They keep our roads safe in the icy cold of winter, but you probably never see them working.
That’s because the small team of drivers who operate Melton’s gritting lorries usually take them out late in the evening, or in the early hours of the morning.
As temperatures plummet this small unseen army will be preparing in a warm room at the back of the Leicestershire County Council highways depot on Dalby Road.
There are four men currently employed to grit roads in the town, countryside and surrounding villages, and they are regularly supplied with forecasts from weather stations, including one at Redmile, so they know when road temperatures are dipping dangerously close to freezing point.
When most of us are in the warm, tucked up in bed or relaxing on the sofa, the gritters will often be out. And last winter was particularly busy with more than 100 night time runs, heightened when the ‘Beast from the East’ gripped the borough.
“A lot of people don’t really see us gritting the roads because we are out late at night,” said Tom Vesty, the county council’s highways and works manager responsible for winter operations.
“And some don’t think we’ve gritted the roads when we have.
“There are some nights when the lorries have gone out in the middle of the night just because the temperature has gone below zero for an hour.
“Generally the feedback from the public is very positive, but we get the odd person moaning that we haven’t gritted their street.
“We actually grit 48 per cent of the road network across Leicestershire, but we can’t get down every road and street.”
Planning for freezing weather has moved on immeasurably since the bad winter of 2009 when there wasn’t enough salt to grit all the roads.
Now there are salt barns at Melton, Mountsorrel and Nailstone all with mountains of the stuff ready to be spread on county roads. There are also two massive emergency stores at Market Harborough and Misterton should there be extra demand.
There are surprisingly only two suppliers of salt in the country, one based in Cheshire and the other in Cleveland in the North East.
The four lorries at the Melton depot each carry 11 tonnes of salt and they are tasked to cover roads and streets across three routes in the town and borough.
“One of the things I would say to the public is to ask them to make sure they park to the side of the road, especially when it gets colder,” said Mr Vesty.
“There are occasions when the gritter lorries can’t get through because there are cars blocking the road or the street.
“The drivers will put out leaflets to warn people if this keeps happening, but there was one street in Melton which we had to take off the gritting route because the driver had to keep reversing back due to being blocked.
“We would also ask other drivers not to drive closely behind the gritters because we can only go at 25-30mph and people just have to be patient.”
The gritting sorties are much more high-tech these days thanks to some impressive new lorries in the fleet. They each cost a whopping £140,000 and they are equipped with GPS devices which allow drivers to set the width of each road on their route and the amount of salt which needs to be spread on them. Some of the older lorries are still in use without the technology, and in those the driver relies on a colleague sitting with them and reading out the roads which need to be covered and the quantity to be spread.
Mr Vesty said: “Our most experienced drivers have been driving the new lorries and they are very impressive.
“The driver can now just a push a button when they set on a particular route and we are planning to put this GPS technology in the other lorries as well.”
Drivers have City and Guilds qualifications, as well as HGV licences, and they are busy all year round, with plenty to do spreading surface dressing on roads, washing signs and cleaning gullies as temperatures rise again in the spring and the summer.
The gritting lorries went out in October last year and they’ve been deployed again as the cold snap returned in recent weeks.
Last winter was particularly bad, with heavy snow covering the Melton borough and causing large drifts on busy routes such as the A607 towards Waltham and the B6047 leading from the town to Market Harborough. One of the gritting lorry drivers who goes out during the day in the extreme cold is Mark Aylott, who lives in Melton.
He added: “Last year when the snow was bad, I went out quite a few times and I remember people were waving and thanking me which was really nice to see.”