The Lengthsman's View

An interview with the ‘Dullest Man of the Year’

Archie Workman hit the headlines when his 2014 Calendar, created for his colleagues at Colton Parish Council in Windermere, showcased photographs of drains. The calendar, with images of roadsides and other vignettes from Workman’s career as a lengthsman, sparked ridicule with many who found it difficult to share interest in his mundane photos. He even gained a nomination for ‘Dullest Man of the Year’ and was dubbed ‘Drainspotter’.

However, Archie’s astute interest in the world just beneath his feet captured PATTERNITY’S imagination, and on further investigation, we found that his reasons for photographing the things that we drive by every day were far from mundane.

As a lengthsman, Archie is responsible for the maintenance of country roads and public areas in his parish, making sure they are clear of rubbish and debris and well maintained; a job which many of us wouldn’t even conceive of, but upon reflection, see that without it, our roads and pathways would be rendered useless. In his job, Archie is able to take notice of the immediate environment that he works in every day, and find inspiration in the humble roadside.
Image: Archie Workman

We spoke to Archie to find out more behind his search for patterns beneath the surface, and to find out what can be learnt from digging deeper into the patterns that surround us…

Tell us more about your background, you seem to have had some very “hands on” jobs, is this something you’ve always enjoyed?
I think working with your hands is one of the most rewarding experiences in life, and I have always been a ‘hands on’ type of person since the beginning of my career in the North East of England, where I became an apprentice fitter with George Clark & North Eastern Marine. We built massive diesel engines for ocean going vessels and learning my trade I became aware of the designs and shapes castings and grids have being designed to alter the flow of water, fuel or air. Moving through my industrial life, I was headhunted to work in the drawing office and served my time as a draughtsman, which I think also brought out the artistic appreciation of seeing designs on paper coming to fruition through manufacture of often mundane objects. Heavy engineering was a real ‘mans’ industry – sadly there is not much evidence of it today in the UK.

What first drew your eye to drain covers, and what particularly interests you about them?
I am a huge fan of Edward de Bono [father of lateral thinking and author of 'Six Thinking Hats'] and tend to see things other people walk past. When I recently was asked by our Parish Council if I could stand in as their part time lengthsman, after a few months of discovering hidden drain covers in the beautiful 20 square miles of back roads between the lakes of Coniston and Windermere, I became fascinated by all the various different designs, shapes and manufacturers; the latter being mostly in Blackburn, Lancashire and the Midlands. Some are seized in with rust as sadly Councils do not have the money to do any roadside maintenance these days so I lovingly wire brush them back to pristine condition and give them a coat of oil so they are good for another fifty years!

One can appreciate drain covers are very heavy so wouldn’t travel very far and often were manufactured in local iron foundries to order. Researching their names, I soon realised that the foundries that produced the covers have since ceased production and most are now unfortunately a Tesco car park.

"I think working with your hands is one of the most rewarding experiences in life, and I have always been a ‘hands on’ type of person since the beginning of my career in the North East of England"
Archie Workman

As shown by your pictures, drain covers have many designs and nuances; from zig zags to diagonals and more curved shapes. Do these different patterns, or in your own words “geometry of drains”, refer to or reflect any function?
Most people reading this will say ‘a drain cover is just a drain cover’ – well they would be wrong! For example some have an arrow showing the direction of traffic. Why? Because if the cover is fitted the wrong way round the water will probably flow over it and flood the road as the geometry of the design is positioned so the water flows down into the manhole. This is particularly obvious in the very heavy covers which have a pronounced concave curve to allow the water to fall through.

Some have diagonal slots. Why? So deflecting the water flows against the inside of the road and not into the middle of the road. I am not experienced in why certain covers are placed in certain locations, but my lateral thoughts are drains on an incline only need the curved slots as gravity is forcing the water directly at them, on bends, it may be diagonal gratings work better.

Image: Archie Workman

Are there any drains that have an interesting back-story that you have found out; do you have a particular favourite?
“The Glynwed Brickhouse Aquafall 5804 Ductile grating is one favourite as it has the traffic arrow in the design and even the grade of iron that is is made from. I never realised just how many “drain spotters” there are out there, as I have been inundated with e-mails from people who either worked for a particular company and have amassed a website of the foundry history, or are just fanatics! One such is Mr Keith Cherrington who has produced the website. I couldn’t ever have amassed such information and he has corrected me to say the Glynwed covers we have were probably made in Wales!”

"I see pattern wherever I look – trees, roads, the dry stone walls of the Lakeland lanes and paths, built hundreds of years ago and many still standing as testament of ‘what the Romans did for us'"
Archie Workman

Our manifesto encourages people to see pattern and take notice of things from ‘the mundane to the magnificent’. Apart from drains, is there anything else in your day to day job. Or indeed the wider world, that catches your eye or fascinates you visually?
I see pattern wherever I look – trees, roads, the dry stone walls of the Lakeland lanes and paths, built hundreds of years ago and many still standing as testament of ‘what the Romans did for us’.

Living in an old paper and flax mill in the Crake Valley, which runs from Coniston into Morecambe Bay, there are signs of the mechanisms which raised or lowered the weir gates to control the flow of water. Being very similar to the ratchet mechanisms of the UK canal system lock gates, they constantly catch my eye as we have a narrowboat on the Lancaster canal.

How have other people responded to your interest – is the nomination for ‘Dullest Man of 2014’ something that excites you?
Well, considering I never set out to make the now infamous calendar for the general public to buy, we have been inundated with over 100 enquirers to buy one with some going as far away as Utah in the USA. A London based film company is coming up to film me for a day, which I believe will coincide with me being nominated as a candidate for the ‘Dullest Man of 2014’, which does rather excite me as many who know me will testify that I am far from being dull!

Cars now passing me while working in the Parish sound their horn and wave, so I suppose the celebrity status is something I will just have to get used to, but I hope many will get a giggle from it and start looking at drains when they are out for a walk and see where they came from!