In a warehouse at Crooklands near Junction 36, is 1,500 tonnes of pinky brown grit. This is what will keep the roads open in South Lakeland this winter, and cause an outcry if it runs out. ELLIS BUTCHER reports.


THE origin of the rock salt used to treat South Lakeland’s roads is 140 metres underground at Winsford Salt Mine, Cheshire.

Its 137 miles of tunnels are home to the natural sodium chloride, which stops ice forming at temperatures as cold as minus seven. Crushed, it costs £35 a tonne.

The stockpile in the warehouse at Crooklands is South Lakeland’s share of the 23,000 tonnes Cumbria County Council has for winter. Mountains of it are stored across 10 depots.

It is used to treat 2,500km of roads – the equivalent of driving from Kendal to Barcelona – and for 3,500 salt bins and heaps left at roadside bends and on hills.

The county council does not treat the M6 or trunk roads. These are the responsibility of the Highways Agency.

Its share of grit is at the other end of the warehouse, explains Cumbria County Council’s winter maintenance man Rob Lawley.

Colleague Hylton Brass, his network engineer, heads up the Millness depot, handily sandwiched between the A65 and near Junction 36 of the M6.

The county council makes its gritting decisions based on forecasts from nine different climatic zones around Cumbria.

Millness is the command centre of South Lakeland’s battle against winter. There are gritter lorries and snow ploughs here waiting for temperatures to tumble.

The average lorry carries 12 tonnes and has a maximum speed of 36mph when spreading.

The lorries are fitted with devices to customise the amount of grit distributed, depending on the width of the road.

If the public had its way, every road would be gritted rather than the three priority orders which the county works to – priority one being A roads and bus routes, priority two B and C roads and finally country lanes between villages.

“Most people realise funding is a big issue,” said Mr Lawley. “The winter programme is a £4.2 million operation and it has to come from council tax or Government support grant, and has to be limited.

“Every year we review representations that we get from parish councils and members of the public but we can’t cover the network 100 per cent because the budget would never be enough.”

Despite the relatively mild winter of 2011-12, there has been a noticeable ramping up of the programme, with an extra 85 kilometres of bus routes put on gritter routes countywide.

Small villages can expect a gritter should certain conditions persist for three days.

More attention is being given to rural routes serving schools and snow champions are being recruited as volunteers – there are 80 so far but more needed.

Volunteers are given reflective jackets, a snow shovel and a supply of salt to tackle 200 metres of footpath near their home.

But it is the men in the ploughs and gritters who have true grit, said Mr Lawley.

Road worker Daniel Kirkbride, 36, works the Lakes route which spans Greenodd to Duddon Bridge, Lowick, Torver, Coniston, Skelwith, Dungeon Ghyll, and back to Ambleside, Hawkshead, Grizedale and Penny Bridge. He recently did a week of nightshifts.

“Most people are happy you're out there, trying,” said Mr Kirkbride. “It's very satisfying knowing that you're doing a bit of good.”

Few people realise that sometimes the gritter lorry is the first to test slippery road surfaces, particularly on country lanes.

Driver Dave Sankey, 48, from Urswick, said: “On a good run pre-salting, it takes four hours to get around but if conditions are bad and it’s snowed, it takes twice as long. We’d like to do everybody’s road but just can’t.”