Ploughman of Moors recalls 40 winters of true grit

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IT’S 4.30 am, minus 10 degrees and storm force winds are lashing sleet against the window – but for 65-year-old Henry Lonsdale, that means it’s time to go to work.

For more than 40 years he has been clearing the roads of North Yorkshire of snow and ice, battling the harshest conditions the moors can throw at him.

Mr Lonsdale has taken on 15ft snow drifts, dug a path to a pub which had been cut off for nearly a week, rescued a Tanzanian priest and, after a 14-hour shift in one of the coldest winters on record, survived a heart attack.

But he’s not ready to retire just yet.

“Each year I just have to have a little go at some of the routes,” he said. “And I have got a job to do, people have to be able to get around and we can help them.

“We start at 4.30 in the morning, and we have to get round our routes and scrape off the snow and ice so the gritters can get round.

“When it really starts blowing up there the conditions are difficult to describe.

“We have had people lost or stuck and they’ve been in their cars all night.”

Mr Lonsdale runs a small digger company in Danby and his colleagues, Stephen Tindall, 35 and Colin Dowson, 45, clear the roads with him.

“The lads working here are brilliant, the team works well, they all stay in touch and make sure they do a final run at night so people can get home from work,” he said.

“The locals seem to appreciate it, we get a lot of cards.

“It doesn’t always work. We have reached points when we have had to give up, in the past it has been blowing in as fast as we are digging it out.

“One year I dug a two-and-a-half mile stretch of road in four hours and realised I was not getting anywhere. It took me nearly as long to dig my way home.

“There are times when you have got to get an ambulance through. Of course you just have to throw caution to the wind then.”

Mr Lonsdale remembers some bleak winters – 1968 and 1976 were tough he says – but the last three years have been some of the worst and involved two of his most memorable rescues.

In 2008 there was a report of a car trapped in the snow, the weather was too severe for helicopter assistance so Mr Lonsdale was called to help.

He said: “We had a report of a vehicle trapped in a fierce blizzard.

“Thankfully whoever it was stayed in the car because if they’d have tried to walk back they could have got in really serious trouble.

“It took us a while but we bashed our way through and went over to tap on the window. The guy was a priest from Tanzania, he’d never seen snow before and was half scared to death.

“He nearly wept he was so pleased to see us. He thought he was going to die. He sent us a really lovely letter afterwards.”

Mr Lonsdale regularly gets calls to the Lion Inn, a 16th century pub on remote Blakey Ridge, Kirkbymoorside, which gets cut off in bad weather.

In 2010 a party which had been staying at the pub found themselves trapped for nearly a week. However, not all of the group wanted to be rescued.

“That winter was so bad it took us four hours to do a route that would normally take 10 minutes,” Mr Lonsdale said.

“The pub was cut off, and we had to bash a route through. It was too severe for the helicopter.

“A party were staying there; four or five young lads and their dads had been snowboarding. They had been there for five days and by the time we got to them the drifts were at least 11 feet deep and up to the roof of the pub.

“I let this eight-year-old lad come into the digger. He loved being in the machine, but when the road was clear and he realised he’d have to go home he looked at me and said: ‘Why couldn’t you come tomorrow?’”

Little has changed in the four decades Mr Lonsdale has been working for North Yorkshire Council, and he said every year there are those who think their cars can get through even the worst conditions.

“I started working for a contractor in the mid-1960s,” he said. “Not much has changed, although everything’s got bigger. Whereas we started with 80 horsepower tractors, now they’re 150.

“But essentially it’s all about getting people together who can drive the machines.

“Highways Agency supply us with the ploughs and out we go.

“Every year we get people who think they’re invincible, drive past us and the road closed signs. We take the mick a bit when they come sliding back.”

So far this year the weather has been easier than the last two, but Mr Lonsdale is ready should things take a turn for the worst.

“Forecast is OK for December,” he said. “Looks like it may get a bit colder in January though, but the boys will be on standby whenever the call comes in.”