It’s one of the dirtiest jobs in Sheffield. Every day a team of drain cleaners battle to keep 70,000 gullies – some of which date back more than a century – repaired and maintained.
From removing probing tree roots to washing out solidified fat dumped by restaurants, finding hidden guns and searching for wedding rings, there’s always plenty to do.
And although it might not be the most glamorous role, it is a vital one, helping to keep the city running and prevent flooding during bad weather.
The Star met some of the operatives who work behind the scenes to provide the Sheffield Council service.
“The job hasn’t really changed in the 20 years I’ve done it,” said Michael Baustred, as he drove to the first job of the day on Renshaw Road, Ecclesall. “They are exactly the same drains they were then, even 100 years ago, “ he added.
“We use technology now, like the cameras, which help us to find out what the problems are.”
Michael, aged 63, of Hillsborough, added: “It’s an enjoyable job, you get around the city because we cover everywhere from Midhopestones to Fox House.
“In bad weather, when it floods is when it’s really hard, when you are standing up to your knees in freezing water – sometimes it feels like there are more than 70,000 drains.
“I found a gun round the back of Atkinsons once, wrapped in a carrier bag, and a pristine £20 note near the Blake Hotel in Upperthorpe.
“Going back some years I found a doctor’s white coat and inside it a stethoscope, God knows what that was all about. You also find unsavoury things like needles.”
A team of 12 staff work for Streets Aheads to keep drains clear, and the contractor is also carrying out 80 drainage improvement schemes in the first three years of the £2billion 25-year project with the council.
Typically, a day starts at 7am when operatives fill up their jet vac machines with up to 1,000 litres of water and check their hand-held computer for their schedule.
Blocked drains are reported by members of the public and the team can deal with up to 250 a week – some of them familiar foes after repeat problems.
Many take just minutes to solve, like our drain on Renshaw Road, where grass has grown over the gully and needs to be dug out before a jet is used to make sure it is a ‘runner’.
More complex work involves sending ‘robot’ cameras in to identify problems, the most common of which is powerful tree roots penetrating a drain in search of water.
Drains prone to flooding have been identified as ‘high priority drainage sites’ – such as the second job of the day on Summerfield Street, off Ecclesall Road, and are individually inspected once a severe weather warning has been issued.
The operators lift off the drain cover and run water through to ensure all is clear.
Fallen leaves are a major blockage, and one of the toughest parts of the job is squeezing the 18-tonne HGV through Sheffield’s car-lined, narrow and hilly streets. Operative Stuart Moore said some of the hardest areas to navigate were Walkley, Greystones, Hillsborough and Nether Edge, although most operatives also know the city like the back of their hand as a result.
The 59-year-old, of Hillsborough, joked: “I don’t know of a dirtier job! I’m lucky because I’ve got a bad sense of smell.
“The best thing about it is getting a job done. It’s very satisfying to solve a problem and think ‘yes’, we’ve done that one.
“I once found a revolver that was on Walkley Bank Road. We were cleaning it up, my mate thought it was a toy but when I got it you could feel how heavy it was,” Stuart added.
“It was all corroded, you wouldn’t have been able to use it.
“I had to hand it in to the police but I was quite excited – it’s not the kind of thing you find every day.”
Hi-tech approach to clearing Sheffield’s Victorian system
New technology is helping Sheffield Council to improve the efficiency of cleaning its Victorian drain system.
An annual check of every single gully in the city is carried out by sub-contractor Acidisation, and information on how full or clear the drains are is being used to create a database that will eventually show how often individual sites should be checked.
John Mollart, highways operations manager, said: “As the years go on we will get more and more data and it should become more efficient.”
Other tools used by the team include a towable jet vac – all the better for getting up hills – and ‘robot’ cameras on wheels that identify problems causing blockages much quicker than digging up a road.
One of the causes in Sheffield is tree roots, while road detritus, leaves during autumn and winter, and a build up of fats near restaurants and shops can be a factor.
Mr Mollart said the sheer scale of the job was a ‘tough task’ not helped by Sheffield’s challenging terrain but stressed how vital it was to keep systems working, and flooding at bay.
Just one blocked drain on a hill can cause flooding lower down the street.
But weather forecasts are used as a ‘heads up’ so drains can be checked and cleared if needed in advance of heavy rain.
More unusual drain discoveries include wedding rings and, once, a suspected World War One bomb near Hillsborough Stadium, which turned out to be a cylinder from a former brewery nearby.
Police also sometimes ask the team to help during investigations by checking drains for evidence.
Mr Mollart added: “There is all sorts in there. We’ve had car keys, it seems to be common that people drop them in there when they are coming home, and we’ve helped a lady get her wedding ring out.”
The oldest drains in Sheffield, known as number fours, date back to the 1890s
6,000 of these cast iron models are being replaced as they are prone to blocking and tricky for cyclists to ride over
There are 43 high-priority drainage sites identified across Sheffield and checked before bad weather
Multi-skilled emergency crews working for Streets Ahead provide 24-7 cover when the operatives clock off
Parked cars can delay and prevent gully cleaning
20 days is target time for teams to respond to a report of a blocked drain
Telephone 0114 2734567 to report a blocked drain or lost item that has fallen down a drain to the council