Paint my Wagon ? Not just yet…

Richard Garratt Living Van

Rolling home, at long last. The 6 year journey is 100 metres from the finish !

You may well have read about my Living Van in (much !) earlier posts.  Not surprising really, it has been a 6 year journey to get it back to my little hovel in the hills.

I won’t repeat the story in full; suffice to say I came across the old wagon at the back of a farm in the Llangorse area one Sunday morning, ironically on my way to the Three Cocks Vintage day at Hay-on-Wye.  Many months of negotiation and deliberation on the part of the owner, strangely not about price, more about sentiment and nostalgia, finally resulted in an agreement sealed with a hand-shake.  He wasn’t altogether sure he could let it go, after all it had been there, in the corner of the farmyard, for all of his life.  Apart from that it was so full of what he regarded as useful (and valuable) items which would need careful considered removal involving a great deal of time.

Old Steam Engine Living Van

Reluctantly he finally agreed it should go to a new ‘loving’ home and the living Van began its first journey for nearly 60 years.

I ended up paying not a lot of cash and doing rather more dry stone walling around the farm in payment.  We both knew the Living Van was worth far more, indeed he was continually offered more during the time from when we had shaken hands and when it eventually moved.  When you talk about an ‘honourable man’ this man is the bench-mark.

For various reasons the transporting of the old van from its resting place took much longer than either of us had imagined.  I had to finish the walling, interrupted by a ruptured achilles, two hugely bad winters and my own slowness.  He had to empty the wagon, I had to arrange transport.  The original intent was to use the low-loader of a transport chappie who I know quite well – he thought it most unlikely the wheels would ever turn !  By the time it came to move he had sold the low-loader !  Last November, just five and a half years later, we had a day clearing the mass of material which had mysteriously gathered beneath the wagon.

Clearing the underside of the Living Van

Every item that was stored under the wagon needed careful examination before a decision on its next dwelling place was made…… it took a long while !

I know exactly the feeling, every item of wood, of rusty metal, of string and plastic and tin and glass, ad infinitum, had a potential use . It may be sometime in the distant future but of use it would be. It therefore needed careful assessment and placing into an appropriate bag or stack ready for onward movement to another 50 year area of safe keeping.

After many hours the underneath was sufficiently cleared to allow an attempt at a move. The first possible problem was the brake.  It is a simple screw system by means of a broken iron wheel turned in a bush which moved a cross-beam forward and back thereby squeezing a wooden block against each of the rear wheel, or removing it.  With the slightest of effort the wheel turned and the brake blocks released, first hurdle dealt with.

A suitable farm machine was brought forth and attached and softly softly a pull was exerted on the front axle.  At first it seemed doomed to failure, then, as the stretch went out of the towing strop, the merest movement appeared to occur.  I wondered if it was my eyes deceiving me, in the fading light of the November afternoon it had become difficult to see and I so wanted the wheels to move, maybe it was an hallucination.

Moving for the first time in nearly 60 years

Wagon Ho ! Gently, imperceptibly, the wheels began to turn, all four of them ! For the first time in nearly 60 years the old Living Van moved.

Remarkably, after what we estimate to be best part of 60 years (without the slightest attention given them), the four wheels began to turn.  We both had huge grins and admitted we hadn’t really been that confident of success.  Only a few feet was required, just to ease her out of the ruts she had sunk in and to allow us access to the rear end to start the long job of clearing that too.

We did a quick attack on the inside, removing the heavier items like new bits of farm machinery that had been placed in there and a number of strange heavy items of which I had no understanding.  Mainly the inside seemed to be filled with old feed sacks, like hundreds of them.  I had never actually stood inside the van, it being rather high and no steps available and there being absolutely no room inside.  We kept moving the detritus of generations of a fastidious ‘waste not want not’ mentality and then we closed the door.  She was ready to go – well it was said that more clearing out would happen in the following week or so.

Not much room for 'owt else !

Opening the door, this was what met the eyes. Of course, it was all potentially important and needed careful scrutiny as it was cleared.

I am making no criticism here whatsoever.  The van was the ideal storage shed on the yard and both the inside and underside were excellent dry storage for all manner of artefacts.  It was in fact a microcosm of my sheds, and indeed several rooms in my house !  Many interesting old relics came forth from within, items long forgotten about, such as a very good hay knife, a ‘strickle’ stick used to sharpen a scythe, lots of combs and cutting knives for shearing hand-sets, farm medicines, bags of seed of all kinds, baler twine of the old kind that sat in the reaper-binder.  Oh yes, lots and lots of items, the most interesting to me was an old sheep-bell that was hung around the neck of the flock leader to locate them on the hill.  Sadly, for me, he also has an affinity with old farm items especially since they were all used by his ancestors !

Block brake on the Living Van

The brake system consists of a large curved wooden block that is forced against the wheel by the action of a screw jack turned by a cast-iron wheel in the centre of the rear cross member. Of course it is only used as a parking brake, there is nothing to slow it as it moves only the hauling vehicle.

For the next nine months (gosh, is it really that long !) in between trips overseas, work, weather, holiday, let downs, I tried to find a means of moving the van.  Several people said they would do it but nothing ever came of their promises.  Finally I came across Dave Emery in Llandovery who was recommended by a friend of mine whom I had approached about using his trailer.  Dave said “No problem”, boy was it good to hear that ! Even better he said “When do you want to do it ?”  That was a Thursday afternoon, on the Saturday afternoon at 3pm his son met me in an agreed lay-by and we went to the farm and loaded up.  The move was at last really happening – I tried to quell my feelings of misgivings as the reality dawned!

Load up, move out

I was sure she was going to flip over ! But no, everything went smoothly and gently gently she crept up the ramps onto the loader. She was finally leaving her home of 60 years for pastures new. Oh yes, and a total wash and brush up !

The farmer moved her in a full circle – proving the turntable worked well enough – and pulled her out into the large concreted yard.  With a ‘dextrous twist of his muscular wrist’ the driver connected the winch cable and quietly pulled her aboard.  In less than half an hour she was strapped down and it was Wagons Ho !

We drove through the narrow roads of the Llangorse basin heading toward Talgarth and thence to pick up the main A470 to Builth Wells and homeward.  I acted as an outrider escort to warn approaching vehicles that a rather big load was approaching.  In fact it was not at all wide, just high and it weighed less than the two tons I had estimated.

Once onto the main road I drove on at a steady 50mph all the while keeping a lookout for low branches which were the main threat to the roof of the van.  Indeed by the time we got to the off-load point there was an array of leafy branches hanging on the front.

There was no way the large load was going to be able to negotiate the narrow dead-end lane that leads to my track and even if it could there was no hope of turning the tight right-angle into the gate-way or making it up the half mile of bumpy and rutted stone track-way that leads to my dead-end,  where there is absolutely no hope of turning anything bigger than a land-rover !  Luckily I have one.

I had the son of a customer of mine, at the Grafog in fact, who is a rather good up and coming metal-worker, make me an ‘A’ frame for moving the van by fixing it to the front axle.  The original ‘A’ bar was affixed to the higher cross member as it was designed to attach to the chest-high towing pintle of a Steam Roller.  Luckily it was still on the farm though somewhat bent double due to being used in a manner for which it was not best designed. Ahem.

Towing bar for a Living Van.

Yes, it was bent beyond belief, but it WAS THERE ! To have the original ‘A’ bar was fantastic, and I knew just the man to fix it…

Fortunately I knew just the craftsman to fix it for me.  ‘Dai-it-is’ (so known because of his never failing opening line when using the telephone) is an old-school blacksmith with the sort of giant fore-arms associated with the trade.  I was sure he would see no problem in putting the bar back into a useful form.

I was not disappointed, he did a remarkable ‘fix-it’ and I used it to pull the living Van all the way along the lane and up my track, hauled by my faithful old Land Rover 90.  The new ‘A’ frame is ideal for use with the tractor as it is a low fixing point, in fact straight to the front axle which is part of the turntable of course.  As the towing hook on the Landie is on the rear chassis cross-member it was too high but the old towing point and ‘A’ bar was absolutely perfect.

'A' frame for towing Living Van

The newly made ‘A’ frame fixes to the axle to allow for a lower towing point on the pulling tractor. The old ‘A’ frame fixes by a bar to the two iron eyes on the turntable cross-member.

I used the Land Rover instead of my International tractor simply because the heavens had opened and I did not fancy sitting on an cab-less tractor seat.  Actually it turned out to be a better choice as it gave me closer control when it came to shunting the van into its new resting place.

Living Van and land Rover

An ideal combination. Who knows, this could be how I get to tour the country in my dotage !

I had to leave the van in a convenient spot on the way home to allow me to make room in the spot I wanted her to be so as to begin the restoration.

A few days later I hauled her up into the entrance and began the mind-blowingly complicated reversing technique to shunt her into the place allotted.  Now I like to think I am a good reverser of trailers, I am well versed in using only the mirrors and can generally ‘put it on a sixpence’, as the saying goes !  Those are simple single or double axle trailers, this is a four wheel wagon with a turntable front axle.  There IS a way of reversing this contraption, I have seen lorry drivers do it with huge wagon-and-drag units.  I felt sure I could tackle it and understood that the method required an opposite movement of the wheels to that I would normally employ on my ‘normal’ trailers.  Oh really !? An hour or so later I had got the van into as good a position as I could, meaning I had shifted it 5 yards backwards !  It is not quite as I want it and one day I will make another attempt, for now, I have begun the long task of emptying the van and the coal cupboard at the rear.  Despite a last minute (well 30 minutes actually) grab at numerous items left in the cupboard in the van once it was already loaded, the farmer had not managed to clear everything. Not everything. No.

Burning trash from 60 years of hoarding

It took 4 evenings and a continual bonfire to empty and dispose of all the accumulated sacks etc. that were inside the Living Van.

For several hours each evening (all 4 of them) I unloaded sacks and wood, wire and tins, glass and plastic.  I had a roaring bonfire of the paper sacks and cardboard and overfilled my re-cycling bins.  Gradually I began to see the timber floor and at last I had removed all the material.  I sorted items which I thought should go back to the farm, such as several newish looking pieces of engineering and more sheep-shearing cutters.  Then there were items which were neither agricultural or of personal value, well I assumed not as they had clearly been discarded for many years.

Whitworth's sultanas, a fond memory from the 1950s

Now this is SO nostalgic to me. I grew up in a grocery store and such firms as Whitworth was a common ‘box’ in the shed at the rear where me and two friends would make dens out of them.

One box in particular caught my eye.  It was in very good condition for its age, I know it dates from the 1950s !  I remember the very same in my grandfather’s grocery store, or rather, in the back warehouse where I used to hide with friends, making dens out of the boxes.

I put it to one side whilst I cleared the other items.  Eventually I had a large ‘put to one side’ pile and started to go through it all.  I eventually came back to the Whitworth box and emptied it out.  Maybe I should be a little worried by the fact that I knew too the contents of the small boxes inside – they did not contain sultanas !

At the start of the 2nd World War every person in Britain, children too, were issued with personal gas masks, to be carried at all times.  Children had little cardboard boxes in which theirs were kept and it was usual to write their names and addresses and the name of their school on the box.  Adults had a canvas case not unlike a camera case, to carry theirs.  In the sultana box were three children’s gas masks, unused of course and in excellent condition.  On each box was the name and address of the child and the school.  I guess they are all the parents or aunts and uncles of the farmer and they too will have to go back to the farm.

Gas Masks found in a Living Van

3 children’s gas masks from the 2nd World War which were inside the Whitworth box in the Living Van.

Having removed all the floor covering I got down to the evidence of who (or what) had been using the living Van for its intended purpose for the last 60 years.  I always thought, given the amount of seed that had been stored in the van, that mice would have gotten in.  Even though there was no easy way up into the van for the little critters they are excellent climbers and jumpers.  What I found, the amount of what I found, suggested mice were not the only residents, if indeed they had got in at all.

Empty Hazel nut shells in a Living Van

Hazel nut shells, hundreds of them and the gnawing marks suggest they were the food store of Dormice rather than field mice or squirrel.

Hundreds of Hazel nut shells with small gnawed openings through which the kernel was eaten away suggested Dormice.  The store was huge but probably represented a great number of years of hibernation.  Of course the van was an ideal nesting spot,  it was dry and warm, it had no predators – cats could not get in nor rats – and there was almost no disturbance.  There were enough entry and exit points, tiny little gaps in the cladding which is tongue and groove soft wood.  A large store was found in the corner of the floor and another in the back of the cupboard.

In the curved ceiling was evidence of other dwellers making use of the warm dry interior.  An old bee hive with the honey comb still inside was hanging from one side and an unfinished wasp nest on the other.

Honey comb in an old bee hive

An old hive with the honey comb intact was stuck to ceiling rafter.

Beginnings of a wasp nest

It’s only the start of a wasp nest, who knows what happened to the workers or the queen.

Once I had finished the inside of the van, which took best part of the week, I went to the rear to begin emptying the old coal cupboard – coal for the pot-belly stove which would have kept the workers warm in the van.  That too had been partly emptied the very day the transport was arriving and many interesting items retrieved, some so interesting I rather wished he had forgotten about it !  Not to worry, what came out right at the end of another mammoth clear-out session was worth the wait !

Coal still in the cupboard of the old Living Van

The rear coal cupboard still had coal in it – once I had got to the bottom of all the rubbish !

The one thing that had concerned me right from the first sighting of the Living Van was who had made it !?  I knew its working history up to a point, it had belonged to Breconshire County Council and had been used to accommodate the driver and mate of a road (steam)roller as they worked their way around the south of the county repairing the roads.  There had been two vans sold off in the late 1950s this being one of them.  The other is well known in the area as it became the home of a rather fiercesome lady who lived in a lay-by just on the edge of the town of Brecon for over 20 years.  What happened to her van after is a mystery so far.  What remained a mystery for me was the make of van which I had aquired.  There were several manufacturers all making vans of a similar design in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Later vans had wheels which had rubber tyres fixed to them,  mine has not and is therefore quite early.  I estimated it was probably around the mid 1920s but in the absence of a makers mark or number it would be impossible to know.  The manufacturer normally affixed a brass or iron plate onto which was stamped their name and the works where the item was made, together with the number (of the particular vehicle or whatever).  Unfortunately that plate was missing off this van, the place where it would normally have been affixed, on the side panel just below the window on the off-side, was devoid of its external cladding timbers and  thus the plate had gone.  A friend of mine, a very knowledgeable and now very jealous (!) engineer was certain that among the detritus of the rear coal-hole would be that very maker’s plate.  He was right !  How do I measure the thrill for you ?  Let me see…. I can’t.  Truth is, it was a real big thrill !

Maker's plate and item number from Living Van.

This is it, this is the Holy Grail of my Living Van. It tells me that it was indeed made by one of the premier manufacturers who also made engines, it tells me it was made in 1921 and it gives me the inventory number. It tells me all !

As I had hoped and felt fairly certain about, was that the van was made by one of the premier manufacturers in the heavy industrial world of steam engines and agricultural machinery.  Richard Garratt is what I had hoped for and is what I got.  The date of 1921 is earlier than I thought and the provenance of the van is now established.  All I need to do is restore it !  I’ll bring it to you as I progress, stay tuned !

Richard Garratt Liing Van of 1921 vintage.

I can now refer to her as a RICHARD GARRATT LIVING VAN of 1921 vintage, and doesn’t she just look good where I (eventually) parked her.


5 Responses to “Paint my Wagon ? Not just yet…”

  1. Simon Higgins Says:

    I have a set of drawing plans for your living van at home.

    • welshwaller Says:

      That’s interesting ??

      • Simon Higgins Says:

        Thanks for the reply, I have a 1923 3 man Garrett van that’s nearley finished a rebuild from bottom to top, every chassis bolt has had a new shank and thread welded to the original head and all the original nuts re tapped and used again to keep the vans character (a lot of work). If yours has a rear coal box I recon its a 2 man van, if you are interested I’ll see if I can dig the plans out and get them copied.
        Thanks Simon

      • welshwaller Says:

        Gosh, you have gone to town !! I would love to see your photos ! AND if you can copy the plans I would be thrilled. Mine does indeed have the rear coal box which makes the lower bed base and there are sockets for a ‘stretcher’ type upper bunk I surmise. The interior has the original paint and it is possible to work out that there are two missing items – I think they are a low box and a table. I am hoping to finally begin restoration this summer having been slowly getting parts fabricated and new windows and doors made and treating and priming the new external cladding.

  2. Simon Higgins Says:

    Sorry for the late reply, just had the outline plan copied so I can send you a copy if you want , there not detailed drawings but it shows all the basic dimensions and it’s from Garretts own drawing office . Could you please send me your address and I’ll pop them in the post, also possibly an email address and I’ll send some pictuers as well, I’ve been working on the van this evening boarding the inside, only maybe another 20 boards and it will be done, that just leaves an awfull lot of holes to fill and rub down.

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