Country Matters: One final battle at Aston Down

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The Independent Online
IT WAS at least as much fun as a day at the races, and in the end not much more expensive: an auction of surplus military vehicles, plant and equipment, on the airfield at Aston Down, near Stroud. Having long heard rumours of such jamborees, I made an effort to go to the one on Tuesday, as I wanted a small trailer for use in the woods.

My appetite had been whetted by Leslie, a local stonemason and builder, who at an earlier auction had bought a perfectly serviceable van for pounds 300. He reported seeing rows of trailers of the kind I wanted, some of which went for pounds 50. Since I had just been quoted pounds 950 as the price of a new, civilian trailer, I sent off for a catalogue of the next sale at once. This showed that the occasion was going to be a formidable one, for the lot numbers ran (with a few gaps) from 1 to 1010.

I already had some experience of Aston Down. The airfield is scarcely used for flying (except by a gliding club) and its buildings house a variety of non- military organisations, among them a unit of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. To this outstation I deliver samples from culled fallow deer - heads, necks, lights and other parts too indelicate to mention - so that they can be tested for signs of tuberculosis.

Normally when I call the place is deserted; but by the day of the preview a tremendous regiment of surplus vehicles and equipment had been assembled. There were massed ranks of Land Rovers, civilian cars, lorries by the score, earth-movers, cranes, ambulances, tractors, fire engines, hoists and - most curiously - one large wagon offering luxurious accommodation for six horses. What military function this could have fulfilled, it was hard to imagine.

Passing on in search of three- quarter-ton trailers, I found a dozen just as I remembered them from my own far-off National Service days: square-bodied, solid, heavily built, made entirely of steel. Most had been recently spruced up with new coats of paint, in drab olive-and- black camouflage blotches, but this failed to conceal that some were badly ravaged by rust, especially in the floors. Already, under the fresh paint, tell-tale blisters were erupting.

It was the work of a few minutes to pick out the best three and mark them in the catalogue. Then I had time to visit the office and verify the procedure that prospective buyers are required to follow.

So fast do sales move that everyone who means to make a purchase is expected to hand over pounds 300 in cash on arrival, whereupon he or she is issued with a buyer's number, written in big black figures on a white background, so that it can be flashed at the auctioneer for immediate identification the moment a lot is knocked down.

On the day of the sale I arrived at 2pm, having ascertained that no trailers would come under the hammer until mid-afternoon. Twenty-four hours earlier, the car park had been all but deserted: now it was packed with visitors' vehicles, many with low-loading trailers attached, for the carrying off of unroadworthy acquisitions.

In a matter of minutes, I had exchanged six pounds 50 notes for the buyer's number 170, which was boldly emblazoned on the back of my catalogue. The sale itself was taking place in a hangar, with the auctioneers perched on a rostrum halfway up a 30ft cliff face of stacked ammunition cases. Facing them, across a space the width of a road, were rows of chairs for the punters, and between sellers and buyers a continuous stream of vehicles was processing.

The operation was brilliantly handled, at breakneck speed. As each lot trundled past, it was sold in a machine-gun barrage of offers, bids and counterbids, often being knocked down before it had reached the far end of the hanger. As I arrived, we were on lot 722 - a long way short of the high 800s in which I was interested. But such was the verve of the auctioneer that time flew, and the lots with it. Starting a fire engine at pounds 500, he sold it for pounds 2,000 within 20 seconds. He shifted an ambulance for pounds 850 in even shorter order. If people were slow to start bidding, he took them steeply downhill: 'Five hundred? No? Four. Three. Two. I'll stop when I get a bid. One hundred. Thank you, sir]'

From upwind, to my left, heady smells of sizzling meat and onions from the sausage and burger stall mingled not altogether attractively with the diesel fumes of the procession. The supply of vehicles officially described as 'MK 4 x 4 Dropsides' - otherwise four-wheel drive lorries - seemed endless, but all were bought within seconds at prices between pounds 1,500 and pounds 2,000.

Having failed to bring a pen or pencil, I was obliged to scribble notes with the point of a .243 bullet, but none of my predominantly agricultural neighbours seemed to notice anything odd. Gradually, what with the smell, the grinding and growling of engines, and the fortissimo, machine-gun hammer of the auctioneer's amplified voice, my mind closed down against present assaults and drifted off to Siberia in summer, where, in a hunting camp beside the River Charysh, we had used a Russian ex-army lorry similar to the ones now passing.

One day, when we wanted to cross the river, we were taken in hand by a young man with a wispy, fair moustache derisively known among his colleagues as 'the General'. The name derived purely from his habit of wearing army-type fatigues and cap, for his bearing was anything but military. When he loaded a large inflatable into the back of his truck, and drove down to the river, we supposed he was about to launch the boat for the crossing. Not at all: crunching down the shingle shore, he drove straight out into the fast, grey torrent, until the exhaust was burbling furiously from deep under the surface and water was lapping his boots in the cab . . .

An extra-loud crack from the auctioneer's hammer jerked me back to the present. He had finished Section Three, all but a couple of non-runners which had failed to parade, and went straight into 'Plant, Trailers and Miscellaneous'.

The pace, already hot, moved up a notch. These lots were not exhibited but sold on catalogue numbers. My adrenalin rose as we hurtled towards Lot 887, my first target. Motorised scrapers, pedestrian fork-lifts, generators - and then trailers. Two that I had noted as rough were knocked down for pounds 60 apiece. Another went for pounds 80.

Then came Lot 887. Instantly a bid of pounds 100. Hellfire] Somebody else had spotted its good condition. I raised my catalogue. 'One-two-five]' snapped the auctioneer, then immediately, 'One-fifty'. I gave it a few seconds and twitched again. 'One- seven-five . . .' BANG] - and there I was.

I recovered the balance of my deposit and got the trailer's papers. These revealed that it had entered service on 23 March 1981 and had most recently been in use at RAF Valley, on Anglesey. Under the heading 'Mileage' someone had written: 'No odo(meter) fitted. Trailer has a progressive miles travelled of 10,250.'

I doubt if I shall tow it for another 10,000 miles, progressive or otherwise; but I am confident that it will give years more stout service, and earn its modest cost many times over.

'Further Country Matters', by Duff Hart-Davis, is published by Swan Hill Press, pounds 16.95.