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From Birkenhead to Bandar Seri Begawan and Bishkek

The Ramblings of a Wanderlust Builder

CHAPTER 1: A Cakewalk

birkenhead dock area_latest photo from bernie

Chapter 1: A Cakewalk

In retrospect, I suppose I always had that little nagging voice in the back of my head, urging me to peek over the horizon to find out what wonders were to be seen on the other side. It appears also that I made a decision at a very early age that it was incumbent on me to take every opportunity available to explore and make my own adventures. The first of these opportunities arose before I was old enough to master the art of tying my own shoelaces, but apparently, that was not a serious enough impediment to deter me.


As an inquisitive pre-school tot of no more than four years old and with my mother working, I was on most days, placed in the loving care of my lovely grandma when I believe the itchy feet syndrome first kicked in. I’m very sure it was a Monday, typically a very busy washing day in our household and so I was obliged to play alone in the back garden of my grandma’s modest terraced house, in our hometown of Birkenhead, while she busied herself with her weekly chore.


Birkenhead, situated as it is, across the River Mersey from Liverpool, was then a proud, thriving industrial town. It was acknowledged worldwide for the building of high-quality ships, including the iconic first Ironclad Alabama, Brunel’s mighty Great Eastern and successive Ark Royal aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy. It boasted a vast docks system that meandered through the town like a tideless river, extending from the lock gates on the Mersey to nudging the countryside several miles inland. To cement its attachment to ships and its maritime heritage, the streets in my neighbourhood, carried the names of major British tidal rivers like Tyne, Seven, Tees, Trent, Humber, etc. There were very few households in this close-knit working community, referred to as the river streets, that didn’t have some working connection to the docks, shipbuilding or as merchant seamen. The area had suffered badly during the blitz in WW11 but the people were resilient.

sea port black and white

Obviously bored with my own company in the confines of the small back garden and my curiosity peaked by the cacophony of sounds, thrown out from the nearby dockyard activity, I decided it was about time I personally investigated the world around me, without the need to cling to an adult hand. So, buoyed by the thought that my grandma would be happy with the fine sunny day to aid her washday work and confident she would not be too concerned about me, I contrived to let myself through the back gate and wandered the short distance through the narrow entryway to explore the sources of the exciting noises that emanated from the docks and the heavy industry that dominated the area around me. From the side of the ironstone cobbled main road where I now stood, I had a feast of sights and sounds as I looked at the huge ocean-going ships berthed in the docks immediately opposite.

The Graving Dock gates were open (I can never recall when they were ever closed) and I was presented with views of the mighty ships berthed for repairs and maintenance in the four fully manned dry docks. Ships were so big that their bows almost touched the perimeter dock walls that enclosed the site. Running parallel to the gates and dock walls were double railway tracks on which massive clanking, steam hissing, locomotives hauled endless linked open wagons, loaded with iron ore and coal for the steelworks in nearby North Wales, cattle wagons filled with livestock or tankers of crude oil for bunkering the many docked ships that arrived from all over the world to my doorstep. Men were everywhere to be seen, loading and unloading, lifting, stacking, moving, shouting orders over the noise of the hammering on steel, that echoed from the dry docks or waving arms and giving hand signals to direct crane and truck drivers. It was a magical scene for a little boy.

My earlier recollection that it was a Monday was reinforced by the fact that I was still mindful of our weekly ritual Sunday visit, which I had made with my mother, to my Aunty Nancy only the previous day. This was memorable as my Aunty Nancy made a deliciously mean custard tart, for which I had a particular liking. This now raised the question of what better opportunity would I ever have than today, to get some more of my favorite cake, without waiting until the next Sunday?

old train black and white

I ploughed on past the open doors of McIvor’s Iron and Steel Works where sparks from welding work cascaded down and bounced off the concrete floors. Glowing red hot slag spat out from the cutting of steel plates. Almost immediately directly opposite and casting a huge shadow across the road were the giant Spillers flour mills and grain hoppers, constructed against a purpose-built docking berth which allowed offloading of raw grain directly into the silos. I plodded on passing manufacturing factories and the vast coal unloading facility with its monumental cranes, grabbing coal from berth ships and dropping their loads into giant chutes over open rail wagons. They were quickly shunted on to make way for the next wagon, from the endless queue of rolling stock waiting to be filled. The thunderous noise and the clouds of coal dust that was generated paid no respect to environmental considerations. That was for future generations to deal with.

Not yet endowed with enough sense to fit on a teaspoon, I had no idea of the risks a Tom Thumb sized adventurer had to consider in crossing major road junctions in a manically busy industrial area. Nor did I understand anything about traffic lights or managing railway level crossings. I passed mounds of scrap metal, timber stock yards, a foundry where great bronze ships propellers were cast, warehouses, loading bays and factories and places where I had to quickly scurry across gate opening and alleyways to avoid any unseen trucks trundling out in my direction. I marched passed Birkenhead Brewery, where the pungent smell of the fermentation process stuck in my nostrils, long after I left it behind. At last, I could now see the landmark Town Hall clock and the industrial buildings were thinning out.  I could now give more thought to the Holy Grail that resembled a custard tart. I remembered that the bus stop use for our regular return trips was situated outside the Seaman’s Mission, located on the junction with my Aunt’s Street. I may have even broken into a trot when I eventually saw the Mission building and realised I was almost there.

building rotating blades in old times black and white

My Aunty was, I’m sure, greatly surprised to see me on my own, in what was a pretty grubby state by then. I must, however, have been vocal enough about the reason of my unexpected appearance, as I distinctly recall being sat down and plied with a very acceptable portion of the prized custard tart and a glass of milk. While I was off trekking, enjoying monster steam trains clanking and thundering, belching smoke and sending sparks off steel tracks, hearing ships horns and steam whistles, watching giant cranes swivel and bow-like synchronised dancers and experiencing all manner of noises and smells, while learning how to dodge traffic, my poor grandma was almost demented with worry as she searched for me.

old buildings black and white

One of my grandma’s neighbours, had quite by chance, recognised me as I marched towards the centre of town. She was a passenger on a passing bus and typical of the sense of neighbourliness, more prevalent in that era, she sensibly concluded I should not have been wandering around on my own and she should inform my grandma as soon as she alighted from the bus. Not many blue-collar homes had phones in that decade, but like all grandma’s, mine was wise enough to have worked out where I was probably heading and in due course, turned up to collect me from my Aunt’s. After giving me a big hug, followed by a calming cup of tea, my grandma and I left for home in the more conventional manner. I was happy with my success in getting my fill of custard tart and she was happy to have found me. I never did get scolded for that first venture out. Although I liked to think that was because I was admired for my enterprise, I know really it was because grandma was just glad to have me safely back home with her.

This is the first in a series of blogs narrating the life of an Expat – from childhood years to his ascend as a veteran of the Travel and Construction industry.

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Bernard C. Dagnall, CIPM

Bernard is a highly experienced professional Project Manager with credentials earned over a span of 35 years with VVIP Clientele and Blue-Chip brands in Europe, Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East. He is also a creative writer having penned many industry-related articles and blogs.

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