Grocontinental driver, Eric Edwards (67), has clocked-up 40 years’ service and over four million miles on-the-road.
Eric, who lives in Ellesmere, joined the company in 1976 and spent most of his career driving throughout Europe, often necessitating four nights each week away from home. He changed direction a few years’ ago to help train new drivers joining Grocontinental.
The start to Eric’s career was something of a baptism of fire when he was asked on his second day to make a trip to London, somewhere he hadn’t previously driven to. As Eric recalls:
“I had never been to London and I can remember that night being worried to death. I sat on the floor with a big map of London trying to plan my route.
“The next day I struck off for London to tip in Bow and then reloaded in Rainham in Essex. Driving back I had a smile on my face and thought ‘this is easy!’.”
A more challenging journey awaited him a few months’ later:
“When I arrived back at the yard one evening, Graham Oakley, the Transport Manager, greeted me with the bombshell ‘you’re off to Tehran on Monday!’.
At this time in the mid-70s, the company was transporting machinery and milk powder to Iran - an arduous round-trip of 3,375 miles and 116 driving hours with average speeds of around 30mph. The trip could take up to six weeks.
The road was perilous and involved a treacherous spell across Turkey’s hazardous Tahir mountains – around 12½ hours’ driving to cover the mountain range’s 152 miles.
An information sheet for drivers compiled by company owner, Ray Grocott, painted a gloomy picture of what was waiting for them beyond the mountains:
‘After the mountains, you will have only 85 miles to go to the border. You will then be fortunate if you can pass through the border in under 2½ days. When you arrive in Tehran you will also have at least three days to clear customs and unload.’
“I was very nervous when Graham told me I was off to Iran”, explains Eric. “I asked Ray for a map and he replied, ‘just follow the oil wells!’”
“At the time, I was living with my family in a caravan, waiting for my mortgage application to be approved so I could buy a new house. I took the cooker out of the caravan for my cab to take to the Middle East and gave my wife a one-ring Belling stove to cook on while I was away on the long trip!
“Setting off on the Monday morning with a gas turbine pump on-board and my customs paperwork, I stopped for a cuppa in the transport café in the woods at Higher Heath. I felt ok in the café but as I walked out I thought what am I doing? Can I really do this?
“By the time I reached Newport, my arms were shaking on the steering wheel. I was thinking either I should crack on or turn-around and look stupid! I took a deep breath and headed for Dover.
“Things went well until Turkey where we met with very rough conditions across the Tahir Pass. When I arrived at the Iranian border in Tehran, I was told that my load was too wide and that I would have to drive 250 miles to Khor to get the correct permit!
“During the four-week trip, I didn’t speak to my wife Valerie. I was supposed to ring into the office every day! Each Friday, Valerie would go to the yard to collect my wages and would ask if they’d heard from me and the reply would be ‘we’ve no idea where he is’.”
Throughout his 40 years on-the-road, Eric has seen vast changes in driving regulations and advancement in vehicles. As he highlights:
“My first vehicle, didn’t have a bed so I used to make one by fixing a piece of wood across the cab. I secured the wood on the door handles of the driver and passenger doors for a perfect night’s sleep!
“Things didn’t get much better in the next lorry I drove. In this vehicle, there was just about enough space behind the front seats for me to sleep but there were deep wells at each end of the space.
“To level out the space and to give me more room, I placed five gallon drums in each of the wells. This provided me with just enough space to sleep, as long as I slept on my side. No air con’ in those days either.”
To mark Eric’s 40-year milestone, the owners of Grocontinental presented him with a watch and a commemorative book highlighting his impressive career. He was also joined by colleagues and family members for a celebratory meal.
Paying tribute to Eric, Ray Grocott, Grocontinental’s Chairman said:
“Eric is one of the best company ambassadors we’ve ever had. Everyone talks highly of him including our customers. He has always been utterly reliable.
“He has been the perfect person to be with us as we have grown the business over the last 40 years and we were very fortunate to have recruited someone of Eric’s calibre all those years ago.
“He always has the company close to his heart and it is very fitting that our newly-recruited drivers are benefitting from all his wisdom and experience. It is an enormous achievement to have clocked up 40 years’ service.”
Fellow driver, Brian Evans, who has also notched-up over 40 years’ service with Grocontinental, said: “I have worked with Eric for 40 years and we have been in some scrapes but with Eric by your side with a pair of pliers and a bit of wire, he can fix and find his way out of anything.
“He’s a very handy man to have by your side because he is calm and totally unflappable - a great anchorman. I hope that some of Eric’s characteristics rub off on the new drivers he’s training as part of his new role.”
With no intention of putting up his feet just yet, Eric plans to continue driving for another four years. He says his favourite trips were to Spain and Italy, and transporting logs to Austria and Germany. And what about his favourite place?
“While I was parked up overnight on the continent, I would always try and get a local bus into towns or cities to have a good look around,” said Eric, “but Vienna is definitely my favourite place.”