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After the coal rush

Not all of Kent is a tourist haven like Canterbury or as middle class as Tunbridge Wells. With the m

Betteshanger was the last of Kent's four main coalfields to close. On 26 August 1989, the pit drew its last coal - the same day of the same month, by chance, that Mick started to work there in 1952. "Thirty-seven years to the day," he says, leaning back in his chair at the Bettes­hanger Social Club. His friend Brian remembers his first day down the mine, too: it was his 15th birthday. But he was away on holiday when it closed. Brian's daughter picked him up from the airport. "Dad, I've got something to tell you," she said. He went straight to the pit, collected his tools and left. The two men have been friends for most of their lives and both went to work at the pit, after the customary 13 weeks' training, as soon as they left school aged 14. They have been coming to the social club for most of that time, too. The miners would gather here after work and have a cigarette, a cup of tea and a pie (the pies were famous, made to a secret recipe that recently lured ex-miners from all around the county to a reunion), before catching the bus back home to Deal, a lane-threaded seaside town nearby.

Now in their seventies, Mick and Brian come to the club every week for a coffee morning. They arrive together, sit at the same table and leave after an hour or so of conversation. Their memories, like their lives, are intertwined: they look to each other to remember names, dates and stories. Mining shaped their families. Their wives worked at the colliery - Brian's as a cleaner in the office and Mick's in the canteen - and their fathers, who had moved to Kent not long after Betteshanger opened in 1924, were both miners before them. Mick's family came from Wales and Brian's from Lancashire. It helped if mining was in the family - you knew what to expect when you went underground for the first time.

Coal was discovered in Kent in 1890 but many of the early collieries failed and were shut within a few years. Only four survived: Betteshanger, Chislet, Snowdown and Tilmanstone, of which Betteshanger was the largest, employing at its peak well over 1,000 people (the number had dropped to about 600 by the time the pit closed). The influx of miners apparently horrified the genteel residents of Deal, who put up "No miners" signs in their shops and cafés. The mines were under private ownership until nationalisation in 1947, and conditions at the pit were basic - there weren't even baths until 1934, so the miners would travel home each day blackened by coal dust.

Until the mines were mechanised in the early 1970s, the job was manual, men at the coalface with picks and shovels. As Mick puts it, "A lot of people would visit and say: 'I wouldn't work down here for a gold brick.'" Mick became a supervisor ("He went management," Brian says), mostly working nights. Brian, who had done a five-year mechanic's apprenticeship, moved to work on the machines above ground.

The community grew up around the mine. "We are close-knit. The work itself brings you together," Mick says. His friend agrees: "We worked together, lived together and, on a Saturday night, 80 per cent of us would come to have a drink here with our wives."

Looking back, both say they knew that the pit's closure was inevitable. Betteshanger had a long history of industrial action. In its early years, it attracted miners from all corners of Britain who had been blacklisted in their areas after the General Strike in 1926. Miners from the pit took part in the strikes of 1972 and 1974 and marched in London with the Betteshanger Brass Band. (The pit's red-and-blue banner, emblazoned with a picture of a miner gazing at the Houses of Parliament, hangs in a corner of the pool room at the club.)

But after Margaret Thatcher defeated the miners' strike in 1985, they knew that the end wasn't far off. Neither Mick nor Brian worked for the duration of the year-long protest. Brian says he was lucky - the bank let him off paying his mortgage - but others he knew lost their houses. In some cases, families broke up under the strain. "Brothers," Brian recalls. "One worked, one didn't. As soon as we started back to work, they were fighting."

After the pit closed, the miners were offered help to find work. A jobcentre was set up on the site but many went on the dole. Mick got a job on Deal pier. "I said I was the pier master," he says, "but I was just sweeping." Brian, grateful for his father's instruction to get a trade, found a job at a toolmaker's in Ramsgate. Both worked multiple jobs and were made redundant again at least once before they retired.

Not many other miners still live in Bettes­hanger. Mick and Brian live on Circular Road, a loop of 77 houses that were purpose-built for the pit's deputies and safety workers. Brian pulls a notebook from the breast pocket of his jacket. He is compiling a record of all the people who have lived in each house, from the day they were built. He dismisses the project as a "silly thing", but is taking it seriously. The book is filled with lists of door numbers and names; he says he knows many of the residents now.

Brian wants to memorialise a place transformed and the people long since departed. He seems to miss much of his former existence - his friends, the camaraderie, the miners' sports clubs and choirs, the trips to the beach they would organise every year, the way that no one bothered to lock their front door. "You used to walk into other people's houses and put the kettle on. They'd come in and say, 'Oh, have you made me one?'"

It took time to dismantle the pit, and even longer to replace it. For years, the land was left derelict. "[The place was] wrecked and ruined," Mick says. It was a similar picture around the country. After the last few pits were privatised or closed, the New Labour government, under the stewardship of the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, eventually established a task force in October 1997 to examine the future
of the former coalfields. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust emerged from one of its recommendations and began making grants to former mining communities in 1999.

In 2000, the newly created South-East England Development Agency (Seeda) bought up land at Betteshanger and invested nearly £20m in regenerating the old pit site. But, according to Barry Roberts, chairman of the Betteshanger Social Club, most of the money didn't go on the village. Instead, it was used to create Fowlmead Country Park, on the other side of the main road, where the pit's dumping ground used to be. Now, there are carefully landscaped paths, saplings planted in neat rows and tarmacked routes for cyclists. Despite the transformation, Brian and Mick still call the park "the tip".

Fowlmead is considered to be a success, but attracting new industry to the area has been more problematic. A hopeful sign at the turn-off to Betteshanger points to a business park. "No one ever turned up," says Roberts. Much of the land, prepared into plots for industrial buildings, lies empty. There's a rumour that an agricultural college is moving in but no one knows for sure. It would be a welcome arrival - over 20 years after the pit closed, there is simply not enough work.

The main employers locally are large-scale commercial farmers, whose workers, townspeople say, are mostly immigrants - those willing to work for little in pitiful conditions. One woman, who asked not to be named, said that members of her family had worked for a salad-growing company; they had come home every day with their clothes covered in stains from washing vegetables in chemicals.

Another major employer in the area is Pfizer, which has its only British research and development facility nearby in Sandwich. In February this year, however, Pfizer announced that it would be closing the 2,400-worker facility - a decision that was described at the time as a "body blow" for east Kent by the local Tory MP, Laura Sandys.

Family business

Mick and Brian say that the government has been hyperactive since Pfizer's announcement, desperate to attract replacement industry to the region. They point out the contrast to the apathy they witnessed after the mines closed. Even after the Coalfields Regeneration Trust was set up, many residents in the area felt that its efforts were concentrated on the northern coalfields and that the mining communities in the south-east were neglected. Gary Ellis, the trust's chief executive, points out that Kent is "geographically isolated and, in percentage terms, a very small part of the former coalfield areas". But, he says, the trust has made grants to the county in every one of its funding rounds.

According to Brinley Hill, a local community development manager at Dover District Council, there is a more fundamental problem. People assume that Kent is a wealthy place, able to provide for itself. Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells are emblems of middle-class comfort, but not far from those prettified towns are areas of deep poverty, unusual in the south-east of England outside London. Since 2007, eight of the 12 districts in Kent have experienced an increase in deprivation, with Dover (which covers Deal and Betteshanger) leaping 15 places up the national scale (to 127th out of 326 local authorities in England). The neighbouring district of Thanet is the worst off in the county, ranking nationally at 49.

Hill's father was a miner and he laughs at the strange kind of family business they have concocted. "He did mining; I do regeneration," he says. In the years after the pits closed, efforts weren't helped by the "massive lack of trust" that was felt in the community. Miners and their families, he observes, can find it hard to move on. "Mining communities go back many years," he says. "In the east Kent area, families travelled from all around the country to work there. Memories go back - of grandparents walking from Wales or down from Durham or Scotland. There's such fondness about that."

Hill has worked closely with local people to try to rebuild relationships, improve the area's economic prospects and restore the sense of community that seemed to ebb away after the pits closed. Gradually, small local regeneration projects have got off the ground - he enthusiastically lists the cosmetic improvements at the Betteshanger Social Club, with its new kitchen, fresh paint and sprung floor for tap-dancing. "It's the best it's ever looked," he says.

The immediate future for the Coalfields Regeneration Trust looks promising, too: the government has just awarded £30m to the trust to invest over the next two years, ensuring its ability to make small grants to communities such as Betteshanger until 2013.

Beyond that point, however, the outlook is less certain. Ellis says that the trust, like many other government-funded public bodies, has been instructed to come up with an "exit strategy", so that by March 2015 (just before the next general election), the organisation will no longer be dependent on government money. The idea, a cornerstone of the Prime Minister's "big society" strategy, is that the trust will be able to function as a social enterprise, generating its own income streams through the various projects it supports, so that it becomes, in government-speak, "self-sustaining".

Ellis is aware that this will not be easy and he emphasises the need for continued direct intervention, not least because "some of the former colliery sites still need to be cleaned up". He points out, too, that many of the projects that the trust supports are already generating their own revenue. "We've got groups coming to us saying, 'We are sustainable; we have income streams coming from different places,'" Ellis tells me, "but, as a result of the public expenditure cuts, some of these income streams have now disappeared."

The public spending cuts have also affected the regional development agencies, including Seeda. By 31 March 2012, the agency will no longer exist and strategic and financial support for local industry and programmes will be either reassigned or terminated.

A fair Deal

In a large, converted church in Deal, three miles down the road from Betteshanger, Paula Moorhouse runs the Landmark Centre, a community association. The deconsecrated church was going to be turned into a supermarket until a local activist lay down in front of a bulldozer; the protest helped save the building.

Moorhouse says that she is not connected in particular to former miners in the community; her work focuses instead on the younger gen­eration and trying to tackle youth unemployment. She also runs gardening groups for those with mental health problems and dad-and-toddler groups for young parents. But she notes the miners' legacy. Deal, she says, has an unusually strong sense of community and people with little to give will empty their pockets for charity. She receives support from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which gave her funding to set up the centre's weekly job club to help young people into work.

Moorhouse needs all the financial support that she can get. Because of a long-standing, inherited debt problem, the Landmark Centre is in a precarious financial situation. Moorhouse is not able to apply for major donor funding and has to gather revenue however she can, mostly by hiring out rooms in the building. She has cut down staff members to three (herself, an assistant and a cleaner) and depends on volunteers to support the rest of the work. "We have a boot fair here, once a month, and I have a lady sitting on the door. She won't let people in unless they've put a few pennies in the box. That can raise me £25 in a morning."

Moorhouse looks, for a moment, a little desperate - her monthly fuel bills alone are more than £2,000. But she is evidently indefatigable. She does the job because she loves it and feels a duty and deep attachment to the area. She was born and grew up in Woodnesborough, a nearby village surrounded by apple orchards.

It seems the Landmark Centre is already a beacon of the big society. "That's what we say . . . We're a prime example." She has been working with mental health teams and Sure Start programmes for years, she says: a perfect example of local, interagency collaboration. The council had apparently been planning to open a new community centre in Dover modelled on hers - it was going to be called "Landmark II" - but the funding was cut.

The irony is not lost on Moorhouse. The day after we talk, she will be having a meeting with someone who runs a mental health group locally. Its property is being sold and now it has nowhere to go. "At the moment, the group meets three times a week and [for members] that's their lifeline. If someone with mental health issues suddenly loses their lifeline, there can be dire consequences."

Such financial insecurity seems to be common in this part of Kent. For Moorhouse, her set-up at the centre in Deal is, in essence, "hand to mouth". She has spoken to the council and it has offered its continued support, but she has yet to see what that means. For the moment, she will ignore the rhetoric and "get on with it" in her usual way.

You can understand why people in east Kent are sceptical of David Cameron's attempts to cut back the state and conjure up in its place
a big society. The overstretched, overworked managers of the Betteshanger Social Club and Deal's Landmark Centre already rely on the goodwill of countless volunteers - those who give up their time and money to make tea, run clubs and set up football academies.

These aren't overnight projects but established efforts, conceived long before the formation of this government and sustained by the support of a willing community. They don't need a directive to tell them to do what they are already doing - what any community with a sense of togetherness does. What they need is enough backing from the state to stay open so that they can continue to serve those who depend on them.

Mick finishes his tea at the Betteshanger Social Club. He says he was watching the ITV morning show Daybreak and it "latched on to Cameron's . . . What's he trying again?" He tries to remember the phrase. "Volunteering for everything." He goes on to recount the film that the programme had shown, about people going into schools to volunteer as teaching assistants. "But now, that's somebody else's job gone," Mick says. "The more people volunteer to do these things, the less people are going to have a chance to work. This is what upsets me."

Mick isn't especially political. He imagines that if he won the Lottery he might morph into a "raging Tory" - a notion that he finds amusing. But Brian shakes his head. "We're all in this together," he says and laughs.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit