Neil Cole has never forgotten his first experience as a fire fighter. He and a mate were sitting outside the Fisherman’s Cottage pub in Shanklin, when a chimney fire began in the thatched building, writes Peter White.
Quick-thinker Neil grabbed a ladder, and he and his mate, Chris Mackett, dampened down the fire with buckets of sea water until the fire brigade arrived. He said: “We weren’t going to leave because we had a couple of pints in, so we fought the fire instead!”
On the back of those actions, Neil was invited to become a part-time fireman, and now some 35 years later he remains a retained fire fighter at Shanklin. He is also a well-known figure on the Esplanade at Shanklin as a longshoreman, as well as being an active charity worker. Among his charity duties have been numerous trips to Romania to deliver clothes to the country’s poverty-stricken street children.
Those are some of the reasons why Neil was awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s New Year’s honours. He will receive his gong from the Lord Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight, Martin White, and later this year he and his wife Marie will attend a garden party at Buckingham Palace.
Neil smiled: “When the letter came through that I had been awarded the BEM I thought it as a wind-up from my fire service colleagues, but then I had a good look and realised it was genuine. It was a bit of a shock, because I think there are more deserving causes out there.”
Neil attended Shanklin C of E School, and worked on Shanklin beach as an eight-year-old, putting out and collecting deckchairs. He recalled: “I was paid with either an ice cream or ice lolly!”
He later worked on Welcome Beach, and one of his tasks was rolling a big milk churn down the steps to a beach cafe. He reckoned: “Sometimes the milk had nearly turned to butter by the time I got it there.”
When Neil left school he was employed by an Island removal company, but because he only wanted to work for them in the winter, and be on the beach in the summer, he got the sack. That prompted a full-time return to the beach; eventually getting his own pedal boat business, and then a beach plot in 1976 – and he has been there ever since.
Neil said: “The biggest changes I have seen are the reduction in the numbers of people who go down to the beach, and the lack of sand on it – and I firmly believe the latter is down to dredging in Sandown Bay. You cannot see the damage that is being done, but it is like open cast mining in the middle of the sea.”
Neil joined Shanklin fire service in February, 1978 – after helping avert a ‘burn-down’ of the Fisherman’s Cottage. Ironically, a couple of years later he helped fight another fire at the same location, but this time it burned down completely.
Among his fund-raising feats for charity have been walks in full breathing apparatus from Newport to First Brigade HQ in London, on no fewer than four occasions – covering 78 miles each time.
He has made regular 1,600-mile trips to Romania since 2005 to help youngsters in need, and closer to home he regularly picks up and delivers items for the annual Shanklin Rotary Club sale.
Neil added: “If any charity out there is looking for a driver to help them out occasionally, then I will always do my best to be there.”