An accident or misadventure in our district nowadays is usually soon followed by the arrival of a doctor,an ambulance and trained crew, sophisticated equipment worth thousands of pounds, or maybe by the fire engine with cutting equipment, or even a or helicopter if necessary. Ambulance crews and equipment are permanently on stand-by in case of accident and illness.
But when our grandparents were young, help was not quite so readily at hand. The only piece of equipment always to hand was the harness for the horse-drawn ambulance! And when an urgent call went out for help, the first job was to fetch two horses from the nearest stableyard:
"It was drawn by two horses, and the harness was always kept with the ambulance, and whenever they wanted it, they'd get two horses from Brown's or Bell's Coach House or wherever they could. It took a long time to get the ambulance out."
Slightly quicker was the two-wheeled model, looking rather like a pram, which was wheeled on foot to the casualty, complete with comprehensive first aid kit:
"The kit had splints, bandages, iodine and smelling salts, and a piece of cane in case the patient had a fit, to put between their teeth and stop them biting their tongue."
Ambleside's first motorised ambulance was a wooden-sided Morris 8 vehicle which did 18 mph flat out.
"I remember the first accident I went to, driving the ambulance, two men were killed outright at Randy Pike, Hawkshead. They were coming back on their motorbike and they ran into Docker's egg van from Barrow. There was no-one there when we went, they were just lying there in the road. Round the corner was the doctor, but we were there first at the place in the old Overland. There were no post-mortems in those days, and accidents, when they happened, a fatal accident on the road or anywhere, the inquest was always the nearest place to the accident so the coronor could go and see where the accident happened."
There was no mortuary in many small towns, either, and after one very upsetting accident, a petition was raised to get a local mortuary provided.
"There was a young chap killed on his motorbike in Troutbeck, and the farmer nearby said, 'There's only one place I can think of you can put him in, and that's the duckhole.' That's one of these earth lavatories. We crawled through the door at the back where you empty it and put straw down and put him on a pig creel...his father was a butcher from Preston and when he came to identify his son he had to crawl through this hole...well, I thought that was terrible. His Dad said if his mother saw him like that she'd be broken-hearted. It was time we had a mortuary then. Well, it was me that got it going, got a petition up, about 1939."
Mountain rescue teams first came into being around the 1950s, but before that time, the ambulance men and St John's joined forces with local police and farmers to rescue anyone injured or lost. Using farmers' rope and old gates for stretchers, men went out with hurricane lamps to bring down the injured. One lady was hit by a rock on Pavey Ark and her leg broken. She was brought down in the dark, laid on the counter of the Dungeon Ghyll Hotel bar, and eventually taken by Overland Morris 8 ambulance to a nursing home in Bowness. Her adventures, however, were just beginning:
"Just as we put her in the ambulance van, the lights fused! So we went all the way from Langdale to Bowness without lights. When we got to Windermere, the policeman stopped us because we had no lights, and after we'd told him what happened, he stood on the running board with his flash light and showed us the way to the nursing home. Then he came back with us to Windermere, but said we'd have to find our own way from there, so we came back without any lights!"
One of the worst incidents in the area that many people can remember involved a coach crash on Shap, which was so serious that 30 ambulances from as far away as Kendal and Ambleside were called to help:
"A bus went over the top of Shap. There were thirty odd on that. The bus was going from Shap to see the lights at Morecambe. The driver was more of a cripple than anything else, I don't know whether he had a heart attack or what but he went right over and rolled down the hillside. Everyone was injured except one boy,and he flew out of a window on the top, through the roof and he was the only one not injured."
Many people remember the Greenside Mine explosion, which happened nearly 40 years ago in Patterdale.It gave local ambulance men one of their greatest challenges; and although only three men died, there was a strong feeling at the time that if local rescuers had been left to finish the job in place of the newly-arrived mines rescue relief team, every one of the men would have been got out alive:
"We had forty-five men out on the front - all gassed. But there was only three dead. We were out all day and all night. They were mining lead, and there was an explosion about three miles down, it was gas. And we were the nearest ambulance crew, there all the time. Then they brought the mining experts from Newcastle, they put down canaries to see if it was fit to go down. We would have got all the men out alive if they hadn't come, because the local chaps was getting them out. The mining rescue team from Newcastle took over and as soon as they came they wouldn't let anyone else go down, and it was all done on paper...they got them all out except three of them and they would have got them out, they knew where they all were - but they were left behind and they didn't get them out for two or three days till they'd found out all the gas had gone, so these men were gassed.
"The others all came round, up on the top, in time, and when they were fit they took them in cars down home, just except one who had a leg cut off, practically. We took him to hospital and they saved both his legs."
Helping those in trouble wasn't always quite so gruesome - life often had its lighter moments, like the day when a wedding brought on some extra excitement:
"We had a confinement in the van once. They sent for us from Kendal to go to the Sun Hotel and asked us to take the District Nurse.We went round for her, she said, 'I can't come, I'm on holiday.' So we went on, the two of us, and it was just as well we got the doctor too because the baby was born on us on the way to Kendal - and it was a breach birth. And they'd only been married that day!"