The Sharp End: Life as a navvy

A life on the open road... The modern navvy's lot is tough but better paid than Rhymer Rigby expected.

by Rhymer Rigby
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Roadmenders like to hit the road early: 7-7.30am is the normal start time. This is probably quite pleasant on a warm summer's day, but on a freezing cold February morning, it isn't much fun. In fact, because the stretch of highway we were to be working on was a busy one, our actual working time was restricted to between 9.30am and 4pm. But I wasn't going to get a lie-in that easily - the early kick-off gave me time to have my H&S briefing and get kitted out in the kind of fluorescent outfit that probably makes you visible from space.

Thus strikingly attired, I met the gang I would be working with: Mark, Monica (the gang agent), Steve from ASI (whose clever new pothole-mending technology we were using), Anthony and a Polish guy called, I think, Makhir. We had a couple of cups of sugary coffee apiece, then headed out to our 'office' for the day, a busy stretch of main road just off the M3 near Winchester. Due probably to a combination of poor repairs in the past and the constant punishment of passing HGVs, it had developed dips in its surface and bumps at either side, to boot. In bad weather, these were channelling water away from the drains, resulting in localised flooding. We needed to flatten the asphalt to get the water draining properly again.

Rather than digging up the roads conventionally, we were using a new technique called 'Rhinopatching'. The Rhino is effectively a giant upside-down gas barbecue. You turn it on and it melts the road surface to a depth of about 10cm. You then rake this over, add a 'rejuvenator'compound - and fresh asphalt if necessary - before resealing. The Rhino's pluses are that you dig up as little road as possible (so thankfully no wielding of a pickaxe for me) and it makes seamless repairs. It's also very quick - the record for Rhinopatching, I was told in awed tones, was in the order of 140 square metres a day. Our patches, though, were fiddly; we wouldn't be breaking any records.

With the gas switched on, the road surface beneath the machine spluttered and fumed and duly melted. I tried to do as much of the patching as I could, but I have to confess I was best suited to a supporting role. Whenever I went near a Rhinopatch, I tended to cock it up, either walking on the softened tar or failing to grit properly. There was definitely a technique to it - and it was one I didn't have. Steve and Mark, by contrast, were all practised fluid motion: they made the Rhino dance.

Our first three bumps went smoothly; the last was not so easy, though. Long and surprisingly high, it took four burns to flatten and kept catching fire. In truth, although the Rhino could cope with it, it was not the ideal tool for the job: this bump was a biggie that needed scraping off with a digger.

After chatting to gang leader Monica for a bit (her gritting technique was also the source of much good-natured leg-pulling), I moved on to relieve one of the traffic-management guys. I was rather better at this, although it is an entirely thankless job. You stand there with a lollipop sign; one side says 'Go', the other, 'Stop'. At the far end of the roadworks, someone else does the same. The two of you co-ordinate to control the vehicular flow. And that's pretty much it - but it's not as easy as it sounds. Although you are not actually doing very much, you have to concentrate really hard. One wrong twist of the sign could cause a serious accident; a moment's inattention and the wing mirror of a passing lorry might decapitate you. A winning combination of boredom and tons of responsibility. Oh, and one final thing: every single car driver you stop hates you and blames you personally for whatever it is they're now going to be late for.

All in all, I found being out on the roads a pretty tough job. It was hard to pin down why exactly - the physical work wasn't that hard, the hours were long, but not that long, the tar fumes were nasty but not unbearable, and the standing around in traffic all day wasn't that bad. But together it all added up. This is a harsh and difficult job. There must be easier gigs out there.

Easier yes, but not many jobs of this type that pay as well. In the truck on the way back, Mark, the Rhino operative, told me that with overtime, bonuses and so on, take-home pay is about £800 a week. Later, when the Polish bloke drove me back to Winchester station, he said that in three years he would have saved enough to build himself a decent house back home. That's enough to convince anyone to hit the road.

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