The Ladder

It was a cold and damp morning circa November 1970 when I received a message to the effect that there was a body in the Trent and Mersey Canal between Trentham and Stoke. Off I set along the towpath (which in those days was nothing like as user friendly as it is today) in search of the body, which I duly found after walking for about half a mile. Finding it was the easy bit. Recovering it from the water was a different matter because it was floating slap bang in the middle of the canal, which at this point is some 25 feet wide. The only thing visible was the top of its head. It was fairly obvious that it was Male.

I was soon joined by four of my colleagues and the inevitable civilian audience in the form of an elderly gentleman and his dog who were walking in the field on the opposite side to the towpath. We stood and pondered for several minutes before one of my colleagues hit on what was to prove to be a very novel and entertaining way of recovering a body from the canal.

Some tunnelling work was in progress putting a new main sewer through Trentham at this time and in the field next to where we were standing there was a brick wall surrounding an access shaft down in to the tunnel. Protruding from the shaft was one of those very long single section ladders that are at least 20 feet long. The plan that evolved was that we would remove the ladder from its present position and lay it down on the towpath extending out over the water to the body. Four of us would stand on the towpath end of the ladder to weight it down whilst the fifth member (who had to be the lightest) would crawl out along the ladder to recover the body. The elderly gentleman with the dog had obviously been listening to our ingenious plan and offered us the loan of his walking stick which he suggested could be hooked under the collar of the jacket on the body and be used to pull it back towards land. The fact that he was on one side of the canal and we were on the other posed no problems whatsoever. He flung his stick over the water with great gusto and it landed safely without decapitating any of us. All we had to do now was put the plan into operation. The ladder was put in position, four of us stood on the end and the poor soul to whom the honour of being declared the lightest got down on his hands and knees and armed with the walking stick began to crawl on his perilous journey out over the water. After a few feet, the ladder began to bend – it pressed down on the head of the unfortunate soul we were trying to recover. This trip on the ladder was aborted to allow us to move the ladder slightly to one side. Off our friend went again. When his trip out was half completed somone suggested (jokingly) that it would be a good idea if we all jumped off our end of the ladder. The ladder traveller was not amused and became very agitated and almost fell in any way.

After what seemed an eternity the goal was reached and the walking stick handle was duly inserted under the collar and the return journey began at an extremely gentle pace. Whilst our man was picking his way back along the rungs of the ladder a ghostly sound boomed and echoed up the fifteen foot shaft in the field behind us. It said ” OY! WHOSE PINCHED ME F……G LADDER?” We all looked at one another and burst out laughing. I do not think one of us had given any thought as to who might be down the shaft in the tunnel. The owner of the voice must have heard us laughing. He was not amused and uttered many profanities. Eventually our intrepid ladder traveller reached terra firma and we were able to return the ladder to free the voice from below. The owner of the voice saw the funny side of it all, when we told him what we had done.

Once again I was able to keep my spirits up by extracting some humour out of what was in fact a very tragic incident.