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Roughnecks & Nodding Donkeys

Roughnecks & Nodding Donkeys
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Wandering round the tranquil glades of Duke’s Wood Nature Reserve near Eakring, Brian Spencer came across what at first glance seemed machines designed by the eccentric artist, Heath Robinson.  Known as ‘Nodding Donkeys’, they turned out to be the relics of Britain’s first on-shore oil field…
At the start of World War 2, Britain’s only sources of oil to fuel its war machine came from Iran and the United States of America; over 80% of the country’s needs were imported from these two countries. Everything had to come by lumbering tankers vulnerable to the attacks of marauding U-Boats. Within 7 months during 1941 the enemy had sunk 681 vessels laden with essential fuel and by the autumn of 1942 an average of 700,000 tons of shipping went to the bottom of the sea each month:  Britain’s arteries were haemorrhaging.

During an immediately pre-war geological survey of Britain, D’Arcy Exploration which became British Petroleum Exploration, discovered a small, but significantly potential oil field.  It lay deep beneath the Nottingham countryside near the pretty village of Eakring to the east of Mansfield.  With all its drilling equipment tied up in the Middle East, BP turned to the USA for help in drilling the wells that would tap the precious liquid far below ground.  At this time, 1941, the USA was a neutral country and so anyone coming into the UK would effectively be entering a war zone. Such was the comradely feeling in America towards Britain at the time, that BP had little or no trouble finding a drilling company willing to cross the hazardous waters of the Atlantic, furthermore its employees, Oklahoma ‘roughnecks’ in the trade, all came as volunteers and their employers waived the right of profit rights from whatever came out of the ground. Also because it was wartime everything had to be carried out under the cloak of secrecy.

What these oil-men thought when they arrived in a rural part of Nottinghamshire is unknown, maybe when they heard they were near Sherwood Forest they half expected to see Errol Flynn in flamboyant green tights fighting it out with the Sheriff of Nottingham.  What they did do however, was to set to work as soon as their equipment arrived.  Within a week or so, the first derrick was drilling its way down through the coal measures and shales to reach the precious liquid trapped beneath an underground fold in the rocks laid down millions of years ago.

Eakring Oil Field covered a surprisingly small area, more or less the area now filled by Duke’s Wood Nature Reserve.  When a drill struck oil there was none of the excitement and danger of a gusher and the only way to prove the drillers had struck black gold was by regularly sampling cores brought up from below. Drilling technique meant that a twin-headed drill would bore its way steadily underground at the tip of a long tube; lubrication was by a special type of mud in order to keep the drill head cool.  With a number of wells successfully drilled, the next stage was to bring the oil to the surface and pipe it away to Britain’s refineries.

Bringing the oil to the surface meant literally sucking it out of the ground through a slightly narrower pipe let down through the hole made by the rotating drill.  This was done by what became known as ‘nodding donkeys’, aptly named from their shape and action. Powered by an electric motor, a beam rocking up and down transferred the motion to a rod travelling down a pipe filling the hole drilled previously, which in turn brought the oil to the surface.  Once at the surface it was controlled by a complex system of valves and then piped away.

Between 1943 and 1965 when the wells were deemed to have run dry, a total of 2,289,207 barrels of crude oil had been extracted from far beneath the Nottinghamshire countryside.  The term barrel incidentally, is purely technical, as each ‘barrel’ equates to 42 gallons, therefore Eakring’s contribution to the war effort and beyond was in excess of 96,146,694 gallons!

In thanks for the sterling efforts of the roughnecks, a statue called ‘The Oil Patch Warrior’ was originally erected on the site, but has since been moved to the sculpture park at Rufford Abbey.  Dramatically depicting one of the men who made their temporary home in a corner of Sherwood Forest, a similar statue was presented to their home town of Ardmore in Oklahoma.  By their friendship and willingness to share the privations of wartime Britain, these roughnecks from over the water made a significant help towards their allies’ wartime struggle for survival.

Duke’s Wood Nature Reserve

Where there was once intense activity and the over powering smell of crude oil, nature has reclaimed what was once its own.  Native trees including oaks that will one day compete with those in Sherwood Forest have spread around small secret looking ponds, the haunt of newts and toads; woodland birds are sensed rather than seen, apart from the unmelodious ‘skaaak’ of jays, or the rattle of woodpeckers winkling grubs out of their sheltering bark.

Small woodland clearings still have their now redundant nodding donkeys, no longer pumping oil, but cared for with a lick of paint now and then. Plaques dotted about the woods tell the story of this historic event and there is also a small, but interesting museum to five decades of Eakring Oil Field’s life.  Faced by ash planks, the museum is housed in what was once a travelling geological laboratory and is run by two ex-oilmen, volunteers, who are available most Sunday afternoons throughout the summer.

For further information check Eakring Oil Field’s web site, or to make an appointment for special visits, say with a school, telephone (01623) 882446.

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