THE younger bairn has just shifted from London to Hertfordshire, one of those places where hurricanes hardly ever happen. Much more congenial for them, it presents us with the slight disappointment that rail travel is no longer the best bet.

Pottering back up the M1 on May 2, we were seriously surprised to pass a virtual convoy of bright yellow Powys County Council gritting lorries, snowploughs to the fore, heading purposefully through South Yorkshire.

Had the North-East suffered meteorological meltdown (or, possibly, the opposite) while our backs were turned? Was mid-Wales so greatly a beneficiary of global warming that its gritters were universally redundant?

The answer, another of those remarkable coincidences about which last week’s column exulted, came in a foot-of-the-page story in the Echo five days later.

Winter’s wagons were off on their summer holidays.

Based in Ripon, Econ Engineering is the country’s biggest manufacturer by far of gritters and associated salt-of-the-earth equipment, with around 750 vehicles in its hire fleet. “Our fame is spreading,” says their watchword, appropriately.

This year the company marks its 50th anniversary, on May11 held an exuberant open day. It was time to follow the plough.

THE day proves greatly diverting. Resisting any temptation to reprise In the Bleak Midwinter, the music machine martially plays The Planets.

Where else might we have learned that Shropshire County Council even had a competition to name its gritters, Gritty Gritty Bang Bang the favourite though Gritney Spears, David Blowie and Frosty the Snow Van also appealed. None, for some reason, suggested Gary Gritter.

Particularly Econ are proud of a Golden Gritter, made glorious for the jubilee and due to tour the land in the autumn, though on no account to get its metaphorical feet mucky. Its registration is GR17TER. “The chap who had it had been trying to sell us that for 12 years. We thought it was now or never” says Colin Trewhitt, a factory manager so acclimatised that he can even answer the trick question about the snowdrift at Bleath Gill. “Stainmore Railway. 1947,” he says.

In the visitors’ car park sits 4 KAA. How that one got past the DVLA, goodness only knows.

THE company was founded in 1969 by farmer’s son Bill Lupton, who’d invented a flail mower and a hedge trimmer, but who never forgot the winter of 1962-63, reckoned the snowiest since 1740.

His first gritting wagon was taken to a conference in sub-tropical Torbay. He hoped for ten orders, came back with 70 – and with winter, it’s said, fast approaching.

Econ remains family-owned, his sons Jonathan and Andrew directors. It employs 210 people, works round the clock, has 73 per cent of the UK gritter hire market, looks actively towards further expansion.

Lest there be any sign of the skids, and goodness knows there’s not, they’re also into road maintenance and patching vehicles, too.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal, we’ve never been so busy,” says Colin, with the company since joining on a YTS placement 32 years ago.

Technology’s changed everything, of course, gritting operations directed by closed circuit television, GPS and, soon, other satellite technology. “When I started a guillotine was advanced machinery,” says Colin. “We can make things in a tenth of the time it took just 15 years ago.

“People still think of a salt spreader just chucking muck on the roads, but it’s much more advanced than that. The days of a bloke on the back of a lorry with a shovel are a long way behind us. Now there’s every bell and whistle you can imagine.”

UNLIKE every other sentient human being save under-11s and skiers, do they pray for snow? “If it snows all the better, but it’s ice when we really come into our own,” says Colin.

Katie Sharman, Jonathan’s partner, insists they’re not worried about global warming. “The weather’s not just going to be warmer, it’s going to be more extreme. There’ll always be a need for ploughs and gritters in Great Britain. There’d be a national outcry if we weren’t prepared for winter.”

The hire season usually runs from October 1 to March 31, though winter (if not spring) may come earlier in Scotland. For the rest of the year they return, like Powys ploughs, for servicing and a bit of R&R.

There may also be local rules for Consett.

Unlike Henry Ford, said to have supposed that customers could have any colour as long as it was black, Econ doesn’t insist upon yellow – catalogued as highways golden yellow. “They can have any colour they want, but it would probably cost them a lot more,” says Colin.

He conducts the guided your, talks of the 40 tons of flat steel he orders every week, of the 94,000 part numbers, of painting being the second biggest element, of the two guys employed just to put stickers on.

They lay on food, drinks, have a staff party in the marquee in the evening. The company’s success, says Katie, is all down to the workforce, “Cut them and they’d bleed yellow, wonderful people. You’re right, though, we do quite like winter, but round here it’s pretty cool all year.”

Spirit in the sky

THE classified obits, lugubriously ineluctable, recorded the other day the death in the USA of Brian Madden, aged 72. To many his name will have meant nothing. To readers of the long-running Gadfly column (1985-2011), it may have been more familiar.

In the happy days when these columns were all but written by their readers, Brian was among the most prolific, and most valued, correspondents.

He was a Darlington lad, educated with his siblings at St Augustine’s school in Larchfield Street where, regardless of age or gender, all might regularly be reminded by Sister Margaret’s cane of the error of their ways. Sister Margaret may not necessarily have been a Sister of Mercy.

Brian had also recalled trainspotting days from the “monkey bridge” near Darlington station, tripe and cow heel nights at the Killy in Middleton St George – “I’d never eat them sober, not ever” – and at one time he himself ran the Ball Alley pub in Stanley, north-west Durham.

Either side of the Atlantic, his contributions continued, from misheard song lyrics to expressions like marquee signing, which he considered a “stupid Americanism”.

Misheard lyrics were known as mondegreens. Brian long believed that Abba sang of calling last night from Tesco’s. Abba thought it was Glasgow.

Cockerton Docks featured, too, but everyone knew where they were.

Across several American cities, he remained greatly fond of home comforts, weekly receiving kippers from Whitby (“my Sunday breakfast”), pork pies from Manhattan (”just like Taylor’s in Darlington”) and pasties, inexplicably, from California.

He’d finally settled in Rockville, Illinois, and was there further reminded of North-East England. One email reported that it was minus 26 Celsius.

Like so many correspondents, he appeared to be a kindred spirit. It’s as kindred spirit that affectionately he’ll be remembered.