During the January snow one thing became abundantly clear to us at Norfolk Winter HQ – that many of you have a lot of respect and admiration for the people who grit the roads in the county.
While a lot of people found the 10 days or so that we had thick snow and ice on the ground very difficult, and some people didn’t think everything was done perfectly, the vast majority of the comments about the gritter drivers that were received on the Norfolk County Council Twitter account and the Norfolk Facebook page were full of praise.
They were so lovely in fact that we decided to come over a bit Blue Peter and bundled them up into a scrapbook to give to the gritters. We cut and stuck more than 60 comments, all received since the snow came down in the middle of January, and we may not have managed to get them all.
We took a trip to the Aylsham highways depot yesterday to present the scrapbook to Peter, Gill, Joe and Liam, four of the gritting team who are based there. While we were there we sat down and had a chat with them all, as well as their manager Jason Glasspoole, about their work and how they manage in the wintry weather. This is how the conversation went…
How does this winter compare to those in previous years?
Gill: This year the snow’s been really concentrated in a small period of time, whereas some years it’s been fairly consistent and we’ll go out a few times a week. But this season it’s been a really concentrated period over three weeks.
What was it like during those days when we had thick snow on the ground?
Liam: We were all working from midnight to midday for nine days on the spin so it’s been quite intense. Those busy nine days of snow we had were beginning to stretch us to say the least.
Joe: We got into a 24 hour shift pattern where we split the crews to cover a 24 hour period, which meant some days we were doing two runs on each shift and some days we were doing three runs on each shift. It was almost non-stop – run, then break, then run, then break. I’ve been averaging about three hours sleep a night and surviving off cheese toasties for a week.
Gill: I’ve lived off Ready Brek for the last three weeks and sleeping at two o’clock in the afternoon and getting up at ten o’clock in the evening. My body clock is just completely thrown and I find myself at 2am eating a Snickers bar, which I’d never do normally!
So did that make it one of the worst weeks of the year then?
Gill: For me, it’s the opposite – it’s the best. I love the adrenaline rush you get from it and being busy and feeling needed.
Peter: I’m not sure I get the adrenaline rush as much as Gill does but it’s nice to feel part of the team for that time.
Joe: I feel the most proud of the work we do during that period but without doubt it’s the most challenging, physically, mentally and in terms of spending time with family. It is immensely satisfying but we are pushed to our limit.
How does it work when you have to go out on a run?
Jason: We take the forecast around lunchtime so if there’s a need to go really early in the afternoon then there’s a need to get the operations underway.
Gill: When you’re on a 12-hour shift you know you’re going to be going out pretty much straight after midnight, in our case, and depending on the weather conditions you might take four-and-a-half hours to do your route. You just have to go at the speed that the conditions allow you to go.
Peter: You can’t predict when you’re going to go out in the afternoon. We got a text this afternoon and are on the road for four o’clock and yesterday we had to be on the road for six o’clock. When I first came here, 99 times out of 100 there was a run at 4.30am or 6pm and that was it.
You guys aren’t just gritters, you also have a day job that you have to do outside of gritting runs as well. How do you manage to balance them both when the weather is particularly bad?
Jason: When you get into that situation the day job is dealing with winter operations because the main role is to keep the roads treated and clear. Also, because in some cases we were doing six runs in 24 hours, there was no let-up between the runs. So any running repairs or breakdowns we had, that couldn’t be put off until the next day, the repairs had to be squeezed into that intense period as well.
How many people does it take to get the roads gritted during the worst periods?
Jason: There are 57 routes in total in Norfolk and each one has two shifts, one from midnight and one from midday. Some routes also need to have a mate on board if there needs to be any hand treatment in a town centre, and we have others as well, like Peter, who come in and pick salt and sand up for footway treatment and fill the grit bins.
With the workforce we’ve got we rely on the majority of the highways workforce to take part in winter operations and we bolster it with the staff drivers and temporary resource drivers. We also have spare drivers for when people need cover, who are a mixture of Norfolk County Council staff and temporary staff.
Gill: We don’t act as the mates, we just drive the vehicles. It sounds bizarre but we actually have to pay for a friend to come and sit next to us while we go around!
Peter, you’ve been here for 31 years. How much has it changed?
Peter: A lot. We do a lot more roads and we’ve got more gritters. When I first started we just did A and B roads and that was about it really. Now we do a whole lot more.
This is the first time since I’ve started that I’ve not been driving but I think it’s a lot better to load. After 30 years of driving it makes a nice change. It was still pretty busy for us during those weeks as well. We had lorries delivering the salt coming in and out as well as the gritting teams. They couldn’t actually go all the way into the salt domes because they were so big so they’d tip the salt out at the entrance of the dome and you’d have to shovel it out the way before the gritting teams came back.
Does the snow affect your journeys as well?
Peter: What people forget is that we still have to drive to work too. When we had to be here for midnight I was leaving home at half past ten because you didn’t know how long it would take to get there.
Liam: I live in Sheringham so that’s a 15-mile trip. On one Sunday night it took me 45 minutes to get from Sheringham to Aylsham and that was on a day when we’d done three runs already. And there’s no way we can ask to have a snow day off work!
Jason: That’s an important factor to take into account. It’s not just the treatment ahead of the road network being more difficult but it’s also getting yourself to work in the first place.
Gill, as a woman you are it seems in the minority as a gritter driver! What appealed to you about the job?
Gill: I’ve just always loved driving lorries. I like challenging myself and I like driving full stop. Give me a bad weather condition and to me that’s a challenge – it’s an ideal job. I got an HGV licence 16 years ago and I wanted to use it as much as possible. I can’t get enough of it. If we could do it in the summer, you know I’d be out there.
Jason: We have three ladies who drive for us at the moment – two of which are on permanent routes and one who’s a spare driver and covers a number of depots.
Are you all assigned to routes?
Joe: Yes, we all have our own routes every day. Mine is mainly North Walsham and then back here to Aylsham through Aldborough.
Gill: I get the coast road from North Walsham out to Sea Palling, back to Walcott. Every day I get to see the sea and it’s just amazing. We live in a beautiful part of the country and we’re really lucky. But on the coastal roads you can so easily get cut off because you’ve got the drifts and you’ve got nothing between the sea and the edge of the road. Whether the wind blows the snow onto the roads can make the difference between whether the road stays open or closed.
Liam: I go into the city and do parts of Catton, Sprowston, round the airport and industrial estate, the airport Park & Ride and Sprowston Park & Ride, the A140 into the city, Mile Cross, the A1151 as well as Rackheath and Salhouse.
Gill: On the normal runs we just do the main routes. A lot of comments are people say we don’t do outside schools but when we get the chance we also do routes which incorporate a lot of the smaller roads and the 20 mile-an-hour zones and go outside as many schools as possible. I’m not sure everyone’s fully aware that we do sometimes go out and do the tiny cul-de-sacs that you wouldn’t expect to see a lorry go down.
Can they be the trickiest roads to tackle?
Gill: On some of the housing estates you can’t get your lorry down. If our gritting lorries can’t get through, the fire engines can’t get through and the ambulances probably can’t through.
Liam: I was on a road in Mile Cross where there was a gap of inches either side of the lorry and sometimes you can’t get through at all.
Gill: I’ve been outside schools where cars are parked on both sides of the road, sometimes on areas where they shouldn’t be, and you just have to sit and wait. Sometimes people need to think ‘if I leave my car there, what consequence will it have?’
Gill: And then if you can’t get through then you do get people asking why we haven’t gritted the road and we’ve tried our best and that leaves an awful lot of residents without a gritted road.
Scrapbook aside, do you feel you’re appreciated in the work you do?
Gill: On my route I had quite a few people who said thank you. Some passers by gave me a thumbs up as I went past.
One night when it was really snowy I was going through Sea Palling and there was this little old boy with a bag of table salt sprinkling along his path. I had a mate with me so I stopped the lorry and we jumped out, got a spade full of salt out of the back of the lorry and sprinkled his path for him. Those little extra touches make you feel really good and show that it can be a really rewarding job that keeps everybody moving.
How does it feel to see such positive feedback from so many people?
Jason: I think it’s fair to say that the majority of drivers will really appreciate and be pleased about those comments.
Liam: It’s nice to hear that kind of thing because we don’t always hear it and it is good for morale.
Gill: We’re very proud of what we do and we try our best and it’s nice to be appreciated. At the end of the day I’ve usually only got my mum and my colleagues saying ‘you’ve done a great job on the roads’ so to see it in writing is really touching.
Aren’t they a lovely bunch? Thanks to everyone who has had nice things to say about the gritters these last few weeks, they were all really chuffed about it, and Jason told us that they’d make sure the scrapbook would be passed around to the gritting teams based at the different depots.
It looks like the gritters might have a busy few days ahead of them with more snow, perhaps heavy, forecast in Norfolk from Sunday. Keep an eye on your local weather forecast and any weather warnings on the Met Office website here.