Google Analytics

Tuesday 20 June 2023

The Canning Factory

My post in January, with the story of Donny and Josie at the canning factory (see Night Cleaner), set me thinking more about how the factory worked, and what the job involved.  

The place was terrifying: the heat, the humidity, the confusion, a Bosch hellscape where lads in vests, high on towering gantries, watched over enormous tanks of peas, and girls in dust coats and elasticated head coverings hunched over conveyors of moving strawberries. Women with huge arm muscles used belts to pick up twenty or more full cans at a time, to load and unload heavy tubs, which other lads strained to wheel across the factory floor. Empty cans clattered noisily along overhead rails, and everywhere there was noise, heat and steam. You could not escape the overpowering smell of hot brine and crushed strawberries.

But I knew from friends you could earn very good money there, especially cleaning the machinery on the night shift.

Around forty students sat in the factory canteen while the manager allocated jobs. He dealt first with those who had worked there previously and then turned to the rest of us. “I still need three for the sugar room,” he said, “two for the canning loft, six packers, four in the stores, six outside in the yard ...” People raised their hands eager to volunteer but I kept mine down. Numbers dwindled as groups were sent on their way until there were just five of us left. “… and three night cleaners,” the manager finally said and we all raised our hands. He drew lots. I was second out. The last two weren’t needed straight away, and had to wait for others to drop out, which did not take long.

I searched for images to remind me how the factory worked. As cleaners we had to know how to operate it all. The following describes pea processing.

Lorry loads of peagrain (shelled peas) arrived in the yard to be weighed and tested by tenderometer (I only know I like the word and that a reading of 98 was good and over 100 was bad). The peas then passed through a series of noisy cleaning machines that used air, vibration and water to remove any remaining chaff, pods, sticks and stones. Bucket conveyors then took the peas inside the factory to water-filled hopper tanks which fed the blanchers.

Blanchers were huge rotating horizontal drums which heated the peas to 95 degrees and then abruptly cooled them to halt the cooking process. The peas then travelled along flat conveyors where broken bits and any remaining impurities such as poppy heads were removed by hand, and then up into another hopper to be mixed with brine ready for canning.

The canning machines were known as 'seamers'. They were fed by empty cans which clattered across the factory ceiling from the canning loft, to be filled at a rate of two or three per second, and sealed with lids. The full cans were then loaded into tubs and hoisted into the autoclaves (pressure cookers). After cooking, they were lifted out and left to cool before being moved to the labelling and packing area. 

Images do not capture what seemed, until you made sense of it, the movement and energy, smell, noise, chaos and confusion. Or the mess, which our job was to clean up.

To clean it, we had to operate all the machines; every one. We went in at six in the evening and helped out with production until everyone else went home. At around nine or ten, we were left on our own.

We were up and down ladders with hosepipes flushing the hoppers, and running the bucket elevators, belt conveyors and seamers to blast off dregs and detritus. It was impossible to avoid getting soaked every night, but within a week you were super fit. The worst thing was chapped red rings around your legs under the tops of your wellington boots. You needed lots of Sudocrem.

You would not believe the number of corners, pockets and ledges where peas and strawberries could hide. They all had to be washed away. If any remained next day they could get into the cans and begin to ferment. After a few weeks, the sides would bulge and split. They loved that in the stores. It was a great trick to throw a bulging can just behind some unsuspecting victim, where it would explode like a hand grenade, spraying a rancid mess of decomposing contents.

The most dangerous machines were the seamers: powerful rotating cylinders which filled and sealed the cans. They quickly became covered with a sticky film of squashed peas or strawberries. You had to run them without safety guards to blast them clean. I once caught a hosepipe inside and it was instantly twisted round and shredded. It would have done the same to your arm. No one ever said much about health and safety.

We even played with them. By running a single can through at a time, you could seal a pound note inside a small can, then seal that inside a larger can, and so on, until you had three or four like Chinese dolls with a pound note in the middle. The finishing touch was to paste a vegetable label on the outside: the perfect gift!

Lastly we cleared the floor, rounding up flocks of peas with our hosepipes and shovelling them up for waste. We finished by flushing the floor and drains with sodium hypochlorite: not too much, we didn’t want to be told off for killing the bugs at the sewage works again.

Waste strawberries, however, did not go to waste, even if they had been on the floor. We shovelled them into barrels for the jam factory. It was enough to put you off strawberry jam for life.

After that there was just the outside yard to do. That needed daylight. We waited by sleeping in the ladies' toilets, which were clean and comfortable with carpeted benches. In no way would you want to sleep in the men's toilets.

Sometimes there would be boxes of strawberries waiting in the yard. Sweet, fragrant, firm and juicy, they were just too tempting to resist: an early breakfast so long as you evened out the contents to look untouched, and did not eat more than your constitution could handle.

The last week I was there, students were the only labour. The 'regulars' had been made redundant and the factory was to close. On my last night, I cleaned the whole place on my own, alone in the factory.

Outside was a hopper full of peas ready for the last day’s production. I knew they would be starting at six, and that there were no longer any early morning staff to start things up in readiness. So I used initiative. I started the cleaning machines in the yard, and peas began to flow into the hopper tanks inside the factory. I started the blancher to heat up to its operating temperature. When the factory managers arrived they seemed to assume someone must have been instructed to do all this. I didn’t mention that, but for me, the whole factory would have been idle for an hour. I simply clocked off and went home feeling very satisfied.

Friday 9 June 2023

Pigeon For Breakfast?

Our next door neighbour’s garden is like an overgrown jungle. She is an enthusiastic birder, and it is good for the wild life. A couple of months ago she excitedly asked whether we had seen the wood pigeons nesting in her laurel “bush”. It is around twenty feet (6m) high.

Our cat Phoebe, when we still had her (see last post), also loved the neighbour’s garden. But, first thing one morning earlier in the year, Phoebe shot back in to the house absolutely terrified, and hid under a chair. She peered nervously round the corner as if expecting something to be following her, and would not go out again for a few days unless we were with her.

Then, in April, the night cam started to pick up this visitor, seen here on 13th May:  

There have been several mentions of foxes on blogs recently, it must be a good year for them, but here on the edge of open countryside, we rarely see them in gardens. They seem to stay mainly in the woods and fields. We have proper country foxes here, not pampered urban ones bloated up on take away leftovers and fast food full of trans-fats and corn syrup.

We picked it up again a few more times, but then it seemed to stop visiting. There were reports on the village grapevine of a dead fox on the main road a short distance away. But, not to worry. It has started coming again.

Here it is again on two nights during the past week. What is in its mouth in last night’s part of the video? Do you need to take the feathers off?

If I had not turned round the camera it might have captured the pigeon being caught at it mopped up the spillage from the bird feeder which it just above the bushes in the first shot. 

UPDATE - There is a later version (3 mins) of the video here:

Sunday 4 June 2023


We had to say goodbye to our cat Phoebe last week. She had a large lesion in her gum, and although the vets could find no sign of anything malignant, they were unable to stop it from bleeding or clear it up. She gradually stopped eating and became weak and wobbly on her feet, and cried pitifully.

Here is her official passport photograph (no smiling or sunglasses).

Phoebe was a rescue cat from the RSPCA. She had being abandoned in a pub car park with kittens, all with severe cat flu. She was about five when we got her, and we had her for eight and a half years.

I think we might have had a cat sooner had it not been for Grandma. She hated cats, especially when they rubbed against her legs. The look or feel of any kind of fur made her shudder. As a volunteer in an Oxfam shop, she had great difficulty showing any clothing with fur to customers, and once had to hand over a fur stole at arm’s length. After she moved to live near us and no longer needed to stay, when our Son went off to university we replaced him with a cat. Daughter thought it a great improvement.

“They’ve got a CAT”, Grandma told everyone, disgust and venom in her voice. When here, if Phoebe passed too close and Grandma thought no one was watching, out would come her stick and Phoebe would receive a sharp poke and a “pshssst”.

You don’t realise how much you will miss them: Phoebe I mean. She was the gentlest, most trusting animal I have ever known. She no longer waits for her breakfast in the morning, or comes wanting to snuggle up or play. We look for her curled in the places she slept, in her bed or under her bush in the garden, or in the window watching the birds. We expect to see her zig-zagging crazily back and forth across the lawn with the wind up her tail, or her pretty face at the front window waiting to be let in, only to go straight out of the back to run round and miaow to be let in again. For a moment, we start to check where she is before we go to bed or go out. She is no longer here to talk to. Her presence is missing from the house.

Thursday 1 June 2023

Brian Cant and Play Away

New Month Old Post: first posted 20th June, 2017

                                It really doesn’t matter if it’s raining or it’s fine
                                Just as long as you’ve got time
                                To P-L-A-Y playaway-play, playaway,
                                Play-a-play, playaway. 

It was sad to hear [in June, 2017] of the death of Brian Cant, once polled the most-loved voice on UK children’s television. I used to love Play Away. I would never miss it unless I had to, despite being in my twenties at the time.

Brian Cant in Play Away
Brian Cant, Tony Robinson, Toni Arthur and Julie Stevens in Play Away (click to play)

Luckily, Play Away was on a Saturday afternoon when I wasn’t at work. It was full of silly jokes and sketches, some of them Pythonesque, and very musical. Its talented presenters had a vivacious energy that was simply uplifting. Children’s television is sometimes much too good for children.

And shining through it all was the childlike spirit of Brian Cant. He had a mischievous screen presence – a way every now and then of glancing into the camera as if to let you into the secret that this was every bit as daft as it looked. You never quite knew what he was going to do next. Just when he had drawn you in, he would give you a naughty nip like a playful Yorkshire terrier.

So I’ve spent a nostalgic couple of hours watching clips of Play Away on YouTube. The one above represents everything in it that was wonderful. Brian Cant hamming it up, the beautiful voice of Toni Arthur, crazy Julie Stevens, and an implausibly youthful Tony Robinson in the Court of King Caractacus.

If you want to eulogize about a man who sang a song about the fascinating witches who put the scintillating stitches in the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus …

... he’s just passed by.