IT’S a freezing, misty Monday morning on the Sowerby Wood business park on the outskirts of Barrow.

0 comment Tucked away off Park Road, the Cumbria County Council highways compound is alive with fluorescent yellow and the slow rumble of cold engines.

This is the nerve centre for all things winter maintenance and a place of work for nearly 40 people.

ELLIS BUTCHER meets the gritters.

IN A modest kitchen, overlooking the compound, I am enjoying a strong, sugary coffee in a sparkling GMB union mug.

Area highways steward, Steve Harrison is from Kendal originally but has lived in Barrow for 10 years.

He has worked for the county council for more than 25 years and has seen many changes.

New technology means the depot can track the gritters to see how much salt they are putting out and whereabouts they are on the network.

The depot covers Barrow, Dalton, Ulverston and Grange. Steve Harrison, aged 47, supervises the gritters and is a “resilience driver” in case of sickness or leave.

He said: “We cover from here, right across to the Yorkshire Dales border at Dent and as far up as Grasmere, Coniston and Shap – it’s a big area and obviously the areas with the highest ground catch the cold weather first.

“Usually the top of Shap Fell but places down this way as well like Gawthwaite - between Grizebeck and Spark Bridge – that usually catches it. We don’t do the A590 or M6 – that’s Highways England – but we do the A595, A591, the A6 and all the others.”

He has known gritter drivers on a route come across strange objects protruding from the snow…car aerials. “It was that deep, it covered a Land Rover,” said Steve.

Area network engineer Phil Turner adds: “The drivers work hours the public don’t notice. It’s normally done before they drive on the roads. During the early hours and later evenings – covering vast amounts of miles. It’s 100 per cent effort. They work hard, we’re one team and we work together.”

He explains that if you see a gritter in summer, it’s probably a driver training, or is being taken for a run to keep the vehicle serviceable, so it doesn’t fail in winter.

The wagons have big engines and on fresh mornings like these, they take time to cough into life.

But as Phil says: “It’s been mild so far this winter but when it does come in the Barrow area we’re looking to do bus routes, hospital routes and key villages to keep the place moving.”

Outside in a huge hangar, is thousands of tonnes of sparkling pink-orange rock salt, and four “Tonka Truck” vehicles to spread it.

My gritter driver is Neil Mitchell, aged 38, from Barrow, and a highways team leader.

He leads me to his giant Mercedes-Benz Zetros 2733 - a tall six-wheeler with 16 gears, which requires a rung of ladders to climb into the cab.

It’s a lorry marketed as “an off-road truck for extreme operations,” used by Armies around the world. But when the clock goes back and the temperature falls, it becomes Neil’s office. He has just completed two weeks of day shifts and is on a week of nights before a Christmas break.

On the dashboard of this manly of all wagons? A Christmas hits CD.

“You’ve got to get in the festive spirit” he jokes, as he expertly pulls away from the depot.

We head up the Dalton bypass and over the roar of the engines, Neil says: “This vehicle is an army design with a bullet proof cabinet.”

“I bet that must come in handy,” I reply…”for irate customers,”

Neil says: “I’ve been driving three years now. It can get a bit hairy sometimes when there’s really bad ice about. The wagon can start to get away from you. It’s gone backwards on me down a hill before. When it comes on the news that a storm is coming in and everyone should stay at home and not make any unnecessary journeys – we go up Langdale. Its virtually a single track road in places and a lot of people wouldn’t try it in a car, never mind one of these,” he says, gesturing at the steering wheel.

“But I see it that I’m providing a service, especially to some of the more remote villages.”

As we rumble along, a small van undertakes us out of nowhere - zipping up the inside of the gritter and then cutting infront of the cab.

Neil shrugs it off. “That’s what I mean,” he says. “You’ve got to have your wits about you at all times. People drive up the inside thinking you’re going to hold traffic up. This has got 16 gears, six wheels. Obviously it is a lot bigger and a lot wider and heavier than a car so the brakes aren’t as quick but obviously you drive to the limit.”

At his side is a touch screen panel which allows him to set the spread width of the rock salt.

“Width is the width of the road, and gram is how many gram they have determined you should put down,” shouts Neil.

“It goes from 10g to 20g with eight tonnes on the back. On the Coniston route you’ll do up to Dunmail Raise which is your highest point. We were out at the weekend and all we saw was rain all day long – and then when we got back into the yard, the computers were showing it as white with snow in Torver.”