Ben Martin was a joker: his loud booming voice delivering random snippets of quirky wisdom about anything and everything. He could be heard all across Wicksteed Park Lake and beyond as he repaired huge engines and oily gearboxes, putting the world to rights with anyone who cared to pop their head around the door and say ‘Hi’. Ben worked at Wicksteed Park for nearly forty years as the park’s Chief Engineer.
His workshop was on the edge of the water, hidden behind some bushes – out of sight of the thousands of day trippers who descend on Wicksteed Park in the summer. ‘The Lady of the Lake’, ‘King Arthur’ and ‘Cheyenne’ were his babies. He knew every single nut and bolt and took them apart, serviced them and put them back together again endlessly. How many people enjoyed a ride around the lake on the miniature railway, kept safe by Ben’s meticulous maintenance on the trains? How many children squealed with pleasure on the roller coaster, not realising how much dedication went into keeping it in perfect working order?
When his nephew, Rob, was a little boy, Ben decided to take him on some mad expedition or another involving quarries and lots of mud. The only thing was, eight-year old Rob didn’t have any wellies with him. Did that matter? No, course not. Don’t be silly – there’s always a solution somewhere! Seven pairs of socks and a pair of size 10 wellies was the answer. The poor little lad could hardly drag his thin, spindly legs along the track, let alone through all the mud and muck.
When Rob was sixteen he bought an old, clapped out green Morris 1100 from a farmer who lived across the field from Ben’s house in the heart of the Northamptonshire countryside. Ben had a hare-brained scheme for getting this heap of rusty scrap metal back to his house, where it could be broken up for parts. The trouble was, the intervening field was full of doe-eyed dairy cattle, lazily ruminating in the spring sunshine.
The onlookers’ sides ached for a week afterwards, as, helpless with uncontrollable laughter, Ben kept telling Rob to push the car harder across the field, because the herd of curious cows that were following them were catching up fast.
Ben told Rob’s eventual wife that she was beautiful on her wedding day – in such a loud voice she almost died with embarrassment at the alter. When they eventually had children he sat them on his lap and pretended to steal their noses and find them behind their ears. Once their boys were big enough he helped Rob teach them how to mend their cars for themselves, and how, if they couldn’t find a part that needed replacing, they should have a go at making one. He also taught them the wise mantra that “if you can’t mend it, make sure no bugger else can!”
His big hands were always grubby, his fingernails caked in oil. His overalls did actually stand up themselves in the corner of his workshop. Everything about Ben was big, loud, jolly and fun.
Rob and his boys (and Ben’s son, Scott) are Land Rover mad. They’ve all got one – and the older and muddier the better. They are like great big kids playing with giant meccano sets.
One Saturday morning in July 2008 Ben died suddenly of a massive heart attack. No warning. His wife and son were heartbroken, not to mention his stunned colleagues at Wicksteed Park and the children who rode endlessly around the lake on one of his beloved trains.
Ben’s legacy was legendary, just like his life. On the day before he died he was in the middle of mending a tractor. It was left in bits on his front drive, with no one except him knowing how to put it back together. It remained there for a while – a glorious, massive, oily rendition of his last joke. (It was eventually put back together by Scott, Ben’s son.)
24.7.38 to 5.7.08