A MODERN version of an old fashioned concept to tackle problems on roads and footpaths has been hailed a “huge success” by Cumbria Highways.

Since its launch in the summer, the Highway Steward scheme – which is based on the traditional lengthsmen idea - has seen routes across the county become cleaner and safer thanks to 24 dedicated members of staff who spend Monday to Friday fixing potholes, digging gullies and even freeing trapped farm animals.

While there aren’t many women whose careers see them clearing blocked drains and lugging bags of tarmac, Deborah Gwilliam from Beetham is one of England’s few female lengthsmen.

Come wind, rain, shine – and more than her fair share of floods – the 49 year-old braves the outdoors and visits 14 South Lakeland parishes, from Crooklands to Garsdale, responding to calls from the public and parish councils.

“I get cold and wet and I live in my thermals but I absolutely love my job,” grinned Miss Gwilliam, a former conference manager who joined the highways “gang” in August.

Like her male colleagues, she is responsible for keeping her own 200km stretch of roads and verges spic and span.

“I do a bit of everything really. One of my first jobs was fixing Barthe Bridge at Dent but I also do things like clear smoot holes to let surface water flow away, clear gullies, fill some of the smaller potholes, strimming and I even have to herd the odd flock off sheep off the roads.

“We are often the first port of call for people with grievances but the reaction of the public generally is really good. They often flag us down to point things out and I’ve had the odd letter of thanks which is always appreciated.

“I cleared one footpath and this couple stopped to say it was the first time they had been able to walk arm in arm. And when I was driving home one night recently I came across a flooded road so I got out to clear it – that went down well with the other car drivers.

“Before I took up the job I was a bit apprehensive – I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision but I’m fitter than ever and I can do the jobs just as well as the men.

“I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy and I love being outside. Now when I spot a hidden gully I get quite excited,” she laughed. “It’s the best job, I love it.”

A Cumbria Highways spokesman said: “We’ve had some very positive feedback from parishes and members of the public across the county about how helpful and approachable the stewards are.

“Because they live close to the communities they serve they are able to build good relationships with their parishes, councillors and other residents in their areas, and have the benefit of local knowledge which helps them keep on top of the small but important jobs that make a big difference to local people.”