‘Computers? I’ll give them five years...’ Shows how wrong you can be!
- Credit: Archant
Colchester-born Colin on when Stansted was tiny, Marconi, and his love of gardening
Colin Olle’s telling me about how he joined the Marconi company in 1967 as a trainee programmer... and wasn’t convinced computers would catch on. He’d returned from his initial training to tell wife Verena “I’ll give it five years.” He chuckles. “Shows how you can be wrong! I’m now sitting looking at a screen in front of me that’s got n times more power than we had in the big beasts that filled the room.”
Why had he been so pessimistic?
“Just didn’t think it was going to happen. I found it difficult to see how it was going to be applied. Don’t forget, there was no personal computer – just a big machine in a room, churning away. I think once PCs came on the scene it revolutionised the process.”
Colin’s life has been a curious (no, let’s say well-balanced) mix of cutting-edge technology and nature – including aircraft (at a distance), the aforementioned computing, and even Formula One racing engines (again at arm’s length, more or less).
Garden-wise, he and Verena have over nearly 30 years turned what was essentially a green field into an acre of interest enjoyed by a host of visitors. Both put in the hours for the National Gardens Scheme, which raises thousands of pounds for charity each year, thanks to volunteers who welcome the public during open days.
Colin, Colchester born and bred, is county organiser for the NGS in his adopted Leicestershire and his wife is one of the assistants. He doesn’t miss Essex overly much, and is certainly pleased about their home being pretty much sheltered in the heart of England.
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“You get those ’orrible, cold, easterly winds. They seem to be somewhat more moderate when they get here,” he laughs. It does get a bit colder than East Anglia, though (– 4C last night).
The couple have just finished their elevenses after being outside on this bright and sunny morning. Colin takes some time off to tell us his story.
He lived in the Shrub End area of south-west Colchester and went to The Gilberd School. Colin loved looking at maps and credits his geography teacher for nurturing a fascination with the weather. He found out what he needed to do to join The Met Office, then part of the civil service, and was taken on after leaving school at 18.
The summer and early autumn of 1961 saw him training in north London. “One of these ex-wartime, single-storey, horrible places!” Cold and draughty? “That’s the stuff.”
Colin became an “observer” at Stansted Airport, then very different to today’s busy airfield with its sleek Norman Foster-designed terminal.
“It didn’t have any aeroplanes, to start with! Very few. It wasn’t London’s third airport until 1965, and even then it was just a sign on the front gate. It had two runways. The main runway was one of the longest in the country, so that to an extent was why it survived. Heathrow was growing and Stansted was very useful as a diversion airfield.
“I can remember going in on a nightshift once and the place was full of planes. Stansted had been fog-free all day and Heathrow and Gatwick weren’t.”
As an observer, Colin was part of a team taking weather-related readings every half-hour and plotting data on maps. “You got very quick at working with a double-nibbed pen: red and white. They were dip-in-the-ink pens, not fountain pens or Biros.”
Information went to the forecasters, who would draw isobars, look for the weather fronts and predict the likely conditions.
The meteorological team was based on the ground floor of the Stansted control tower and pilots would come in to pick up the latest forecast.
British United Airways flew troop flights from Essex to the Far East, says Colin, and Britannia Airways also used the airport for military flights. British European Airways used it for training.
Colin spent six years at Stansted before hitting what seemed like a glass ceiling and becoming fed up. He wanted to become a forecaster, but it appeared it was only graduates who were getting that chance. When he failed to win promotion on the third attempt, he quit.
He’d read a book about computer programming – read it on a nightshift! – and thought he’d have a go. Colin landed the job with he Marconi company in 1967 and was based at Great Baddow, near Chelmsford – helping provide computing services for the various arms of the telecommunications and engineering giant.
The couple lived at Bocking, near Braintree, and had two daughters. In the mid-1980s, the girls then aged eight and 11, the family moved when Colin had the chance of running the firm’s computer centre on the south side of Leicester.
He and Verena still live in the house they moved to in 1987. It’s near the “elbow” where the A14 meets the M1, not far from the Grand Union Canal and looking across at the Avon valley.
“We had a good-size garden in Bocking but I can’t pretend we were as keen as we are now,” says Colin. “Verena soon got into flowers and shrubs, and I got into vegetables. We were interested then, but I don’t think we got well into it until after we were here – in the early to mid ’90s.”
The garden was essentially a green field when they arrived in 1987. It had been an orchard. About 90% of the acre was grass, with 12 remaining mature trees. “Those have come down every other year to keep us warm! As we got more and more into it, the garden evolved as we worked down it. The plot’s about 100 feet wide and umpteen feet long.
“We didn’t do much at the front. There’s a big bit that was essentially a massive rockery, with grass and a big tree, and we’ve got four mature sycamores across the front – which are beautiful but a pain in the neck.
“We really developed the back, working down and putting in specimen trees (great-looking single trees that are a focal point), island beds, lots of beech hedging, separating the vegetable area.
“We’ve left one or two things which were there, like a Portuguese laurel, which was quite small – the girls used to jump over it – but it’s now massive.
“I keep it clipped as a structure, rather than letting it go as a big tree. But it must be about 30 or 40 feet in circumference now and 10ft high. Inside, it’s like an Aladdin’s cave. You can climb up in the middle and the kids love it.”
Water features were added: one pond, followed by a smaller one at the top. A stream was dug and a pump installed, so water is fed to one pond before running down to the bottom.
They’ve planted some trees, such as the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata. “It’s been flowering for about a decade now – a super tree.” And there’s a weeping beech, “which we’ve had to top twice, because it grows so blinking fast. It’s under threat. If it doesn’t behave itself, it’s coming out!”
A rose circle has been put in, with a circular pond, and there are a couple of lozenge-shaped beds of very-white-barked birches like the Himalayan silver birches at Anglesey Abbey, near Cambridge. “They look spectacular.”
There’s distinct evidence of Colin’s influence and leanings. “I’m a tree fan,” he says. “We’ve put in quite a few, like the Davidia, that are getting quite nice now. I have to say Verena is the plant person and I’m the hard-landscaper.” Colin enjoys the variety, such as the northern red oak Quercus rubra and the Indian bean tree Catalpa bignonioides. He says he can readily remember the names of trees, even their Latin names, but plants... “well, it’s just shrubs!” he laughs.
The Olles’ efforts certainly made an impact. In the late 1990s friends asked to bring a group of Women’s Institute members round to see the garden. Then, someone suggested opening for the NGS – which they first did in 2002.
It was the start of a deepening relationship with the organisation. As well as being county organiser, Colin is regional chairman and a trustee for the Midlands region, which takes him to London from time to time.Some of these voluntary duties turned out to be two or three times more work than he anticipated, but he doesn’t see that as a negative. Helping the NGS is rewarding.
“The amount of money raised makes it very worthwhile,” says Colin, who gives talks, tries to find new gardens to add to the roster, and aims to visit the current volunteers at least once every other year to show them how much they’re valued.
How much time does his NGS involvement consume? “Well, there’s something every day. It must average an hour a day. That may be an underestimate...”
It soon becomes clear it is! – and not just because of the time taken talking to ealife. Colin and Verena spent three hours, yesterday, getting all the open-gardens booklets ready. “We’re going out this afternoon as well, taking some to Market Harborough... make that a whole day, then!”
They haven’t actually opened their own garden for a few years, wanting to spend more time with their four grandsons, aged from three to eight years, as well as looking after NGS matters in the county.
And, actually, they’re aiming to move from the house that’s been home since 1987 – to somewhere north of Gloucester, ideally, so they’re close to both daughters and their families. They will start a new chapter in their gardening life, there, but it won’t be on the scale they have now.
“Dare I say it, we’re getting older now,” says Colin. “We enjoy it still, but put it this way: we watch a lot of television but we don’t see it... we fall asleep!
Redundancy is never nice, but ? with the benefit of hindsight – it’s done Colin a good turn or two.
He lost his Marconi computing post in 1989 – the company by then part of GEC – and got a new job with a Northampton firm that was later taken over... with the inevitable slimming of the workforce.
The next job was a memorable one, though – with Ilmor Engineering on the other side of the A14 to his home. Ilmor’s known for designing and making high-performance engines for Formula One and IndyCar racing.
It forged a fruitful partnership with the McLaren team and has become part of the Mercedes empire. Mika Hakkinen used Ilmor engines to win the Formula One crown in 1998 and 1999.
Colin wasn’t an engineer – he worked on the IT side – but it could still be a high-pressure life. There was always the chance to get tickets to F1 races, but Colin was never tempted. “I like Formula One. I watch it. But you can see more on the TV than at the race.”
Verena went to Silverstone several times, though. “She became a middle-aged Formula One groupie!” laughs Colin, who retired in 2004.
The couple celebrate their golden wedding in the summer. They’d met at school in Colchester. He was a keen tennis player and would umpire the girls’ tennis matches on Saturday mornings.
“Well, you get to see the girls that way, don’t you,” he laughs, “and one of them was particularly attractive!