A Winter's Tale

Kevin Ash
Winter_woe_4

Once upon a time, many years ago, a young student called Kevin Ash would supplement his meagre income by working as a London motorcycle courier in the winter holiday. It was cold, dark and dangerous, but the money was good and the need for beer strong.

One miserable, wet and bitter Friday evening a call came over the radio as he sat huddled in a bus shelter in Chiswick, casting his eyes wistfully at the Fullers Brewery cross the road. Would he collect a package in Hammersmith, for delivery to distant Wales? Hardly a journey to be relished in the best of conditions, especially on an ancient CX500 with no fairing and dodgy... well, dodgy everything, really. But now, in December, with the temperature falling as fast as the rain?

Ah, but think of the money: inner London mileage rates for a 170 mile trip! Er, each way... So collect the package he did, before heading off down an M4 motorway wedged tight with nose-to-tail commuters cosily ensconced in their dry, heated cars. Ah, but it's so much faster on the bike, thought Kevin, as the chilling rain turned to driving sleet with the temperature stepping down again as he left the warming glow of the capital. They must be so frustrated he thought, as he wiped the slush from his scratched and yellowed visor every five seconds, gloves heavy with the weight of water soaked into the absorbent leather, trusting tail lights to keep him twixt kerb and crash barrier.

Two and a half hours later, an hour of that searching lanes and bleak, empty roads, a tiny, muddy industrial estate near a village north of Cardiff proffered the same address as that on the water-soaked parcel. It was ominously dark, even under its blanket of snow. If anyone was still working there, they were developing film or shagging their secretary. Or this very urgent package was not so urgent the recipients could be bothered to wait until 8.00pm for it.

Kevin phoned his office (that took half an hour because there weren't many phones - this was pre-mobile days, and if it hadn`t been they still wouldn`t have worked here...), plus ten minutes to resist the temptation to hurl the package in the river cascading down the hill with its cold, phosphorescing foam. A new address to go to, the home of the company boss. Only 15 miles away, across the mountain, a lovely, picturesque commute to work surely. But not tonight - instead, a grim and petrifying dice with death on sinuous, snow-covered back roads with steep and slippery descents.

But he made it, grimly and bravely, and as the figure silhouetted in the doorway by the orange glow from the crackling log fire within took the package with a cheery, "I'll look at that Monday," it was Kevin's pride at surviving this long which held him back from decking the bastard. Not even the offer of a coffee...

The M4 at Cardiff took an hour and a half to find again, the darkness didn't help, and neither did the snow driven onto the windward side of signposts. By Swindon, Kevin was nearly dead. His hands had stopped hurting by the Severn Bridge and now stopped doing anything at all, his face was crusty with frozen drippings from his nose, his feet were in cryogenic stasis and he was bitterly cold to his very core. Could you die from exposure while still riding? Would the bike keep going, the hand of a corpse frozen to the throttle? A newspaper headline floated across his desperately slowed brain: 'Dead bloke on CX done for speeding'.

He had to stop - it was 11.30pm and he wasn't sure he'd survive until midnight. A services beckoned, trucks lined up against the dark, and somehow, with no obvious ability to move, no memory of levering his frozen limbs off the bike, he found himself standing at a counter, ordering an all-day (and all night) breakfast: fried eggs, chips, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, fried bread and piping hot, life restoring coffee. Never before in the history of mankind had anything so greasy looked so good. Paying took ten minutes as anaesthetised digits fumbled through layers of soaking clothes for a dripping bank note, then all he had to do was sit down.

Kevin slopped towards the seating area, a trail of icy water marking his path, crash helmet hooked over one arm, eyes focused onto some vague, distant point in another, warmer dimension. So near, and yet so far... In concentrating on not shouting at the pain in his fingers as the blood made its tentative return, he didn't spot the two stairs down. Only two steps, but enough: one foot swung out into space where it expected more floor, and then he started running. He didn't want to run, he was even surprised he could run, oddly puzzled he couldn`t stop running in fact.

But run he did, involuntarily, and for a few seconds was also vaguely aware of others looking around as his sodden boots slap-slap-slapped across the floor, faster and faster, like a steam engine gathering pace. Gradually too he leaned further and further forward, arms and tray extending out in front, his feet trying to catch his unbalanced body yet merely postponing the inevitable. And finally, they failed: he tripped, still running, and flew headlong, high and silent for a brief moment until he landed, horizontal, sliding through the breakfast, gasping for the breath just knocked out of him even before he stopped.

And there he lay, head pressed against the leg of a horrified old lady, baked beans and egg yolk dripping from his clothes, water pooling around him, a chair across his back, mouth opening and closing for breath it couldn`t draw, all-day breakfast, beans, egg and all, smeared along his frozen, defeated body.

Enjoy your winter riding.

Ammerlander
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Joined: 21/12/2009

Hi, I ´m new here and I just have to say what an excellent website. Bike-journalism at its best, as far as I as a layman can judge that.
Regarding the above story, a "chilling tale" indeed.
Sadly it really is possible to freeze to death while riding your bike. I think it was in the news two or three years ago, when a rider dropped dead of his bike from hypothermia after riding on the autobahn in sub-zero temperatures.
Me? I ´m still to much of a pussy to really ride in every weather. It isn ´t the cold that puts me off but the snow and ice. When I ´m even having trouble keeping my car on the road I fear I might not get very far on two wheels and my sidecar equipped MZ will probably collapse into a pile of rust after a few kilometers of salty roads.
But as soon as we ´ll get some dry weather I ´ll be back in the saddle.
Anyways, keep up the good work!
Greetings from Germany.
Ammerlander

sutty
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Joined: 21/12/2009

Personally something similar happened to me, after braving Shap in 6/8 inches of snow on a tragic CX500E and dropping in Ayr, I surrendered and let the RAC take me home at 11pm. Drinking beer in the cab!
My best moment though was when the M56 was blocked behind Runcorn cos of frozen snow eastbound over the bridge and onto the hill. After getting past all the doors open socialising drivers, I was confronted by a not very steep hill with a cop Range Rover parked at an interesting angle. Second gear mid/low revs and let the TK mileage master rear do its thing, bit wobbly and slidey but got up quite easily. Not claiming to be an ace on a bike. Cop on bike at the top was applauding as I went past, it felt like a Royal salute. He'd come from the next junction the wrong way, could see his tracks in the snow. Tomorrow will drive to work in the snow, cars are easier.

kevash
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Hi Ammerlander, thanks for the comments! D'you know I do remember something about that rider dying of exposure. Didn't he collapse after getting off his bike? But anyone who's ridden in those conditions would understand that.

I did another epic ride only last week, 500 miles (800km) in one day to the north of England and across the Pennine Hills on a Triumph Thunderbird, for a feature for UK publication Motor Cycle News, but this time I was properly equipped, and in fact I really enjoyed it, even though it was only a few degrees above freezing. Thank you EDZ thermal underwear and Alpinestars!

Agree though Sutty, when there's ice and snow that's time to get in a car. In fact it's the only time cars can be fun I reckon...

granitehead
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Joined: 05/02/2009

That brings back memories! I bought a new CX in '82 same model and colour as the picture. Did 20,000 miles on it in 2 years and it never missed a beat - it still had the original camchain tensioner when I sold it. This bike, although much maligned, had a lot going for it which is why it was so popular in it's day, despite the early model's terrible reputation for eating it's own internals.

kevash
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A friend's CX went through all three camchain mods and had the big end problem too, but after those were sorted the bike was good. Couriers knew exactly how long things would last too, I still remember them replacing alternators as a matter of course at 40,000 miles, as they lasted 45,000, and they'd slot in a new tensioner blade at the same time.

wadham
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Joined: 10/11/2009

I was once 30 mins late arriving at Miami from LHR and got a bit upset as I was kept in an air/con cool temp in plane and terminal, when I could have been in 90f temp on beach.

It was really bad, I had to put on my best cardigan to keep the cool breeze from air con units off me.

kevash
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Shudder... life deals some hellish cards sometimes

jdtwoplus
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KA, thanks so much for this, what a great story and a superb read, totally in the spirit of your site. Thanks too Wadham, you made me laugh out loud and got me thinking. The problem these days is of course that everybody expects air-con perfection with everything, whether it is the brightness of the dashboard light on a car or the temperature of an airport. The result is blandness in everything, but we know better, which is why we ride motorcycles.

K, you say above that cars aren't fun and given what I have just written I would agree in general. (Apologies to everyone for bringing cars into Kevin's site and please ignore this paragraph if you prefer!) One tin box is designed to feel like all the others. However nobody has to buy new or bland cars. I have two old Italian cars, a 1998 Fiat Coupe, designed by Pininfarina and a Lancia Delta Integrale, developed from a mediocre family hatchback by a couple of passionate loonies on a Friday afternoon to go racing that same weekend. The Fiat is cheap as chips, has never broken down, touch wood, and works in the snow, but still oozes character and costs me nothing. The Lancia is undeniably the most right car that I have ever owned. Say no more, and the look on Richard Hammond's face recently on Top Gear when he drove one said it all too. Together they are worth less than £20k, so essentially provide practical character transport without much money tied-up in them. Sorry I have to go now, as I have to take the Lancia to the garage.....

JD

kevash
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Actually I do enjoy cars too, I used to have a 911 until the dot com crash meant people stopped paying me silly money to write nonsense for them, and I loved that, you just get far fewer chances to use something like that properly than a sports bike.

I really like old and classic cars too, I used to have a Jaguar 420 to mess around with and I'll get something else from the 60's during the next year hopefully. Meanwhile my Alfa 156 can be fun - another old Italian car, and it's never let me down either! I'd have an Integrale too...

jdtwoplus
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Just make sure you change the Alfa belts every 40k or so. I have a friend who's let go on the M25 one day. Nasty.

Navy Boy
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Joined: 12/02/2009

Ah yes, the Alfa bug...

I used to have a lovely 156 2.0 JTS and now have a 146 TI as well as an 07 reg Fiat Panda diesel. Italian cars just seem to do it for me.

I'd echo the comments ref the cam belts though. Plus on the Fiat coupe (If it's the 5-cyl model) you're supposed to remove the engine to do it... Expensive that one!

kevash
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Belts were done 6000 miles ago... Yup, I know all about those, and what a mess they cause when they let go. The 156 is just a second car to make up for the boring diesel estate, though I've got a Suzuki Alto press car for a few months for a feature and that's quite good fun - maybe it's something to do with three cylinder engines...

I used to have a 156 V6, fabulous car though it used as much fuel as the 911... but then the Porsche's economy wasn't bad until you went mental in it.

www ashonbikesandcars. com, I wonder...

wadham
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Joined: 10/11/2009

My only transport was a bike from 17yrs old to 23yrs old. My current wife, in fact my only wife as it happens, so far (thats 30yrs) , used to put up with 2 wheels no matter what.

She still comes with me despite turning up for parties soaking wet in our Youf because we did not have proper waterproof clothing.
Now-days luckily, we can afford good quality bike clothing and a selection of bikes.

I used to work 24/7 shifts before anyone knew what that meant, 24/7 that is. I think the first use of that sort of terminology was the 7/11 stores that appeared in London in the 70's. At least that meant we could get food when we wanted it at last.

Anyway, apart from my terrible experience at Miami Airport that I told you all about before Christmas, one night in the 70's I had to get from my parents home in Uxbridge to Fulham Broadway for a night shift. Not as far as Wales I admit but listen on anyway.

I had ridden home on Christmas Eve morning from my des-res in Hammersmith to enjoy my late mum's home cooking and had planned to get back to Fulham the same night for a night shift.

Having enjoyed the Morecombe & Wise Christmas Special show on the BBC (what else was there then) in the evening, my thoughts turned to getting ready to ride in to work for an 11pm start.
The usual journey time was 40mins max, so I looked outside at 9.30pm to find a massive snowfall had occurred. In those days there was not the constant weather updates we have now and I was too young to be 'bovered' at looking at weather forecasts.

It all looked a bit difficult. I had to slide the bike out of a narrow pathway through a gate, over a path & kerb and onto road covered in 6" of snow. ( Young folk please convert to metric yourself)

My father was a Derbyshire miners son who had survived some trauma in the Second World War and had instilled an overriding compulsion in me to get to work and do your job.

So I slid my Suzuki GT500 (a 2 stroke twin) out onto the road and looked ahead at the winter scene facing me. It was still snowing so I would need to wipe the visor frequently. The road was covered in virgin undisturbed snow and it stayed that way until I hit the M4 Motorway where it was just disturbed snow.

All the way to Fulham, which was about 25 miles, I rode with my feet down acting as skis at about 10-20mph. When I got to work I was frozen solid and they questioned my sanity before parking me next to a radiator for 2 hours to warm up. I was obviously very late for work.

So good luck to all those who still have to ride in all conditions.

kevash
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How spookily similar to me... only one wife, a bike as only transport until I was 22 (aside from a £20 Bedford van for a year as race bike transport), mad journeys through the snow and even a Suzuki two-stroke twin... I had a T500M.

Me and a mate at university used to battle our way into central London through blizzard conditions on our bikes, taking hours and hours, feet down as skis like you, then when we got there were so cold and soaking we'd miss the lectures and drink coffee to warm up again... then go home again!

Completely pointless, yet what a sense of achievement...

wadham
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Joined: 10/11/2009

It would be really spooky if you had also owned a Kettle, RD 400, Gs1000. ..........

I have owned about 50 other bikes or more in my life, just not sure exactly any more . Although you get to test ride most bikes, my friends will tell you that I have bought most of them or test ridden the rest.

I once did a list of all the bikes I had owned. It was difficult to remember all of them but it seemed about right. I think I would be a rich man if it was not for this obsession with 2 wheels.

I have some great photos of us on Gs's, an Rt1150 and a Pan1300 riding up to the top of a closed pass in Austria in 2006 in June. It was closed because of heavy snow , barriers across the road, mud slides etc but we carried on, riding through roadside ditches and fields and snow until we reached the top of the pass. When we got to the top the rain stopped and we hit white-out snow conditions and a snow covered road to get down the other side. So we ran away and came back down the easy way to where we started.

Now, how much will I get for my SMT in part-ex for a 1200 Multistrada.

Cheers

banthebomb
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Joined: 06/01/2010

Hi Bro,

Nice story!
Could feeld my own clockwork freezing by picturing your story. By the way, how's the skiing in the Cotswolds at the moment?

Hugs to all, see ya!

kevash
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Hello Zwolle! Colder there than here I think, though we're getting -7 tonight. Only had one snowfall in the whole winter though, two days ago, most unsnowy part of the country here. Icy though so no bike riding, just a bit of sledging...

och2pot
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Joined: 15/11/2009

Where's yer handlebar muffs then? Ah the days before helmets were compulsory, but would I ride in winter now with only MkV111's and plastic bags over my gauntlets? Brrrr!
My old A10's oil tank was a fine handwarmer on a cold night's fag stop somewhere.
Minus toomuch here tonight, pipe's burst, ice everywhere. Bikes??? I'll settle for my Focus.

kevash
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After that episode the CX got some elegant cut-down plastic oil containers on the bars which enhanced its sleek lines perfectly.
Its sticky-out cylinder heads were good, convenient hand warmers though...

As for A10s I have 'special' memories of one of those as I spent a short season passengering in an A10 outfit in classic racing once. Well when I say outfit, this was an A10 with a slab of chipboard and a pramwheel nailed to the side, or something not far off, and half way through a very wet meeting at Snetterton the chipboard got so soggy I fell through it on the back straight at 90mph... We still finished the race though!

shuggiemac
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Joined: 23/11/2008

Engines as handwarmers. I remember, many moons ago, meeting a young lady at a do somewhere in Edinburgh and she invited me down to her place in Kelso the next Friday evening. As a struggling apprentice in those days the Bonneville was year round transport, so off I toddled in the sub zero winter paying little notice to the cold, as I was more distracted as to what may be on offer than night. The following hours can remain secret but the next morning I had to get up early and head back to Edinburgh for Saturday work (over time was common in those days) and it was absolutely baltic as I fired the bike up. Not long into the journey I was in a lot of pain in the hands, so whenever possible would wrap them around the Bonnie's cylinders as I could eventually feel a miniscule amount of warmth getting through the gloves. I got to work and after a few miuntes, as the feeling came back, I got a hellish pain in my fingers on one hand and then noticed some beautifully branded lines in the skin, exactly matching the cooling fin pitch off the engine. I didn't realise at the time but a reasonable size hole had appeared in one of the gloves and I then managed to burn a momento of the trip direct into the skin.

Many lessons learned that day but yes, it was worth it!

unconventional rebel
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Had a very similar trip from Basingstoke to Birmingham and back dispatching on a GS550 in Belstaffs. I turned blue, started losing my vision (could only see big round patches of red tail lights and yellow balls of streetlight), legs were so numb I couldn't get the sidestand down or walk properly when I finally arrived at my gf's house. Her mum opened the door, took one look and parked me on the arga. It took 1/2 hour for the pain in my face/hands to subside.

I quickly picked up a set of moto mod winter riding gear (a dispatchers fav.) 'elephant ears' handlebar muffs, and a rukka oversuit. Dam the expense!

A later overnight trip to Edinburgh was far more comfortable, on a newly purchased CX500 (wonderful bike)where it was freezing cold and absolutelyy peed down all the way - and this ended up at a private address, and no he didn't even offer me a coffee either...

Happy days.

shuggiemac
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Elephant ears - that brought back memories as i have not heard that term for years. We also used to call them Hippo Hands for some reason.

rebel146
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Brrrrr! Reminds me of the time when: it's the late 70s; I'm dressed in Belstaff waxed jacket + thick jumper(s) and matching Belstaff waxed pants mit mil-spec longjohns + a pair of tights - theatrical type, darling, theatrical; proper m'cycle riding boots - which still didn't keep one's feet warm, even with real ex-Royal Navy knee-length socks; a pair of falconer's gauntlets which managed to freeze every digit individually and completely; and a full-face (yellow) lid with a thick scratchy vizor that would do a decent impression of the Exorcist girl's head-spinner in a decent breeze. Anyway, that was the gear; the bike was a marbled light/lime green Honda CB200 mit Union Jack and BFG plates; the time - Xmas week; the place - Germany en route via Cuxhaven to UK.

It was f-f-f-f-urkin' freeezin'!!!

I had a little orange top box with my spare can of gas + a few odds and sods. The gas can had a twist-off lid, and held 10L - enough to get me to the next gaz station, if need be...or the quayside - if none were open.

I set off in good order mid-morning and made good progress. The roads were clear of snow/ice and with light traffic; the fields were under a carpet of white. Once I hit the Autobahn, it was almost deserted...dry as a desert too. And did I mention it was f-f-f-f-furkin' freezin'!!!???

Anyway, hours later--it seemed--I needed to stop and add some gas. I pulled into a layby. In pulls a big fat man sucking on a big fat cigar in his big fat Benz, and parked right beside me. It started to rain/snow. And the wind howled like a banshee. It took me 10 minutes just to lift my leg off the bike and stand up, holding on for dear life, in case the wind took me, or I just took the easy way out and fainted. Still, my Deutsche Freund stared agape, and he even rolled down his window just a crack to let the fug exit his vehicle. And the roiling heat waves too. I seem to recall they melted an area like a moat around his motor...or maybe, they didn't.

Anyway, there I was, fingers all a-stiffened, trying to coax my keys out of the ignition - which, about 10 agony-ridden minutes later, I managed. It took an ice age to retrieve the gas can from the topbox...on a summer's day, in less than two seconds, but here, now (then)...

The next 'orrible bit was to open the gas tank's cap - by pressing down on a small 'button' with one hand, and depressing the big cap itself with the other. I won't bore you with how long it took or the pains I went through, suffice to say, my tongue was involved along with my chin. Oh, and I wept...bitter tears, I can tell you, without shame.

And still, my cigar-chomping pal stared agog. But now, he'd rolled-up the window as it was tipping it down...and it was cold...very cold.

Anyway, another ice age passed and I managed to pour/spill enough gas into the main tank to suffice; then, put everything back so alles in ordnung; and then, mount up and off we go...next stop, the quayside and the boat 'ome.

Off too, went my pal...and not even a wave.

It was on the next stretch that I discovered I fell asleep whilst at the wheel, erm, handlebars. I know this because I was so cold, I was getting warm (hypothermia came a-knocking)...and I counted my progress by the number of roadbridges / gantries passed...I would count them off...on this vast, wide, empty, freezing autbahn, and there was just me, the wind, and his pal, Jack Frost a nippin' at my heels. And I fell 'asleep'...more than once...because I could see the next gantry up ahead, and then, warmth and darkness, and then - whoa, where did that one go to?

Crazy!

I stopped every fourth one for a wind-break! And soon, I made it to the quaside in one piece...and it was open to a howling north sea winter storm...and it was an open quayside, with the edge just a good spit (not into wind) from my front wheel. And get this: whoud should be the only other vehicle in sight (or even on site) - yes, 'twas my Duetsche Freund, again. And he stared some more. And then it started to really pour down. And still he stared...as I froze some more just inches away from the full heat and leather comfort he was enjoying, all by himself. Vanker!

Within an hour or two, the boat arrived, all vehicles boarded, I got tied-up or was it tied-down, and thereafter, clumped-orf in search of my bunk which I had the good foresight to book for this 14- or was it an 18-hour crossing on these very stormy seas. Once located, I peeled-off my gear and, after noticing my black/blue arms/hands/feet/legs, I wrung out my gear, upside-downed my boots, and then sank into a very deep sleep.

Many hours later, I awoke, ravenous. NOt being a particularly good sailor, I thought I'd tough it out in the bunk...but I was starving and in need of an all-day breakfast or its equivalent. Besides which, the heaving of the near inmates was in keeping with that of the boat's incredible range of twists, turns, corkscres and 'splashes'. I had to escape otherwise my last bratwurst-und-frittes would be joining the rest of 'em currently sloshing aroudn on the floor.

So, off to the canteen...where I got a full breakfast...there was no queue to speak of, but people were everywhere, and they eyed me with envy - in between their multi-heaves. I think it was the double-fried eggs that got them!

Anyway, I enjoyed my hearty breakfast, and a good fag thereafter. A quick crap and I was sorted. Oh, and I must say, even though I shouldn't really, I was feeling a little bit pleased with my being able to scoff some scran when almost every man and his dog was doing their utmost to hang on to whatever was left of their collective insides. It was a very rough crossing, apparently.

Once we'd hit Blighty, a relatively quick zoon along good, if slippy snow-covered roads took me to my destination, just in time for a good lunch! And boy, did I learn some invaluable lessons on that trip.

Ammerlander
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Joined: 21/12/2009

I bet.
Just reading that almost made my teeth chatter.
Thanks for sharing.

lipsee
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Joined: 01/10/2011

I,m new on here and have just read this,,sorry Kevin I had to smile ,,ok then I laughed like hell,,there where tears ,it was so funny,,,,me also did despatch in the early 80s,,,A1 despatch (anyone remember them),,I lasted 2 weeks in december,,it was a great read ,,cheered up my day,,