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Wednesday, 03 September 2014

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How Cumbrian butcher, 72, made a robber squeal like a pig

"I knifed him three times in the stomach and he squealed like a pig," says butcher Rodney Flett without a hint of irony.

Flett photo
Rodney Flett

The burly 72-year-old Orcadian, who makes a living from his Cumberland Sausages, is referring to an incident more than 20 years ago when three armed thugs set upon him as they tried to break into his then Workington home.

“I lived in a house down a dark lonning behind The Travellers Rest at the top of High Street,” he recalls in the strong burr of his northerly homeland.

“I came around the back of the house and fed the horse in the stable. It was a dampish night in November. They must have been lurking in the outbuildings watching me.”

When he put the key in the lock at the front door, there was a blinding flash.

“One of them had hit me with a table leg and knocked me out cold. When I came round they were kicking me to bring me back to consciousness. I was face down with blood pouring onto the concrete. They gave me a good working over.”

He inclines his head. A scar is still visible through the white hair on his scalp.

Two of them sat on him and a gloved hand was placed over his mouth.

But this Orcadian was no pushover. Even now his wrists are more than nine inches in circumference and his fingers are not dissimilar from the sausages he makes from his emporium on Hunterbank in Great Clifton.

He gives an impromptu show of strength, doubling over a stiff exercise bar. It would be no mean feat for a man half his age.

He recalls: “That’s was where my press-ups came in. I lifted the whole lot of them.”

Rodney used to be able to do 200 consecutive press-ups and was a keen runner. He ran the 1980 New York Marathon just because someone said he couldn’t.

He pushed off his attackers and was hit three more times with the table leg. A knife was placed at his throat. One of them hissed at him ‘If the alarm goes off we will go to prison but you will be dead’.

Realising that they meant business, he agreed to open the door.

He managed to separate the knifeman from his accomplices outside. As he reached into his pocket to find the key to switch off the alarm he felt the familiar contours of a works knife that he had forgotten was in there.

He laughs: “That’s when I turned and stabbed him, three times. He must have bled all the way back to Chester. I was going to break his windpipe until I found the knife in my pocket. That’s the best place to go for if you are in dire distress.

“These lads weren’t playing games. They were serious.”

Hearing the cries of their companion (who survived his wounds) the others ran inside. But Rodney used an inner door as a barrier, keeping it shut with his foot as they tried to break it down. When he told them the alarm was back on, the men fled only to be intercepted later by police.

Rodney later discovered that they had been from the Chester area. Suspecting they were up to no good, the police had been following but had lost them close to Penrith.

Rodney may have been saturated with blood but his underpants were dry.

“I found out something about myself that night,” he says,

And that was not the only plus side of his encounter. His business doubled after the attack as people learned what happened and flocked to his butcher’s shop on Murray Road in Workington.

Rodney lived on Orkney until he was 14 when his father took a job as a dairy farmer in west Cumbria. Rodney’s mother had been suffering from rheumatism and it was thought that the milder weather would alleviate the condition.

He remembers an idyllic childhood of fishing from the clear waters and watching with wonder the ‘Merry Dancers’ or Northern Lights flickering on the horizon. He remembers too the island’s ancient burial mounds and exploring the shores of the Scapa Flow where the Grand Fleet had been scuttled after World War One.

He worked as a Saturday boy on the island when his brother was manager at the Co-operative.

It was on Orkney that he developed his passion for his trade.

When he left school in Workington he aspired to be nothing other than a butcher, a decision that bewildered the careers officer. He was gifted at art and technical drawing and could have turned his hand to anything.

But he was determined to follow his uncles and brothers into the trade. Serving his time at the Co-operative, he inherited an age-old recipe from Cumberland Sausage masters Billy Clague and Ike Muir.

But it is not following a recipe that makes the perfect sausage, insists Rodney, weighing a succulent piece of belly pork in his hand. The secret lies in knowing when to “adjust and adapt according to the quality of the seasoning”.

The perfect Cumberland Sausage, he adds, can only be made using a large white pig raised on cheese whey.

There had been considerable competition for the prime spot on Murray Road.

Rodney was so determined to get it that he decided to visit his London landlords to convince them to give him the lease.

The audacious move paid off. They not only offered him the lease but asked him to look after shops in Hammersmith, Shepherds Bush and Chiswick. After a brief stint in the capital, he returned to Workington to set up shop.

Since then Fletts sausages have become synonymous with west Cumbria. Rodney “retired” in 1990 and the shop closed. His son Stuart, who had been helping with the business, then joined the police, a move prompted by the investigation into the attack on his father.

But unable to turn his back on his vocation, Rodney set up his emporium in Great Clifton which is still producing 600 pounds of sausages every week.

He draws out a sharp-looking knife to cut some sausage meat and I am reminded how unwise it would be to attempt to steal his coveted recipe for Cumberland Sausage.

Even after all these years, Rodney Flett would still make a formidable opponent.

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