Westmorland’s Eden Valley used to be protected from fires by a Series IIA fire appliance. Emrys Kirby meets its current owner and rings the bell.
This fabulous Series IIA Fire Hose Reel Tender is owned by Chris Brook from Preston. He grew up near Kendal in the Lake District where his father introduced him and his brothers to big boys’ toys. One of these big toys was a 1943 Dodge 102a Water Tender that Mr Brook Senior had purchased by sealed bid from Kendal Fire Station in 1973. The truck did the rounds of the local shows in the 1970’s and 80s, even going as far north as Glamis Castle in Scotland before falling into disrepair.
The first time I saw this vehicle was just over a year ago when I was travelling north on the M6 in my Series 1. Chris was coming south after attending the Kirkby Stephen and Brough Classic Commercial Vehicle Rally in the Eden Valley, part of the old County of Westmorland. The mutual appreciation was evident as we performed the Land Rover wave across the central reservation. Chris is a regular at all the northern classic vehicle shows and, as well as being an exhibitor, he is also a dab hand on the microphone for parade commentaries.
I had previously met Chris through the Land Rover Series One Club when he owned a 107in Station Wagon and have since worked with him on a professional level as a transport manager as well as spending leisure time with him as a fellow Land Rover enthusiast. He told me that LEC955 was one of two identical Land Rovers bought new in 1963 by Westmorland Fire Brigade, the other being LEC35. It was supplied from the Solihull factory as a standard grey 109in hard top and was then converted into a Hose Reel Tender by coach builders J & J Smith of Kendal. A factory supplied fire engine was very expensive and, by going down the conversion route, the brigade was able to reuse existing equipment.
The appliance was issued to the fire station in Appleby in Westmorland, in the lower Eden Valley, and served the rural community until 1980. In these 17 years it only clocked up 6500 miles, attending to small rural fires and supporting larger tenders on more significant shouts.
In 1974, as a result of the Local Government Act, the Westmorland Brigade became part of the larger Cumbria Fire Service. In 1980, LEC 955 was sent up the Eden Valley, to the Northern Division in Penrith to act as a Divisional Spare and was relegated to non operational duties such as pumping out flooded premises and delivering supplies and refreshments to crews on larger fires. In 1984 it was approaching retirement and was taken into storage at the fire service workshops in Dalston, just south of Carlisle. However, in the winter of 1985-6, it temporarily went back into service to cover both Sedbergh and Ambleside stations while their appliances were out of commission. After this brief swansong, it was sent to the fire service workshops in Kendal to be stripped of all its equipment. Finally, it was disposed of in August 1986 and was purchased by a fire service enthusiast from Leeds for restoration to original working condition.
The new owner spent a lot of time researching the history of LEC 955; writing to Cumbria County Council and the Fire Stations in Penrith and Appleby. One of the replies was from Appleby Sub Officer Richardson, who joined the Brigade in 1962. He could remember clearly the Land Rover 10 JULY 2013 arriving and he included a photo of the appliance outside the Appleby Station on its first service day. The owner also got a reply from Penrith with further photos and a list of the equipment it carried. It then became a challenge to collect as much on this list as possible to create a restored vehicle that could still fight fires. Over the following years he did just that, creating a fantastic vehicle in which he could attend various classic and commercial shows across the UK.
It was at one of these shows that Chris saw and fell in love with it, the perfect vehicle for a Westmorland boy with an interest in both Land Rovers and commercial vehicles. The Dodge Water Tender from his youth had actually served with this vehicle during its years at Appleby. At the time, Chris had a SIIa 88in and the Series One 107in Station Wagon and the vehicle was not for sale but, as you do, he exchanged numbers with the vague hope that, should it come up for sale, he would have first refusal. A few years later a call came out of the blue. ‘Chris, it’s Barry…. the Land Rover fire engine man’. A price was agreed and he was the proud owner of a piece of Westmorland Fire Brigade history. The S2a 88in and then the 107in were sold, the latter going to a national 4×4 hire company.
In the meantime, Chris’s brother Paul had finished his years of service in the armed forces and started out in business restoring classic cars and commercials. The Dodge was still in the family so he decided to carry out a full restoration on the old beast; both as a family heirloom and as an advert for his new business venture, appropriately called Rusty Trucks. Paul has recently been won over to the dark side and has purchased an unusual 80in/Lightweight hybrid known as Frankenrover and a classic Range Rover. Rusty Trucks is based in Warcop, near the southern end of the Eden Valley Railway line.
The original engine and running gear are still in place and they are in perfect working order, as one would expect from a vehicle that has still only covered 25,000 miles from new. The chassis has been repaired to a good standard with a new rear cross-member. One of the allegedly true stories from its days in service tells that while towing a trailer pump, the Land Rover turned a corner and the trailer continued ahead with the tow hitch and cross-member still attached.
J & J Smith made a good job of the fire truck conversion but a number of features bear testament that it is not a factory vehicle. It is still grey inside and a Smith logo is affixed on the front wings. To make room for filling the on-board tank, they removed the fuel filler cap from the outside of the vehicle and plated it over – you have to fold the driver’s seat forward to put petrol in. The back of the vehicle sports two small jump seats for crew members to squeeze in with all the equipment and they share knee space with a portable petrol fire pump on sliding rails. The on-board ‘first aid’ pump is operated by the centre power take off and is capable of supplying 50 gallons per minute. The original Dymo instruction labels are still in place on the bulkhead, informing the pump operator to place the vehicle in 3rd gear with the transfer box in neutral. The hose reel is fed through rollers in the top rear corner of the hard top. There are various holes drilled in the bodywork for previously fitted equipment and accessories. These include two on each of the front doors where the name plate of the vehicle’s base could be screwed and unscrewed should it be stationed elsewhere.
As an HGV instructor, Chris is an expert driver and on a short run out he demonstrated his skill at changing gear perfectly without using the clutch. Once the 2286cc engine had warmed up enough for the choke to be fed in, it pulled strongly and ticked over silently. If I could justify the fuel expense, I would gladly put the original petrol engine back in my Series 3 because I love the sound of these engines so much. The original elephant hide seats are still in good condition and their unique smell brought back memories of travelling through France in my Father’s 1965 109in back in the early 1980s.
While we were stationary in traffic, a black Volvo stopped in front of us and the wife of a mutual Land Rover friend got out and waved enthusiastically. As the traffic moved off again she had to jump back in and Chris sounded the bumper mounted Winkworth electric bell in return. Technically, this is not a legal means of warning, but the horn wasn’t working at the time and, after all, she is only a Police Inspector with an MBE!
Both brothers are justifiably proud of their vehicles and last year they got the opportunity to take both of them to Appleby Fire Station for a spot of historical re-creation and to meet staff who had served at the same time as the Land Rover. Appropriately, though renamed to reflect an expanding role, Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service still have Land Rover tenders, one of which is based in Appleby.
Chris is a novice to greenlaning and recently bought an 86in Series 1 with a 2.5 petrol engine for this purpose. This means that the fire engine is only used for shows and he has won prizes for both best Land Rover and best Fire Engine. Earlier this year, Chris and Paul again attended the Kirkby Stephen and Brough Classic Commercial Vehicle Rally. This is an unusual and eclectic multi-site event at various locations throughout the Eden Valley with free classic bus rides between them. I got to see the Land Rover and the Dodge truck side by side and it is most fitting that they attended a show in the villages that they served. All their fire fighting equipment is still fully operational so if they see Eden is burning, they could take it some water.