it was - it turned out to belong to the cook, who had just bought it from a friend. It is the perfect car for the area - robust enough for any of the available dirt (or worse) roads, yet comfortable for the inevitable long drives to civilization. But then, I would think that.

After dinner, the night was yet young. We crossed the street to a bar (you guessed - there's only one of them too). We'd been there before, when we walked into town from the airport. They made a good margarita (this time - not when I was flying!) and best of all, they had a pool table and it was empty. We played a couple of games, then a local guy (a fantastic looking Indian, who could have taken a star role in any old-fashioned Western) offered to play. He won - I'm sure he has played a lot more than either of us - but I put up a decent fight.

And speaking of Indians (Native Americans if you want to be super politically correct, but since they call themselves Indians, I see no reason not to)... the Valley is home to a reservation for the Round Valley Indian Tribes (RVIT). It occupies the northern half and up into the hills, while the southern half is owned by white ranchers and farmers. The dividing line passes just north of the main crossroads, although the hotel is Indian-owned. The story is very typically sad. Until the white man arrived, the Valley was home to the Yuki tribe. They had a one-off unique language, unrelated to any other (just like Basque). One of its unique features was that counting was in base 8 (like octal) rather than base 10, because they counted using the gaps between their fingers rather than the fingers themselves.

The Yuki were rapidly corralled into a reservation, so the ranchers and loggers could take their land. Then later the government did the same with several other tribes, and moved them all in with each other. This must have been a tad uncomfortable since some of these tribes had been enemies for generations, not to mention having no language in common.

But then the ranchers and loggers wanted more land, and the government took away 80% of the reservation they had created. Only a few square miles of Round Valley were left to share amongst half a dozen or so tribes, or what was left of them after multiple forced migrations and epidemics.  Inevitably, the individual tribal identities and languages died out. The last native speakers of Yuki died last century, and the only remaining memories are in obscure anthropological journals. The "Round Valley Indian Tribes" is a convenient invention to hide this sordid history.

Anyway, after all that, and dinner and pool as well, it was time for bed.

The story of the next day's long, long drive through absolutely nowhere at all is in Part 2...

Wednesday, 27 July 2016


In the Clerkenwell district of central London, there's a very up-market hotel called The Zetter. It's an odd and unique name for a hotel. There must be some history behind it.

When I was 16, I needed a weekend job to make some pocket money. The typical job was in a shop, but my mother had another idea. While my brother was small, she had worked on Sundays, checking football pools coupons at what was then one of the biggest pools outfits in Britain, Zetters in London. This paid a lot better than working in a shop, so it was obvious for me to try it.

Football pools are a uniquely British institution (though they have spread to some of the former dominions). The basic idea is very simple. Of the 55 or so matches played on a Saturday, the objective is to predict 8 which are draws, i.e. where the two teams have equal scores. The coupon is a grid, where each row is a game. In each column you put 8 crosses, and if those 8 matches happen to be draws, you win a big prize. There are secondary prizes if just 7 of them are draws. That's why it's called the Treble Chance - you get a first dividend for 8 draws, a second dividend for 7 draws and an away win, and a third dividend for 7 draws and a home win. You pay a fixed amount (a fraction of an old penny back then) for each line.

If you want to cover a lot of possibilities, writing them all out individually would be an impossible task. You can write more than 8 crosses in one column, and you win if any 8 of them are draws. This rapidly increases the cost - 10 crosses will cost for 45 lines, while 12 will cost for 495 lines, and 14 gives 3003. (Mathematically, this is the function nCr, where n is the number of crosses and r is the number of matches - 8 in this case). This was called a "full perm" (although mathematically it is a combination, not a permutation). There were various subterfuges for trying to cover more matches at lower cost - more on this later.

I duly applied for a job, and went up to London for a test. This was fairly simple, especially under my mother's tutelage. I passed, and started work the following Sunday, arriving at 9 am. It was a lonely and quiet journey - trains that were jam-packed with standing passengers during the week were deserted on Sunday morning. Only at Farringdon station, on the Circle Line, would you run into fellow checkers all hurrying in the same direction.

Football results were announced late on Saturday afternoon (and what a ritual that was), so checking the entries took place on Sunday. Now computers can do it, but then only humans could, armies of them at each of the pools companies still in business: Littlewoods, Vernons, Zetters, and some smaller ones.

Zetters had a large five-storey building just off Clerkenwell Green. Most of the floors were one gigantic open-plan work area, with the checkers sitting close together at long, narrow tables, with just enough room to work. The building had a very characteristic smell, of stale sweat and old paint. Smoking was (luckily for me) not permitted, I suppose because of the fire risk. Coupons were brought around in bundles of 35, held together with wire and a lead seal. The only aid we had to speed things up was a piece of thin card, with the draws marked on them in red. Simple though it was, most losing coupons could be disposed of in a few seconds.

Potential winners were a different matter. Any line that had 7 or more draws in it was a potential winner. If the entry was a simple one, it could be marked immediately as a winner, by putting a coloured sticker on the top of the coupon. Many cases required further checking later on, and in that case a different colour sticker was used. When a bundle was finished, after ten or fifteen minutes, it would have a little forest of coloured stickers on the top.

Security was taken very seriously. It would have been very easy to introduce a winning coupon on Sunday, already knowing Saturday's results, and it would be impossible to search everyone entering the building. Each bundle of coupons was punched through with a unique pattern, during the week before the results were known. It would have been near-impossible to reproduce this, even with an example in hand. It was permitted, though discouraged, to visit the toilet during checking time - but the time spent was strictly monitored, so you couldn't go and hide for long enough to try and sneak a coupon into the system.

It was very important not to miss a winner. Football pools work by taking the income for the week, taking off a (large) margin for costs and profit, and dividing the rest amongst the number of winners. A missed winner ate directly into the profit margin. Punters would get their winnings during the week. If someone didn't hear by the following weekend, they'd write in. Every Sunday there was a "walk of shame" where checkers who'd missed winners would be called up to the supervisor's desk in front of everyone. It was pretty much impossible not to miss the occasional small one, but there was a cash bonus system which meant it was certainly worth making an effort. If someone consistently missed winners, they'd be summarily fired and walked out of the building, but this was very rare.

Missing a really big winner would be a different matter. The size of the payouts depended directly on the number of draws that week. Typically there were ten or twelve of them, which meant there would be lots of winners and the individual payouts would be quite small. A week with only seven or eight draws would generate the legendary "pools winner" payouts of tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. That would make a big dent in the profits.

Fortunately, the amount of work went up directly with the number of draws. If there were very few, checking was quickly done, so there was time for a second verification pass over all the non-winning coupons. Even then we would often finish early, getting to go home at 5 o'clock or earlier instead of the usual 6. If there were a lot of draws, the opposite was true. In that case, work would go on until 10, with voluntary and well-paid overtime. I was delighted when this happened. Occasionally they would even ask people to go in on Monday if they could - though I never could since I had to go to school.

There was a a one-hour break for lunch. Some people went to the pub, but I always took a packed lunch that my mother had prepared - a sandwich, usually corned beef, and a bottle of that uniquely British concoction, Tizer. As a result I have never been able to eat corned beef since - the association with the Zetters experience is just too strong. That would leave time for a short walk around the neighbourhood, uninspiring at the best of times and completely dead on a Sunday afternoon.

A new hire started as a "grade 4" checker. There were three further grades, which could be reached by taking a test, though not more often than every six months. I passed the grade 3 test, covering some slightly more complex bets. That meant slightly higher pay, but I left before I could move up to grade 2. As far as I could tell there was never any difference in the work for grade 3. There were very few grade 1 checkers, but when I was there one of them was a certain Alan Solomon, at the time a PhD student at one of the London colleges. Later he went on to found Dr Solomon's anti-virus product and make a lot of money.

Mid-afternoon, the job changed. All the coupons that had earlier been declared possible winners now had to be checked to see if they really were. Mainly, this was about "plans". As I explained above, the simple way to cover multiple matches without laboriously writing out hundreds of lines is a simple "perm". In addition, all of the pools companies and popular newspapers published books of plans. The idea was that you would mark, say, 16 matches, and if any 8 of them were draws, you'd get at least a second dividend (7 draws correct). Or maybe if 9 of them were draws. There were all sorts of associated guarantees. They didn't actually give any greater probability of winning, but they gave the punters the impression of having a better chance.

There were hundreds and hundreds of plans, but only a dozen or so were frequently used. Zetters had their own, and Littlewoods Plan 2 was very popular for some reason. Each source had its own thick book. To simplify the job, all possible winners using say Daily Express plans were put together into bundles and checked together. I've forgotten exactly how it was done.

One thing that intrigued me at the time and still does, nearly 50 years later, is just how these plans were contrived. There is a whole mathematical discipline about it, called variously the "lottery problem" or the "football pool problem", but I'm pretty sure the people who did the job didn't have PhDs in group theory. It turns out there is still no algorithmic way to construct the best way to cover say 16 matches, nor even to know the minimum number of lines required. A few years back I wrote a program, using what I thought was a fairly sophisticated algorithm. The results were close to the published plans, but not as good as what was undoubtedly done by some old guy with a fag hanging out of his mouth, using no more than squared paper, a pencil and eraser. There is no literature on the subject, so it must remain a mystery.

There were other pools besides the Treble Chance, though few people did them. But something was needed to fill up the back of the coupon, so there was the Twelve Results, the Eight Homes, and others I've forgotten. Each of these had its own special checking technique. A few entries, maybe one in a hundred, were beyond the ability of a normal grade 4 checker. There was yet another coloured ticket, buff pink and marked "FC", which meant "further checking" - i.e. "this is too hard for me". I almost never used them, preferring the challenge of figuring out something like a no-consecutive perm, but there were checkers who put them on any but the simplest of entries. Occasionally someone would get in trouble for it. But since there was a productivity bonus, for checking an above average number of coupons, it was worth trying it on.

Zetters carried on the pools business long after my 18 month stint there. But the arrival of the National Lottery in the 90s was the beginning of the end. The prizes were a lot bigger and absolutely no skill was required. Zetters diversified into other gambling businesses and sold their pools activity in 2002. They didn't need a huge building full of checkers every Sunday any more. The building was purchased and converted to a luxury hotel. As you will surely have guessed, this explains the unusual name of the Zetter Hotel.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Pensioners' Pals

My parents moved to my childhood home a couple of years before I was born, to a brand-new house on a brand-new estate just east of London. The London County Council (LCC) - predecessor to today's Greater London Authority - had an urgent program after the War to replace all the bombed-out housing in inner London. They embarked on a huge project,  building numerous estates around London such as our own Harold Hill, which was the largest. The new houses were luxurious compared to the Victorian slums they replaced, with modern conveniences like running hot water and even baths - despite the assertion by a Tory MP at the time that all the working classes would do was store coal in them.

These new estates included special provision for older people - Old Age Pensioners as they were called then, women over 60 and men over 65 (not that there were many of the latter). At the end of many of the terraces of houses were little bungalows with one bedroom, laid out for the mobility challenged, as well as what would now be called sheltered housing - and in the 17th century would have been called almshouses.

Part of the community support for the elderly was an organisation called the Pensioners' Pals, a voluntary effort to help the old people in various ways - visiting, doing shopping and odd jobs, and arranging the occasional social event. This was important because the whole estate was made up of people who had been ripped from their inner London roots, and didn't necessarily have family living nearby.

I'm not sure why my parents decided to get involved with this group, but they did. By the time I was old enough to remember anything, they were part of the leadership. My Dad loved the social events, and my Mum has naturally organised anything that moves for her whole life, so it made sense. I was only a small child, but for some reason these activities made a big impression and even now I remember a lot of it.

My Mum had "adopted" two of the old ladies. They lived in adjacent bungalows, a ten minute walk from our house. One, Miss Simpson (I genuinely don't think she had a first name), was barely older than I am now, yet she was without any doubt old. She wore old-person's clothes, she moved like an old lady - everything about her said old. It's trite to say "60 is the new 40", but when I think back to these old dears, it is absolutely true. In the 1950s, once you passed 60 you were definitively old. She was also a spinster. That's a word you never hear now, meaning a woman who has never married. It has a certain connotation, of primness and unworldliness, which exactly suited our Miss Simpson.

Our other adoptee was completely different. She was universally called Grandma. I don't think she had any actual names at all. She must have been close to 80, which back then was positively ancient, but she was still pretty active. She had a huge family who were always visiting her, and lived surrounded by clutter in her tiny house. Very clearly she had never been a spinster.

We would visit them once a week, always taking some little treat, making the trek up the hill. On one occasion I was off school sick, and I got into trouble with the school truant inspector because I was admiring his car, parked in the street outside - of course I had no idea who it belonged to. It was something very unusual, a very sleek looking royal blue French Panhard at a time when 95% of cars in Britain were British.

Then there were the social events. Maybe a couple of times a year, a hall would be booked for the evening, a band would be engaged, and things were all set for a re-enactment of the first decade of the 20th century. "Our" pensioners were typically born in the 1880s, and would have been in the full flush of their youth in the Edwardian era (1901-1910). No television, no radio, no cinema - the entertainment of the masses was the Music Hall, a kind of popular theatre with singers, dancers and comedians. And then there were dances, to the popular tunes of the day, the girls carefully chaperoned. The Pensioners' Pals' socials were an attempt to re-create some of this.

I still remember the words to those old songs - "Daisy, Daisy", "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" (from the First World War, that one) and so on. This was brought back to me forcefully when I recently visited my mother in the home where she now lives. They had an entertainer playing old songs, and I could sing along with all of them!

And then there was the greatest of them all, "Knees Up Mother Brown", a vulgar, raucous dancing song where everyone links arms and rushes in and out of a circle. What an excuse for some "accidental" groping back in those prim and proper days. Even now in England a "knees up" is a synonym for an unrestrained, noisy evening.

For some reason these events attracted all kinds of local notables. Our family doctor was often there, drinking away his sorrows - he was well known to be fond of a tipple or three. My father once said to him, "Good evening, Doctor." He replied, "I'm not a doctor tonight, not a doctor." With hindsight there must have been a lot of feeling behind that.

The mayor of Romford showed up from time to time, as well. He had a very grand car for the time, an Armstrong Siddeley - one of the many long-disappeared British marques. I think I even got a ride in it once.

The music for these events was provided by a Mr Button. He ran a radio repair shop, and brought along a gramophone to provide music when the band was having a rest. My mother must somehow have stayed in touch with him, because 40 years later when he died, I inherited his long-obsolete collection of valves (vacuum tubes) - I still have them in my garage.

Then there were the management meetings for the organisation. Along with my parents, there was a childless couple, Mr and Mrs Clark - he was the Treasurer. He had a very flat northern accent, something strange to me back then. Never an adventurous man, his favourite observation was "This is a time for consolidation" - in other words, doing nothing. Several years later, when my Dad had learned to drive, they acquired a car, an awful old pre-war Austin in terrible condition. They insisted on taking us out for the day in it. My Dad drove for some of the time, and afterwards said it was the most terrifying drive of his life. That was before Britain introduced the "MOT test", a way of weeding out the most dangerous of these old wrecks. I doubt that their car survived its first encounter with the test.

My memories of the Pensioners' Pals all stop when I was about six or seven. I don't know what happened, whether my parents just dropped out of it, or whether the whole thing ground to a halt. They didn't lose all contact though. One of the biggest surprises was Miss Simpson, the old spinster who lived in the bungalow, who got married. Approaching 70, she met a widower and they set up home together in Dagenham, a bus ride away from us. We went there to see them once. My Dad's observation was that her new husband had probably got rather more than he bargained for.

Oddly the name came back to life when I was a teenager, when I heard that some of the girls at school - we must all have been about 16 or 17 - were involved in a new incarnation of the Pensioners' Pals. But I doubt if they ever had concerts where all the old dears sung "Daisy, Daisy".

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Telex - and me

A Model 7 machine with its operator, 1959
Before email, before fax, there was a way of sending written messages reliably and securely between distant offices. It was called Telex. It worked much like the telephone, there were numbers and exchanges (central offices), and you called whoever you wanted, anywhere in the world, to send them a message. Instead of a telephone, you had a teleprinter. As you typed, your message would appear by magic on the distant machine also. You could even hold a conversation, taking it in turn to type messages to each other on the same connection. The Telex network was at the heart of banking, shipping, trucking, insurance and many other industries.

The teleprinter was independently invented by several organisations in the early 1920s. Originally they were connected together in pairs, one at head office and one in a branch. The limitations of this are obvious, and a switched network allowing anyone to talk to anyone else was an obvious next step. The first public Telex network in the world opened in Germany in 1933. It really prospered in the 1950s. Only recently, with first fax, then various computer network technologies, has it been eclipsed. The UK network closed in 2008.

When I was 16, like all students I wanted to earn some money during the school holidays. I could type well, thanks to the typewriters my mother had at home when I was small. One summer I worked as a typist, but my mother's advice was that there was more money to be made as a Telex operator. Back then this was considered a special skill - a company wouldn't expect a normal typist or secretary to be capable of it. Telephonists were just the same, even a small office would have a dedicated telephone operator at the company switchboard. When I started work at DEC in 1974, we had three of them for an office of maybe 200 people.

There were agencies that specialised in this kind of staff. I chose one called "Three T's" - for telephone, telex and... no idea, probably not telegraph though. I got in touch with them, and went along for an interview.

My mother's office had a Telex - though no operator since my mother took care of it herself. Even the boss knew how to work the machine there. It would have been smart to have spent a couple of hours using it before I went for the interview. But I didn't. So when they sat me down in front of their brand new Post Office Model 15 Telex machine, it was quite literally the first time I'd ever set eyes on one. This wasn't really very smart, but using my mother's description of how it worked I was able to figure it out in real time sitting in front of the machine. I even got complimented on how well I knew the machine!

So that was it, my career as a telex operator was launched. The next day I was working at one of the big investment banks somewhere in the City. They were a real heavy duty Telex user, with a bank of half a dozen machines, and operators to match. Some of the machines were used for live traffic, while others were used to prepare and verify messages on paper tape. Each message was a financial transaction, sometimes involving truly vast amounts of money, so a lot of attention was paid to getting it right.

All of the permanent staff were female. This was nearly always the case, though occasionally I'd come across an ex-military guy especially in the banks. A lot of the ladies had been trained during World War II, so by now were of a certain age. At one place I overheard two of them grumbling about the new generation of machines: "Oh, they're trying to make it so any old typist can use a Telex, well we know that's not possible, it needs special training, that's what it needs." And so on and so on.

The WWII era machines did require a bit of special understanding. There were still quite a few of them around in 1969, though they were disappearing. They were originally designed in 1931. They had a hammer green enamel finish and a very stark external design, with no concession to aesthetics. Under the cover was a massive electric motor and equally substantial mechanical parts, whose job was to convert faint electrical pulses into the position of a typewheel.

Keystrokes were converted to the Baudot Code for transmission. This has only five bits per character. By the time necessary control characters like line-feed are included, there are only 26 possible characters - not entirely coincidentally, the number of letters in the alphabet. To include numerals and punctuation required shift characters. If you pressed the key marked with W and 2, what actually got printed (both locally and remotely) depended on whether you had last pressed the letter-shift or figure-shift key. The operator had to remember this. She (usually) also had to pace the typing speed exactly to the mechanics of the machine. If you tried to type too fast, letters went missing. But if you went too slowly, you wasted time and on the Telex network, time was very much money.

There was another version of the same machine that had a paper tape reader and punch, so you could prepare your message without connecting, check it for accuracy, and then send it at the full speed of the network (about 7 characters/second).

A collection of Model 15 machines
The newer machines, called the Model 15, were much more modern, with a smooth grey finish and black plastic keys. They all had paper tape readers and punches. They had a four-row keyboard, like a typewriter. You still had to select letter or figure shift, as appropriate, but the inapplicable keys were physically blocked, so you wouldn't end up sending gibberish. I'm not sure that a regular typist could use one without a bit of training, but they were a lot less daunting than the old green ones.

Both types had a separate box for managing the connection to the Telex network. This had a dial, and several buttons to do the equivalent of picking up the phone and hanging up. It was a good size, well over a foot long and weighing about 15 kilos. Inside it was packed with relays and other signalling equipment.

One of the great advantages of Telex was security. When you made a connection, you could send a special code called "who are you" (or WRU) which triggered a mechanism in the remote machine to send a unique preconfigured response, called the "answerback". You could also send your own, by pressing a key marked "here is". Once you'd been through this exchange, each end knew with certainty who it was talking to. Hence Telex could be safely used for large financial transactions and other expensive commitments like sending a giant container ship to the other side of the world.

A Model 7 with paper tape, revealing its insides and showing
 the easily-blocked "here-is" key just above the keyboard,
slightly to the left.
At least, that's what everyone believed. The truth is, if you knew what you were doing, it wasn't secure at all. It was very easy to defeat the answerback mechanism. On the Model 7, all you needed was a pencil. When the machine received the WRU signal, the Here-Is key, perched awkwardly above the keyboard, dropped down to start sending the signal. If you wedged a pencil under it, you were then free to type whatever you wanted. On the Model 15 it took a little more mechanical ingenuity, but it could certainly be done, a very tiny adjustment inside the cover which could as quickly be restored. Whether anyone took advantage of this to commit fraud, I have no idea (honest).

How did I know about this? Whereas the banks ran their Telex machines flat out, there were several places I worked where there was hardly any traffic. One in particular was a timber merchant somewhere in East London, maybe Hackney. I doubt that there were even half a dozen messages a day. No doubt for security, the machine and its operator were in a closed, windowless office. There was plenty of time for a mechanically curious youngster, fascinated by how these machines worked, to investigate. It was at this place that I stripped a Model 7 down to its component assemblies, discovering all its inner secrets. I'm sure this was a serious infringement of the Post Office regulations, but if anyone had asked I would have said it had jammed and I just happened to know how to unjam it. Nobody would have been any the wiser. Luckily no messages tried to come in while I had the machine in pieces.

Some banks had their own dedicated international circuits. I worked at one that had its own dedicated circuit to New York, which must have cost a fortune. But to save money, it had some electromechanical trickery that meant it ran at a quarter of the normal speed. The Post Office sold the other three quarters of the circuit to other customers. It was odd to watch it ticking away in slow motion. What was really impressive though was one of the operators - unusually, a man - who could type at exactly the right speed, just less than two characters per second, to match the line speed. This being the 1960s, he did it with a lit cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

I did the Telex gig for a couple of summers, as well as some of the shorter holidays. I never told the agency that the first time I ever saw a Telex machine was when I walked into their office. But it didn't seem to matter, because for years afterwards, long after I had my degree and was working as a software engineer for far more money than 3Ts could ever hope to pay, they would get in touch with me every summer and ask whether by any chance I was free to go and replace a holidaying Telex operator.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Rag Trade

After the War (which is to say in 1945), my Dad got a job in a London shop selling "trimmings". It sounds like something unsavoury from the butchery trade, but actually it means everything used in making clothes except the cloth - cotton, buttons, zips, elastic, linings and interlinings, and a host of other things most people don't even realise exist. For fifteen years he would take the train to London in the morning, to the shop on Old Street just north of the City and close to the sweatshops of Islington and Hoxton.

Then when I was about eight, he returned from our ritual week's holiday with my grandmother in Dovercourt to be told, "Sorry Reg, business isn't good, I'm going to have to let you go." And that was that, no employment protection then. Luckily my mother worked, part-time, but we had a typical working class hand-to-mouth existence and this was a disaster.

My Dad had few really sellable skills, so finding another job wasn't easy. Like nearly all of his generation he left school at 14. After a few false starts, he was lucky to find someone else in the same business who was willing to pay for him to learn to drive, for a job as a combined salesman and delivery driver.

The firm had the very British name of "Shepperton's". But the owners were actually a Jewish couple called Ettinger, refugees from Eastern Europe in the 1930s. Why Shepperton? They'd seen it on a map somewhere and thought it would be better than a Jewish name, in the bigotted English society of the 1950s. Though I'm not sure why, because practically all of their customers were Jewish too - the clothing trade, or "rag trade" as the insiders called it, was entirely Jewish then.

Soon my Dad had a bright orange Minivan to drive home every night. The routine was simple: bring the van home at night full of that day's orders, drive up to London the following morning dropping the orders off to all the customers in Essex and East London, while taking orders for the next day. He would arrive at Shepperton's in time for a late lunch, then drive round the West End taking orders and making deliveries until 4 or so, when it was time to stock up for the drive home.

The van was a blaze of colour. The sides of all their delivery vans were covered in the logos of the products they sold, long-forgotten names like Lightning Zips - sadly, I'm sure there is no picture anywhere. It took a skilled signwriter several days to prepare each one. My Dad had a deal that as long as he paid for petrol, he could use the van at evenings and weekends - which was good, because we certainly couldn't afford a family car. We had many outings in that and later vans, my brother and I sprawled awkwardly in the flat load space at the back. One early trip I remember was to a farm in the depths of the Essex countryside to get my first and only hamster, Nibs. (I have no idea why I wanted a hamster. I don't think he lasted long).

When I was a teenager, he would sometimes take me along for the day during the school holidays. So it was that I got see his daily routine.

The first call was close to our house, at the end of a muddy track by the railway line. Then we would proceed, never more than two or three miles at a time, stopping at one little clothing factory after another. Everywhere my Dad was welcomed like family, offered cups of tea, taken into back rooms to meet someone new. He was a natural salesman, it's just a shame he never sold anything you could really make money from!

He was a natural raconteur and a brilliant stand-up comedian, though the only time he did that was if we went to that uniquely British institution, the holiday camp, for our summer holidays. He had a huge collection of jokes, which he was always happy to trade for new ones with his customers. These were all Jewish, who seem to be the biggest fans of gently self-deprecatory Jewish jokes, so his collection of those was especially vast. The factories were tiny - the biggest ones had maybe 20 or 30 employees. They have all long since disappeared, replaced by giant sweatshops in Vietnam and Bangladesh.

One of his daily treats was a slice of toast and butter with a cup of strong British tea. He had an exclusive selection of cafes in East London, chosen for the quality of their bread (it had to be the real thing, cut in thick slices from an actual loaf - and under no circumstances sliced bread), the generosity of their butter, and the strength of their tea.  I still remember stopping at one of these places for elevenses, and the sensation of the melting butter oozing from the toast into my mouth. Strong, sweet tea, on the other hand, has never really been my thing. But then I didn't live through the Second World War.

Eventually we would get to Shepperton's, just in time for a late lunch. They had a shop (though you couldn't just go in and buy stuff) on Hampstead Road, close to Euston Station. It's an area that has changed beyond all recognition. There is no trace of Shepperton's, nor of Pat's, the seriously greasy  spoon cafe next door - of which more in a moment. A few steps away was Laurence Corner, the famous military surplus store where, supposedly, the Beatles got the inspiration for the uniforms on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's. The shop itself was barely-organised chaos, with packages of zips and buttons all over the place.

First stop was Pat's Cafe for lunch, something seriously greasy like sausages, bacon, fried eggs, and fried bread dripping with grease. My Dad was never overweight until long after he retired, but I have no idea how, considering everything he ate while he was working. He was (again) a much favoured customer, and would always disappear into the kitchen for a long chat with the eponymous Pat and the kitchen staff. The other staff at Shepperton's complained that after lunch, he smelled so much of kitchen fat that they couldn't go near him.

The afternoon was very different, driving round the West End and the more squalid areas to the north like Camden Town and Kilburn - this was long before gentrification had been invented. I was fascinated by the London bus system so I was very happy to sit in the van while my Dad exchanged jokes with his friends inside, jotting down the buses I'd seen and their destinations in my little red notebook. (I wonder whatever happened to those notebooks?)

Sometimes I'd go inside with him. I remember one place where they made fabric-covered buttons. A dressmaker would order a gross of buttons for a particular design. Everything was done in dozens and gross - a dozen dozen  or 144 - and occasionally a great gross, a dozen gross or 1728. Never 10, 100 or 1000. He'd supply the fabric and specify the size, and this tiny specialized place would assemble the buttons out of metal blanks. I was allowed to make one myself, cutting the material carefully to size, placing all the components in the press, then trimming the edges to make a neat fabric-covered button. I was very proud of my button and kept it for a long time.

Around 4, we'd go back to HQ to load up the van for the morning's deliveries. There's only one person there I remember, the first openly gay person I ever met. He was called Derek. He made sure you could not miss him. It was still illegal in Britain until 1967, so this was either just before or just after. Either way it didn't seem to bother anyone.

Then, the van loaded up with long rolls of interlining (the stiff material that goes between the dress fabric and the lining, to give shape and rigidity), boxes of buttons and zips, and various other odds and ends, it was time to set off home. The orange minivan didn't last long, and my memories are mostly of a series of vans based on the Ford 105E Anglia (the one with the odd sloping-backwards rear window). These were bought to the absolute minimum spec. They didn't have a heater, and they didn't even have a passenger seat. The passenger (me, in this case) sat on the ledge at the front of the load-space, with no back support and absolutely no security. It is unimaginable nowadays.

My Dad has his private route across London, eventually joining the A12 out to Romford. At the time I never understood it, but three decades later when I bought my flat in London I recreated a very similar route, which by using obscure back streets shaves probably 30 minutes off the time it takes to get from Kensington to Leytonstone. Once we reached the "arterial road" (the name given to it when it was built in the 1930s, as an example of high-tech high-speed road design at its finest), we trundled along at a stately 50 mph, close the maximum speed for these minimally-engined vans.

We would arrive home in Romford at about 6.30, in plenty of time for dinner. Strangely, when my Dad was on his own, he'd get home an hour or so later. That corresponded to the time he spent in the bookmaker's, picking up his winnings from the horses (if any) and no doubt sharing jokes with his mates there.