CLEM BRADFIELD knows a thing or two about having a head for heights.
The crane driver is currently working with Irish firm Mantis Cranes in Bristol on a housing project that’s part of a multi-story build on the site of the city’s old General Hospital.
The project should last about 12 months, which gives Bradfield plenty of time to clock up even more hours in the cabin of his tower crane.
Having operated cranes for the last 47 years, the Welshman reckons he may have racked up the most time ever in Britain in a crane cab.
Now 67, Clem Bradfield first qualified as a crane operator in January 1971.
Originally from Caerphilly in South Wales, today he’s based in Weston-super-Mare, where he has lived for the last 27 years.
He’s worked all across Britain over the last five decades – from Glasgow and Bournemouth to Dover and Sheffield, with a memorable stint in Munich about 35 years ago when he lived and worked in the city for 18 months.
“Crane work is a job I absolutely love,” he says. “I’m still fit for my age so climbing up the crane is not an issue. I love being able to build something.”
Day-to-day in Bristol, where he’s been working since the start of May, Bradfield is mostly responsible for moving vast quantities of concrete and steel on site.
Side-to-side his cabin, about 40metres above ground, measures around 1.2metres by 1.5metres.
He climbs about 160 steps up and down each day.
“You definitely need a head for heights,” he jokes. “Initially it’s a challenge.”
But nothing beats the 585ft high crane he called his office when working on the M4 motorway’s Severn Bridge – where he was averaging about 80-90 hours a week in his crane.
“It was my highest,” he says.
Inside his Mantis crane there’s a small fridge - enough to hold about six cans of Coke - and there’s also a small electric kettle (about 240volts) for tea – perfect to have with his lunchtime sandwiches.
It’s not unusual for Bradfi eld to spend as much as 12 hours at a time in the crane.
“It’s got glass walls and a glass floor with some carpet on for comfort,” he says. “In the old days you sat on a plank of wood – now I’ve got an armchair with two levers on the arms and a seat that swivels and tilts.”
As for bathroom breaks...well what goes up must come down - that’s where the empty water bottles come in handy.
Bradfield’s average week is working six days – 10 hours a day from Monday to Friday, and Saturdays from 8am-1pm. It can be a lonely existence.
“You’ve got to realise you’re on your own,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to manage the solitude, isolation and it can be repetitive, that’s one thing the driver has to manage.”
To help pass the time, Clem enjoys a bit of Sudoku - especially on the projects that involve less lifts than others, which can make it harder to wile away the time.
Luckily this isn’t the case in Bristol.
“I don’t stop all day on this project,” he says. “It’s one up, one down. And the quicker the operator is, the quicker the building goes up.
“You’re the most important person on the build but you don’t abuse that, people are relying on you.”
From his silver galvanised steel crane, Clem Bradfield has a bird’s eye view of the city.
While mobile cranes are built for strength – lifting anything up to 1,000 tonnes – tower cranes are designed to be more agile.
“The heaviest load a tower crane would carry is about 40-60 tonnes but it’s the reach that’s important,” he says.
“I’ve got a 60 metre radius and can lift up to 100-200 metres high.”
So what does the future hold for Britain’s self-styled king of cranes?
“I’ll see this job out for the next 12 months, I’ll be 68 then so I might take it a bit easier.”
But something says there’s further heights to scale for Clem Bradfield.