Memories of a chainman

On my recent visit to Oxford, I spent a little time in the Museum of the History of Science, in Broad Street. And amongst all the ancient brass astrolabes, microscopes and alchemical glassware, I was pleased to see a Gunter chain.

My first job after university was working as a chainman on the construction of the Cuilfail Tunnel in Lewes. In an era before steel tape measures, laser-sighting triangulation and GPS, it was the chainman’s job to maintain and haul about the 22 yards of interlinked ironmongery of the Gunter chain. I’d never seen one before, although I had found some pictures in the historical section of one of the surveying basics books lying around in the engineers’ decrepit Portakabin on site.

By the late 1970s a modern chainman’s role involved carting about sighting poles, tripods and levels and setting up theodolites. My biology skills were not needed, but my maths was occasionally put to use in triangulating, or surveying to see if any of the houses above the tunnel had started to subside. They hadn’t.

My lasting memories of the tunnel are the mud, the Portakabin mice, a belligerently fascist South African engineer and the deathwatch beetle which landed on the collar of the site foreman one sunny autumn afternoon.

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