This is how we used to do it: Clearing ice the old way

I was working for Derbyshire County Council Highways Department as a Roadworker, fancy name for a labourer, having left the pit in June 1961.

The work consisted of digging drainage trenches, laying tarmac, humping concrete kerbs and anything else the gaffers could think of. It was generally hard work and the pay was not very good. But, compared to life as a pit pony driver, it was a doddle and the sky didnt fall on your head.

Apart from when it rained or snowed. In late December it snowed and froze then snowed and froze again.

On New Year’s Eve I was asked, along with a dozen others to work on nights gritting and snow ploughing.

We clocked on at Clay Cross Highways depot at Stretton Road at 8pm and knocked off at 8am - or thereabouts.

Each lorry had a driver and two mates and was allocated a route that was to be ploughed and gritted.

Most of the lorries were small compared to now, only 3-5 tons so routes were very short compared with the modern gritters used now that have automatic feeders and use salt measured grams per square metre. In 1963 it was shovelfuls per lorry load.

Rock salt was a relative novelty then, and the supplies soon ran out. The salt mine was at Winsford in Cheshire and lorries couldn’t deliver the stuff because the roads were blocked. They had a job the best of times getting over the Cat and Fiddle.

When we did get some it had little effect because the temperature had fallen so low.

The sea round the coast was freezing and that’s salt water.

The material we used was grit and mostly ashes from collieries with steam winders and the Avenue coking plant at Wingerworth.

That didn’t melt the ice and snow but it provided a bit of grip to the wheels of cars and lorries. Roads became skating rinks for weeks on end and packed ice had to be jackhammered off.

Getting the ashes started off relatively easy, the lorry was backed under the hopper, pulled on the handle and ashes fell into the lorry, only more often than not the hopper was frozen and wouldn’t open. That meant getting the lorry down the rail sidings alongside the full rail wagons and opening the door to the wagon to let the ashes fall out.

We then had to load the lorry by hand. Then drive onto our route and chuck it off again. Standing on the back of a moving lorry going over ruts in the ice, swinging a shovel about in the middle of the night wasn’t a lot of fun, and there were casualties. But there was no other way . It had to be done.

Many of the minor roads just got filled with snow, and these had to be dug out by hand during the day.

Fortunately many of the new starters on the highways were ex-miners and they could swing a shovel.

Unfortunately, as soon as they were dug out the wind blew the snow back in again. On and on it went through January, February and into March.

In February there had been a severe blizzard in the north of the county that cut off several villages around Edale and Castleton area.

We were told that as it had not been so bad in our area, teams of men and lorries would be going to work from Chapel-en-le-Frith depot.

The day shift teams drove the lorries up to the Chapel depot, did their shift and came back in a mini-bus which then drove the night shift up.

I was one of the night shift along with Ray (Piddy) Spencer and Fred Key. The so-called Mini bus had a broken heater.

As we were driving up it became clear that we at Clay Cross had not had a ha’p’orth of snow compared to up there. It was a wasteland, and it looked like Siberia.

The snowdrifts were enormous. The Wanted Inn pub at Spitewinter was almost buried under snow.

I remember a row of houses at a place called Dove Holes where snow was up to the eaves and Gennels were cut through from each front door it looked fantastic. But deadly.

At the depot we were given a route which was to be strictly adhered to. No deviation whatsoever. If we got stuck, we had to stay there. They knew which route we were on and if we werent back they could find us. Fortunately we never got stuck. I reckon it could have sent you mad stuck there in a wilderness of snow and ice.

Mainly we were used to widen out, with a side plough, roads that had been opened. We had to follow marker posts that indicated the road edge. Beyond them were some frightening chasms .

Then one night we had to work behind a snow blower. I had never seen one of these before, except on the telly, and that was in Switzerland! It was amazing. The spinning drum cut into the snow and then blew it over the wall via a shute.

My amazement turned to horror when the snow turned red, and the thing ran into a number of sheep that had been buried under the snow. We were told that they were already dead, suffocated. It didn’t stop me throwing my guts up.

After four or five nights at Chapel we were back home. Clay Cross never looked so lovely.

We were back to chucking ashes about.

We started the night shift on New Year’s Eve 1962 and knocked off 10 weeks later –without a night off.

50 years on and when I see the massive, all singing, all dancing, powerful spreading machines, I think what would happen if the salt ran out. There’s no pits or coking plants to get ashes from.

Graham Skinner