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Letters home, 2009, The Empire Hotel

The Empire Hotel – A Railway Story

By Ewart Tearle Nov 2009

I lived for 6 weeks during the Christmas Holidays in the now-burned down Empire Hotel in Frankton near Hamilton, NZ. I can’t remember how much it cost, but at the time, I was earning £5.0.0 a week working as a yardman for Caltex, the oil company, that had three tall storage tanks alongside the railway line. There was one tank for diesel, one tank for regular petrol and one tank for super petrol.

My job was to dip the tanks every few hours and let the office know the level. Every few days a couple of tankers would be dropped off by the shunters on the siding adjacent to these storage tanks. I would dip the tanks again and again until I knew that there was room in one of the tanks for the entire quantity of the fuel in the rolling stock waiting to be unloaded. If you got the dip wrong and started the upload, there was no way to stop it.

Once the tank filled up, the rest of the fuel overflowed. That’s why each tank sat in a hollow all by itself. I heard that one yardman had emptied the contents of the diesel tanker into the super petrol storage tank – and to compound things, it overflowed by several hundred gallons. I have a vague idea that the hotel charged £1 a week and I kept my costs down by having only fruit for lunch, at about 1/-, and fish-and-chips at about 2/- for dinner, giving me a profit for the week of about £3. This was the most money I earned until I was a second-year teacher some five years later.

The hotel served only one meal, breakfast. It was interesting…. The cook was a great guy – huge, bald, loud, dressed in a white singlet, canvas trousers and black boots, sweating all the time. He had one of those distinctively rugged New Zealand names that I wished so badly my mother had called me – something like Bruce, or Jim, or Jack. Of course, the inmates of the hotel had lots of adjectives they went through before they got to his actual name.

He cooked a wadge of bacon, and a bucket of sausages, in a yard-wide cast iron frying pan over a red-hot coal range while the eggs gently boiled in little cups alongside a smaller pan of frying onions. The under-cook passed him tin plates hot from the oven and he slapped some bacon, a couple of sausages, onions and an egg on each plate and then whacked it down on the counter, swinging it along the shiny surface until the man at the head of the breakfast queue swept it up before it hit the floor. You could hear each man take the plate and swear at how hot it was as he carried it back to his table. They seemed to know a lot about the ancestry of the cook.

We all sat down within half an hour of 6am, or else we got no breakfast, sitting on assorted wooden chairs around equally mismatched round, square and oblong, bare wooden tables. A wooden floor of 12” oak planks spoke of the former grandeur of the hotel, but grimy windows and dark stains in the wood told even more about its fallen present. I suppose there were thirty of us.

Wizened little men from the First World War dressed in cloth caps and harassed tweed jackets with woollen singlets exposed under threadbare blue-grey shirts sat in silence and shovelled the bacon and eggs from their tin plates. They were tiny, like my grandmother, who fitted under my arm when I held it out horizontally. How on earth had they won a war? They looked straight ahead, old, tired and sick, their eyes full of nightmares.

Railwaymen in dark overalls ate ravenously and drank their hot, sweet tea from squat china mugs they would thump onto the table between mouthfulls of bacon and sausages while they laughed, gossiped about each other and told filthy jokes. They were taller men, bigger, some with paunches that forced their belts to cut into their middle. They had one of the most dangerous jobs in New Zealand, because at shunting time, it was they who ran between moving railway rolling stock, coupling or decoupling on the run, jumping off and onto a step welded near the rear and front of all the wagons. They would stand beside the wagon to be attached and would wave the shunter forward until it clacked against the coupling unit. If the lock didn’t come down, these men would jump into the gap between the wagons and drop the lock, skipping backwards to clear the still-moving stock, and jumping back onto the step. The shunter was in a hurry – the engineer had to fend for himself.

I saw the force that the shunter sometimes used when coupling, and it had torn the heavy cast iron fist of the coupling unit on the wagon into a grisly twisted hook. When a wagon was decoupled, the shunter gave it a thundering whack and the wagon, with all the other rolling stock in front of it, clattered their coupling irons together and charged forward. The engineer on the ground raced along the track to push a lever so that the cortege of rolling stock was diverted to its resting place for the day.

If he failed to reach the lever in time, the first wagon passed onto a portion of the track that was not intended for it, and the engineer could only stand in frustrated impotence while he waited for the stock to stop rolling, or crash into a terminal barrier, and the shunter driver yelled curses at him that would have split the heavens. That short train of stock moved very quickly and in total silence. In the fog that often afflicted Hamilton, and in the rush to get all the wagons in the right places for the day, a man could easily be in front of the onrushing freight and die without ever knowing what hit him.  The men at breakfast were loud and violent-tongued in an effort to remove the thought that today’s fog might be the last thing they ever saw.

One or two men worked in local car garages and I knew of one who worked in a metal scrap-yard, but most of these men were working on the railways.

My bedroom was on the second floor and overlooked the railway shunting yards at the back of the hotel. An iron-framed cot with a kapok mattress and a smelly, stained pillow rested in the right-hand corner under the only window and a small, pale green four-drawer chest left a narrow path to the bedside table with my shiny, chrome-plated alarm clock the only ornamentation. A rimu wardrobe filled the last cavity in the floor space on the left-hand side of the door and a 40-watt light bulb hung crookedly from the ceiling on fraying wires.

Outside, the drivers and engineers yelled orders and banged trains together all night long, but no more energetically than at eight o’clock in the morning when everyone in Frankton had to cross the railway line to go to work in Hamilton. At that hour of the day there was always a train (or two – it was a dual line between the station and the shunting yards) across the only level crossing on the only road to Hamilton. Even in the sixties, the days of steam were behind us, and these trains in Frankton were all diesels.

I stood once by the tracks in Rotorua watching the billowing white smoke and listening to the chuffing and animal breathing of the one steam train I ever saw going from Rotorua over the Mamaku Ranges to Hamilton. When I was in high school, Aunty Grace sent me back to Rotorua from the mining village of Pukemiro deep in the Mamakus on a steam train pulling a couple of carriages immediately behind the engine and nearly a mile of freight and empty wagons behind them.

Fire and sparks leapt from the funnel and fell on the dry grass alongside the railway track, setting fires every few hundred yards. White smoke tinged with black shadows writhed from the engine, through the carriage and down the length of the train. The huge black engine in front of me seemed to be straining every muscle, breathing deeply and sighing heavily like the draft horses that pulled pine stumps from hedges on the farm my father worked when I was a pre-schooler. The smell of coal smoke, leather and old timber in the carriage was deeply impressionable. The sense of going on an adventure with a rumbling giant was palpable. There is no romance like that, in diesel.

“Dirty bloody things,” my mother said with considerable feeling. “You’d put a full wash of clean clothes on the line, and some smelly damned train would crawl past and leave clinkers all over the washing. At least diesels are clean.”

The hotel – more a boarding house, in the way it was run, was an elegant, three-storey wooden structure clad in weatherboard. It was quite a handsome, turn of the century building painted green and white with a large gold sign, outside staircases, steep roofs and an imposing turret. But it had seen its best days. The green was faded, the white was dirty and the sign was cracked and had bits missing. The stairs creaked, the roof leaked and the manager put his head to every door in the hotel to assure himself there were no girls in the hotel after nine PM. In fact, women were not allowed in the hotel in the day-time let alone stay overnight. Frankton was a down-at-heel railway town and the hotel had A Reputation; the manager was determined to stamp it out.

I suspect (as did the local press) that a disaffected lothario burnt the hotel down when his girlfriend was discovered under his bed. The tragedy was that he killed six in the attempt to exact his revenge, and he is still in prison for the offence.


Letters home, 2001, London Marathon

Dear Mum and Dad

Just a short note to let you know that I’m home safely after running the London Marathon this morning.  My time is sub-3:45:00, meaning about 3:44:10hrs.  I had hoped for a sub 3:30:00 but I just have to accept the time I’ve got.  It’s not a bad time for 54-yr old running his first marathon, and his first London Marathon at that, after only 3 years and 3 months of any sort of running.  And I’ll tell you what, there were an AWFUL lot of people behind me!  When I was running past the 21 mile mark, with Tower Bridge just in front of me, I could see lots of people just passing the 13 mile mark, and no sign of the tail of the competitors.  They had taken nearly 3 hours to get half-way and they still had a long way to go .

Waiting for the train, St Albans

Waiting for the train, St Albans

London being what it is, and the trains being in the condition they are, we couldn’t go directly to London Bridge Station and then off to Blackheath.  We caught the train from St Albans to London Bridge, but just before Kings Cross Station we were told by the train driver that due to engineering work, he wasn’t stopping at London Bridge and we’d have to get off at Kings Cross and find another way to Blackheath. Up to that very moment we’d had assurances from the rail people that all was in order.  We got to Blackheath Station near Greenwich Park after having to miss three trains because they were all full, but only with 10 minutes to spare before I had to throw my kit onto the back of the  truck that would take it to the finish for me.  It was a close thing, and Elaine said there were lots of people who actually missed the start and had to run through the assembly area just to catch the field.

It’s quite a flat course, a little downhill if anything, and very pleasant to run on those roads.  All the way it was jammed with runners, I always had to be careful where I ran so as not to trip up or be tripped, but at least half a dozen people in front of me went down.  None of them looked hurt, but it would be a difficult thing to recover from completely.

The timing chip tied into my shoe

The timing chip tied into my shoe

It must have been quite a cold day, because when I drank the water from the bottles that were handed out nearly every mile, I thought they must have taken the bottle from the fridge.  It really chilled my skin when I threw some water over myself.  However, the weather made very good running conditions because I never once felt over-hot, it was just a nice comfortable temperature all the way round.The beautifully soft and very light running suit that Genevieve had bought for me made such a difference, too. I’d never worn anything before that was so light and so comfortable.

During the 12th mile, we crossed Tower Bridge and that was a real highlight. There were lots of people watching and a wonderful amount of noise. At the 13 mile point, there is a short section of road where I could see the leaders of the marathon passing the 21 mile mark and heading for the finish. I saw Teargat, who was second, and Antonio Pinto, who was about 5th.  Paul Teargat was running his first ever marathon and I heard he’d finished second.  Not bad. It was just fortunate timing that I saw them.  Any later or any earlier and I’d have missed them because the section where the homecomers could see the outgoers is quite a short stretch of road.

Half way

Half way

The very, very worst part of the marathon was mile 23. The course seems endless and the pain is awful.  I told myself that I would never walk.  No matter how slowly I ran, it would still be faster than walking and I was also absolutely sure that if I walked, I’d stop.  I have never walked in a race before and today wasn’t going to be the first time. It could have taken another hour to get to the finish.  At mile 25, there is no mile 26, just the finish 1.2 miles away.  When I saw Buckingham Palace on my left, and passed the Victoria Memorial as I rounded into The Mall, then I finally felt that nothing could stop me.  I could see the finish clock in front of me and it was about 3:42:00 and I saw 3:43:55 as I crossed the line, so that’s why I think my final time will be about 3:44:10-ish.  But well under 3:45:00.

I crossed the finish mat that recorded the time from the chip on my foot, then I stopped.  After that, it was all agony.  I could hardly walk, every step was an effort and I was gasping from the pain.  I had to walk up a little ramp to get the chip removed from my running shoes and then I had to walk down the other side, clutching onto the railing.  A lovely lady put the London Marathon finisher’s medal round my neck and gave me a quick peck on the cheek and someone else swung a space blanket (it’s a blanket made of very warm, shiny material) round my shoulders and I limped down the whole line of The Mall to find the truck with my kit bag on it.  Someone gave me a goody bag of London Marathon stuff with a t-shirt, some sports bars, some drinks and an apple.  Just as I found the truck and collected my kit, Elaine and Karen yelled enthusiastically from behind the tall wire fence that kept the runners’ area secure.  It was a terrible effort to sit and get changed and an even worse effort to get up.  I was very impressed that they had managed to find me with all those people milling about, but they had gone looking for the numbered truck with my kit in it.  Very intelligent.

The end

The end

We walked to Trafalgar Square and down the tunnel to Charing Cross, from there the train to Leicester Square for Kings Cross and from there … Home.  People on the trains and in the tunnels who saw my London Marathon medal (of course I wore it home! And I’m taking it to work at Tesco tomorrow, too) engaged me in very pleasant conversation, commiserated with me on my agony and charmingly commented on my time.

During the week I had lots of phone calls from our English friends and family, including Thelma, Roland and Jennie.  We also had lots of lovely emails from friends and family in New Zealand and Genevieve rang a couple of times as well.  

Ivor Adams rang to see how things went, Roland rang to see how I was and Ivor’s daughter, Jill and husband Dave, came round to see us and to swap jokes with the cripple.  I’ve had emails of encouragement this morning from friends in Te Kuiti, Otorohanga and Hamilton and Nick and Sally Trout from Warnham sent one, too.  I also had an absolutely beautiful card with encouragement, and lots of stickers, from Karen before we left this morning. I have had a wonderful day.

The prize

The prize

Elaine’s view of the London Marathon while Ewart did the hard job of running it.

The main marathon event began for me last Wednesday when I went to London on Ewart’s behalf (armed with signed authority, ID, and a list of tasks to complete) to collect Ewart’s gear bag, computer chip, runner’s number etc. The fun really began on the tube sitting at Charing Cross Station on the Jubilee Line waiting for the Docklands Light Rail. It was the first morning to collect such articles and people were arriving from all over to find London Arena, just like me.

I wore my new Canterbury tracksuit, bought in NZ for me by Ewart especially for the marathon and my NZ All Blacks t-shirt. On the platform apparently I looked like someone who knew where I was going because English people kept asking me for directions.  It was quite a laugh really but I met some lovely people this way and we travelled on the trains together, chatting about the marathon all the way and going our own separate ways on arrival.

The Arena was easy to find – it’s in the Docklands area of London where huge and very impressive expansion projects are going on. On arrival the 2001 Space Odyssey music blasted forth and that really set the tone for a great day. Everything was really well organised so getting Ewart’s gear (through several steps) was very simple and that left my day free to enjoy the marathon exhibition and enjoy it I did. At the end of the day, after some shopping for Genevieve at Canary Wharf, I dragged my very weary body home ready for the days ahead.

The first of those days was quiet and just required providing the right sort of foods at the right times for when Ewart needed them and having a quiet rest – you know, marking, stuff like that.

Saturday was market day, so I had to get the right foods, cook at different times to get the right amount of food in and make final arrangements with our special neighbour, Karen. There were lots of emails and phone calls wishing Ewart well and with all the cards sitting about, our flat was quite festive. Followed by an early night.


The marathon went really well. We got up at 4.50am and made ourselves ready to go. Karen arrived here at 5.45am and we headed by car for St Albans station, travelled by Thameslink train to London … and then the fun started. We intended to travel direct to London Bridge station but just short of Kings Cross the driver came on the intercom to say that due to engineering work, this train would not be stopping at London Bridge. We would have to get off at Kings Cross and go to London Bridge via the Northern Line. The Northern Line is the furthest walk through the tunnels of any of the lines at Kings Cross so we set off at quite a pace so as not to use up valuable time. We waited on the platform with lots of other people, white plastic gear-bag in hand, heading for the marathon.

After about ten minutes a voice came over the intercom telling all the marathon people to head for the Victoria Line because the Northern Line was closed. We went to the Victoria Line platform and waited; the train was late, then the one that did come was full and we couldn’t fit on. We waited for the next train while time ticked by. We caught the next train to Green Park, then more walking through tunnels to the Jubilee line and caught that train to London Bridge. Then we had to go to find Connex.

Once there we ran into all the other people (hundreds by then) who had been caught by the train problems. We stood on platform 5 and watched the first three trains come and went and we couldn’t get on.  I met one man who told me he had started north of us at Hertford. He had sat on that station for 15mins with other runners, finally to have the intercom tell him that no trains were going from Hertford to London that day, despite his having checked with the railways the previous day. He had had to ring his wife to drive him and a group of runners to St Albans to catch our train – and be there by 6.24am! Most of the trains from London Bridge could only take a few people because the trains were full before they got to us.

London being what it is, and the trains being in the condition they are, we couldn’t go directly to London Bridge Station and then off to Blackheath.  We caught the train from St Albans to London Bridge, but just before Kings Cross Station we were told by the train driver that due to engineering work, he wasn’t stopping at London Bridge and we’d have to get off at Kings Cross and find another way to Blackheath. Up to that very moment we’d had assurances from the rail people that all was in order.  We got to Blackheath Station near Greenwich Park after having to miss three trains because they were all full, but only with 10 minutes to spare before I had to throw my kit onto the back of the  truck that would take it to the finish for me.  It was a close thing, and Elaine said there

Then we got sent to platform 4 and two more full trains passed through.  At the third train we ran right to the front carriage and got there just as the doors shut. I called to Ewart and the driver that I could see vacant seats. We asked the driver if we could get on. I had my NZ tracksuit. He opened the doors, let only the three of us on and quickly closed the doors behind us and the train set off. The trip was quite slow because of a succession of red lights and a slow section of line with engineering work. Once at Blackheath there were lots of nice friendly police and marshals to help us to find the right place and we set off on the 20 minute walk to the Blue Start on Greenwich Park. We made it in time for Ewart to change, drop off his gear bag on a big numbered truck and have just over 10mins to spare.

Finding a loo was fun. We found some for the athletes but the queues were horrific so Karen and I decided we could wait. Just…

We wished Ewart well and just before the 9:30 am start time headed back to Blackheath Station. We couldn’t find the start line anyway because there were thousands of people (plus tens of thousands of runners) and large hot air balloons as well, including a couple we recognised from the Hamilton Balloon Fiesta. We found a nice coffee shop and rested there for about 1/4 hour. During that time, the race had started and some time later we saw runners still arriving with their gear bags and running to try to catch the start.

Getting ready, Blackheath

Getting ready, Blackheath

From what we understand, the start area was so huge that there were runners starting when the leaders reached the eight-mile mark. For the London Marathon everyone’s time is counted

from the start gun regardless of whether you make it over the start line very quickly.

Karen and I found the station and joined the queues for trains to the underground once more. We decided to go via Victoria, so we flagged the train to Charing Cross because it was too full anyway. When our train was due the announcer came on to say our train would be ten minutes late. We were beginning to get used to this and started to laugh. Others on the platform looked sideways at us and Karen said, “Welcome to England!” We were both dressed as Kiwis but Karen’s mum is Irish and her dad English. We were just having a fun day out.

On arrival at Victoria we had similar adventures but finally found a train to get us to Tower Bridge where we hoped to catch Ewart at the 13 and 22 mile points as they were opposite each other. We didn’t find that place immediately, because there were far too many people, so we grabbed an ice ream and went to the end of Tower Bridge, next to the Tower of London – and found a great atmosphere there anyway. We had to stand on tip-toe for a long time checking out every runner with a white cap heading towards the half-way mark.

I finally spotted Ewart. We screamed “GO EWART” at the top of our lungs then headed back to the underground for our next adventure. Out came the map and we decided to head to St James Park, arriving by The Home Office. Once there we found we were just 800 metres from the finish line and fortunately Karen spotted a gap in the fence so we could be right at the front. We could see at last!!! We’d felt REALLY SHORT until then, though. We stayed there for about 1 1/2 hours looking at every white cap, yellow and black strip etc. Our eyes hurt and streamed and we cheered on anyone who got into difficulty or who looked interesting. Finally we spotted Ewart and screamed at the top of our lungs again. People around us looked at us VERY STRANGELY. Then we took off towards Buckingham Palace.

Here it got really crowded and it was very difficult to get through the crowd. We caught a glimpse of runners from time to time and photographed the beautiful tulips in the palace gardens. I also saw the plaques for the Diana Princess of Wales Walk in the pavement. From here on the going got really difficult and we could only go a few paces at a time whenever the crowd would let us through.

We found the finish line on The Mall and watched people finishing, being awarded their medals and getting their computer chips removed. As each runner finished they were wrapped in a reflective, metallic-looking sheet, called a space blanket, to keep warm. I spotted the numbered trucks where we had earlier deposited Ewart’s gear and knew just which truck his would be in, so we headed for it.

We had to stay beyond the perimeter fence and we took photos of things we thought Ewart would want to see afterwards. We spotted Ewart quite quickly and called to him, taking a photo of him with his medal and space blanket. We waited for him to change then we walked parallel with him until we could be on the same path. He was very stiff and sore by this stage, but very happy. He had finished the marathon in 3 hours 44 minutes. It was a fantastic time for a first marathon, in fact for any marathon.

We were REALLY proud of him. We walked at his painful and very delicate pace to Trafalgar Square and then through the underground tunnels to Charing Cross station. People were happy, chatting to each other, showing medals and comparing times. It was really great to be part of and fortunately the train trip home was much less eventful. At St Albans station a couple of black guys who worked at the station called to Ewart to see his medal and made him and us feel really special. They were so happy and excited just to share Ewart’s triumph with him. We finally got back to the flat at 4pm, very tired but extremely happy, kind of high really.

Since then it has been all celebration. Dave and Jill had driven up from Ashtead to see Ivor and Iris and they called round see us. That was a lovely surprise and a perfect way to wind down after a big day. There were lovely emails and phone calls to follow, yesterday and today – from everywhere. Ewart has had a great day with his work mates today and I with mine. Ewart took his medal to work today and he got a great reception. None of them knew he was running. Tomorrow it goes with me to school. The children knew he was running and are excitedly waiting to hear how he got on.

Well, this is it. Time to go to the start.

Well, this is it. Time to go to the start.

It was a wonderful adventure for us all.  For me, I am pleased to be the  “gopher” and “spectator” but none the less a participant. For Ewart it is one of the greatest achievements of his life. Thanks for your support. You made a big difference to the last two years of training for this event. Genevieve was wonderful: she phoned us, wrote lots of encouraging emails and bought the lovely running suit that Ewart ran in for the race. It was truly a great family day for us.

Re-united. Exhausted and pleased it’s over, but there’s only one way of winning a London Marathon medal.

Re-united. Exhausted and pleased it’s over, but there’s only one way of winning a London Marathon medal.

Lots of love



Time: 3:43:58 hr Place: 6453 Finishers: 33,000  Starters: 44,000

The London Marathon is a world event, so that puts Ewart in the top 20% of marathon runners world-wide.