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The last days of the Big K

Kellingley Colliery helped keep Britain’s lights on. But now, as the once mighty coal industry dies, the last deep mine in the country is closing.

The last deep coal mine in Britain is an arresting sight – a sprawling tangle of towers, conveyor belts, processing sheds, railway lines and “muck heaps”, as its mountains of grey-black slag are known in Yorkshire. It is called “the Big K”, and with reason. Kellingley is one of Europe’s largest mines, producing two million tonnes of coal a year. It sits on tens of millions of tonnes of reserves. Its two shafts descend 2,600 feet beneath the surface, and so much coal has been extracted since it opened in 1965 that from the bottom of those shafts miners must now travel six miles, on small battery-powered trains and then conveyor belts, to reach the face. There they labour round the clock, in intense humidity and temperatures that reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Each day, Kellingley despatches three or four trainloads of coal 12 miles to Drax, which is Britain’s biggest coal-fired power station and generates about 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity. For decades Kellingley also supplied huge amounts of coal to Ferrybridge power station, just three miles away in West Yorkshire. It has, in short, helped to keep the country lit and heated – but not for much longer.

Drax has converted three of its six generators to biomass, importing six million tonnes of wood pellets from North America each year to run them, and plans to convert a fourth. In recent years Ferrybridge has increasingly used imported coal, which is cleaner and cheaper than Kellingley’s despite being shipped several thousand miles. In any case, Ferrybridge is closing next year as part of a government drive to shut down all of Britain’s 12 remaining coal-fired power stations within 15 years and halve greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025.

As the market withers, Kellingley is being closed by its owner, UK Coal, the successor company to RJB Mining, which bought most of Britain’s surviving coal mines when the industry was privatised in 1994. The colliery’s giant underground shearing machines will cease operation just before Christmas. The mine buildings will be razed, its shafts and labyrinthine tunnels sealed, and its memorial to the 17 miners who lost their lives at Kellingley over the past half-century moved to the National Coal Mining Museum in Overton, near Wakefield. Except for a few remaining surface mines, an industry that has done so much to shape Britain, for better or worse, will finally die.

By the time the last shift finishes at Kellingley, about 700 miners will have lost their jobs there. They are angry and bewildered. The mine is modern and productive, and they have fought to keep it open. They attempted a buyout, each offering to contribute £2,000 and to take a 10 per cent wage cut. They lobbied MPs, marched through Westminster, even invited the cast of Pride – the film about gay and lesbian activists helping Welsh miners during the 1984-85 strike – to join a demonstration outside the pit. They do not accept that coal has had its day, though it is by far the “dirtiest” source of energy. They believe an industry long synonymous with socialism and working-class struggle is being closed for political as much as economic or environmental reasons. Chris Kitchen, the secretary of the rump National Union of Mineworkers, described it to me as “a vindictive act”.

The sense of betrayal spans generations. Stanley Gilliland, 67, began working at Kellingley when it first opened and he was 16. He lost his left leg in an underground accident in 1974 but stayed on and became the pit’s longest-serving employee. He left in the first batch of redundancies in July with a cheque for just £14,250, and not a handshake or word of thanks for his 51 years of service from the management of UK Coal. “Coal was my livelihood. It was our lives and the country’s lifeblood, and now it’s gone and it’s not coming back,” he said.

Lee Gent, 26, will hold the dubious distinction of being the last underground miner the industry ever employed. The son and grandson of miners, he was one of nine apprentices taken on at Kellingley in January 2014. “They promised us a career,” he said. “The job was quality. It were ace. I’ve never felt euphoria like it.”

When he heard the pit was closing he was distraught. “The best opportunity of my life was given to me in one hand and snatched out of the other. It were the best and worst thing that ever happened to me . . . There’s no future in mining. They’ve made sure of that. It’s a dying shame.”

***

Deep coal mining in Britain dates back to Tudor times. In the 18th and 19th centuries it powered the Industrial Revolution, providing the fuel for the nation’s steam engines, ironworks, railways and factories. The industry peaked during the arms race before the First World War, with 3,024 mines employing 1.1 million people and producing 292 million tonnes of coal in 1913. (During the fighting, miners were used to tunnel under German lines and blow them up.) In the Second World War coal was so vital to the war effort that miners were banned from joining the armed forces, and Ernest Bevin, the wartime minister of labour, conscripted 48,000 “Bevin Boys” to keep the industry going.

It was filthy work. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell described miners as “poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel”. As late as the mid-20th century nearly 10 per cent of miners in Britain suffered from pneumoconiosis or “black lung” disease.

It was also uniquely dangerous, with at least 164,000 miners losing their lives in the pits since 1700. Explosions killed 361 men and boys at the Oaks pit near Barnsley in 1866, 295 at the Albion Colliery in Glamorgan in 1894 and 439 at Senghenydd in Glamorgan in 1914. Women and children under the age of ten were not banned from working in mines until 1842. Two shafts became mandatory only after a fallen beam blocked the single shaft at the Hartley Colliery in Northumberland in 1862, killing 204 men and boys. Mining deaths did not fall below a thousand a year until well into the 20th century: 1,297 were killed and 20,000 injured in 1923 alone.

The General Strike of 1926 was called to oppose wage cuts and deteriorating conditions in the coal industry, but it was only after hundreds of privately owned mines were nationalised in 1947 that the newly formed NUM became a force in the land and the miners’ lot improved markedly. At that point “King Coal” supplied 90 per cent of Britain’s energy needs.

In January 1972 the NUM called the first national miners’ strike since 1926 and won a substantial pay increase from Edward Heath’s Tory government. The turning point was the so-called Battle of Saltley Gate, where Arthur Scargill, a young NUM official from Barnsley, persuaded 30,000 Birmingham factory engineers to march on the Saltley coke works and force its closure. “Here was the living proof that the working class had only to flex its muscles and it could bring governments, employers, society to a total standstill,” Scargill boasted.

Two years later another protracted miners’ strike reduced the country to a three-day working week. Heath called a general election on the issue of “Who governs Britain?” and lost. Harold Wilson’s new Labour government swiftly awarded the men a 35 per cent pay rise, and roughly the same again the following year. The miners became the best-paid and most powerful of all industrial workers in Britain – but Margaret Thatcher, the next Conservative leader, had taken note.

The great strike of 1984-85 was triggered by a plan to close 20 unprofitable pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs, but Scargill, by then the NUM’s president, played into the government’s hands by launching it in the spring, when demand for coal was falling. He failed to call a national ballot, splitting the union and undermining the strike’s legitimacy. He used flying pickets to try to force Nottinghamshire’s working miners into line, but merely hardened their resolve. He sought funds from the Soviet Union and Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. He rejected compromise solutions despite the extreme suffering of the striking miners and their families. It was the most bitter industrial dispute in British history. Riot police fought running battles with armies of pickets seeking to stop “scabs” working. Thousands of miners were arrested and injured. Families and communities were sundered. Thatcher labelled the miners “the enemy within”. But the year-long action ended in abject defeat: the NUM was a spent force, powerless to resist the subsequent destruction of the coal industry. “The NUM and mining industry were seen as part of the socialist movement, in direct conflict with capitalism, and had to be destroyed and defeated at any cost,” said Chris Kitchen, the NUM secretary.

Immediately before the strike, there were 170 mines employing 148,000 workers and producing 120 million tonnes of coal. By the time the Tories privatised the industry a decade later, there were roughly 30 mines, employing 7,000 workers and producing 50 million tonnes. This year just three deep mines remained, but Hatfield in Yorkshire and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire closed in the summer. With so many other sources of energy available – oil, gas, nuclear, wind, solar and biomass – coal now produces barely a quarter of Britain’s power. And of the 48 million tonnes of coal consumed last year, 42 million were imported, mainly from Russia, the United States and Colombia.

The NUM, which once boasted half a million members, has just 800 left, including ten full-time employees. The fine stone building in Barnsley that serves as the union’s headquarters is like a morgue. During the two hours I spent there one recent afternoon I saw no other visitors and heard not a single telephone ring.

The caretaker – Kitchen’s son – showed me the magnificent council chamber with its oak panelling, stained-glass windows and ornate arched ceiling. It has become a veritable museum, a monument to the union’s glory days. Friezes show miners in heroic poses. Huge, colourful banners, each the size of a bedspread, bear slogans proclaiming that “Unity is Strength” and “The Past We Inherit. The Future We Build”. Kellingley’s banner shows a miner throttling a snake labelled “Capitalism”, above the words “Only the Strong Survive”.

It was not just the mining industry that collapsed after the 1984-85 strike. So did the entire socialist vision of working-class struggle and solidarity, trumped by the Thatcherite principles of entrepreneurialism, individualism and free-market economics that even Tony Blair embraced.

Today, miners remain deeply divided about the strike. Kitchen believes it probably slowed the government’s mine closure programme. Others argue that it accelerated the industry’s demise. “We believed everything Scargill said. It was a massive mistake . . . We imploded. We collapsed during that 12-month period,” Stanley Gilliland, the veteran Kellingley miner, said. “We’re left with total capitalism. We’ve managed to make ‘socialism’ a dirty word.”

I wondered what Scargill thought. He and the NUM fell out long ago, not least over the union’s refusal to pay the £34,000 annual cost of maintaining his flat in the Barbican, in London, for the rest of his life, so I decided to visit his home on the outskirts of Worsbrough, near Barnsley.

Now 77 and divorced, Scargill lives down a country lane in a large, isolated stone house ringed by trees, secured with lights and cameras, and overshadowed by the raised bank of the M1 motorway. The property reeked of neglect. The lawns were overgrown, the paintwork was flaking off the window frames and the blinds were down. The knocker was shaped like a miner’s lamp. Scargill opened the door himself, a ghost from the past half hidden by the gloom within.

Could we talk? “I have a lot of work to do,” he replied, amiably enough. How did he feel about the closure of Britain’s last deep mine, I persisted. “Ask the NUM officials,” he said, implying that they should have fought harder. But this was what he had predicted, I observed. Did he feel vindicated? Scargill said nothing.

***

Thirty years ago there were collieries all over South Yorkshire, linked by a spider’s web of railway lines. Today scarcely a trace of them remains. Their sites are covered by retail and industrial parks, warehouses and distribution centres, few of which actually manufacture anything. The “muck heaps” have been bulldozed and turned into country parks, or housing estates for commuters on streets with names such as “Colliers Way” or “Engine Lane”. Where mine-shaft headgears and winding wheels once towered above the countryside wind turbines now stand – the power of the future replacing the power of the past. “They put them up to rile us,” Keith Hartshorne, a Kellingley NUM delegate, told me. “But we laugh when they’re not turning.”

Look hard and you can find the occasional memorial, like the one in South Elmsall, where Frickley Colliery closed after 90 years in 1993. “Out of these depths this village grows,” it proclaims. A few brass bands survive, but not one member of the celebrated, century-old Grimethorpe Colliery Band lives in that village or worked in its mine. Miners’ lamps and “checks” – the brass discs they would leave by the shafts to show they had gone underground – have become collectors’ pieces. Schoolchildren visiting the National Coal Mining Museum “don’t even know what coal is”, Darran Cowd, its collections officer, said.

Despite the huge amounts of EU money pumped into South Yorkshire to rebuild its economy after the pit closures of the 1990s, the mining villages are mostly depressed, run-down places with shuttered shops, closed pubs and neglected colliery sports grounds. The camaraderie and community spirit born of shared danger and hardship have largely gone. Where the ’stute – the Miners’ Institute – once stood in Grimethorpe, now there is just a rubble-strewn wasteland next to an overgrown field that used to be the bowling green. In Goldthorpe, whose pit closed in 1994, a three-bedroom terraced house, or “back-to-back”, fetches barely £50,000. Of South Elmsall an old miner said: “It’s died a death.”

The warehouses and distribution centres employ dozens of people, not the hundreds or thousands that worked in the mines, and at far lower salaries. Younger miners who lost their jobs in the 1990s mostly found work elsewhere, but not the older ones. They live on their pensions or benefits. You find them on their allotments, walking dogs, standing on street corners, or drinking, perhaps, in the Rusty Dudley pub on Goldthorpe’s high street on weekday mornings. When Thatcher died in 2013 they burned her effigy.

***

It is hard not to feel sympathy for Kellingley’s miners as they face a similarly bleak future. They are proud, hard-working men; a fading photo in the NUM’s pit office shows them posing as European champions in 1986 after producing 40,094 tonnes of coal in a single week. Most went down the mine straight from school and spent twenty, thirty or forty years producing a commodity that the country used to value. They believed they had jobs for life.

Lee Gent, the 26-year-old apprentice hired last year, is fortunate to have found a job with a steel company. His older colleagues may never work again – or if they do it will likely be in a minimum-wage job in some service industry.

“I’ve never been for an interview before and I’m 50 . . . I’m dreading the future,” said one miner, as he sat in the pit’s almost deserted canteen. Another said: “All the skills we’ve accrued are obsolete. We’re like fish out of water.”

Their jobs have been destroyed not just by the drive for clean energy and cheap imported coal but also, the miners claim, by the government’s refusal to help their industry. They argue that Britain is sitting on three billion tonnes of coal that could fuel the country for generations, reducing its dependence on foreign oil and gas, the vagaries of wind and sun, and Chinese-financed nuclear power. “The country will pay for this mistake,” Keith Poulson, the pit’s NUM secretary, said.

Union officials complain that although nuclear and renewable energies are heavily subsidised, coal-fired power stations are taxed £18 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they produce. They insist that they could compete with foreign coal if Russian and Colombian mines had to adopt proper safety standards and pay decent wages. “We can compete if it’s a level playing field,” Chris Kitchen says.

Above all, they insist that coal could be rendered as clean as any other form of energy if the government more aggressively pursued carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that can remove 90 per cent of coal’s harmful emissions. It has allocated £1bn for the purpose, and is funding two pilot projects, but too late to save Kellingley. Britain’s last deep mine will shut long before CCS becomes a viable commercial proposition. UK Coal, which refused to give interviews or allow access to Kellingley for this article, will presumably have ceased to exist, leaving its sister company, the property developer Harworth Estates, to exploit the pit’s huge and valuable site hard by the A1 and M62.

The NUM’s future is uncertain: some members want to wind it up and divvy out its £11m of assets, but Kitchen argues that it should continue as long as it can serve former miners and their widows. The more immediate issue is how Kellingley’s miners should mark the death of their industry in December. Some simply want to walk away after the last shift, allowing the media no chance to gawp. “Personally, I wouldn’t give them the fucking pleasure,” Poulson said.

Kitchen favours brass bands, banners and a final display of pride and solidarity. “We’ve fought nature to do this job. We’ve fought adversity and harsh conditions. We’ve fought governments and economic pressures, and I don’t think anybody should be ashamed of what we’ve done,” he said. “I think every miner has earned the right to walk out with his head held high.”

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe