WORKMAN by name, workman by nature. Drainspotter. Dullest man in Cumbria and now Anorak of the Year 2019. Seven years ago life changed course for Archie Workman, of Penny Bridge, when he became a self-employed ‘lengthsman’– reviving a parish job dating back to Medieval times. Nowadays he is much in demand - a hero of the highways, a darling of the Women’s Institutes and a reluctant media personality pondering taking on an apprentice. ELLIS BUTCHER meets Archie Workman.

“I do dull,” declares Archie in his soft Whitley Bay burr. “Celebrating the ordinary, that’s what I like to do,” says the former marine engineer. It was in the late 1990s, aged 40, that he was laid off from a Wallsend shipyard and feared it was the end of the world – it wasn’t.

Investment jobs followed with the turn-of-the-Millennium regional development agencies which took him to Russia, China, Poland and the Czech Republic. From the North East he ended up at Invest In Cumbria and helped lure the Great North Swim to Windermere. He brought upwards of £36 million investment into Cumbria, he says, but nothing put him on the map like cleaning blocked drains. The role came along by pure chance when the local lengthsman ‘did his back in.’

Archie confesses: “I hadn’t a clue what a lengthsman was but it’s not rocket science. I saw a business opportunity. I am not the only lengthsman round here, and now I am talking about training somebody else. I like gardening and I always enjoyed working with my hands and I hate to see a dirty road sign.”

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he doubles up as the managing director for the Ulverston Business Centre – home to 30 businesses and more than 100 staff, yet before he came along it was half empty. On Tuesdays and Thursdays between April and September, he loads up his Freelander with commandeered garden tools: a compost scoop, a telescopic trowel, a B&Q spade and a hacksaw for getting at decades of rust. “I’m a bit of missionary - my mission is to get people to clean drains.”

Then he explains the difference between a manhole cover and a drain cover. The latter is round, the former is oblong. They are cast-iron, stamped with Lancashire County Council, and many were made locally in the 1880s when places like Ulverston smoked with foundries like Salmon Barnes, S. Warhurst and Payne Galwey.

Civic pride is still big around these parts and grassroots councils know the value of the local lengthsman. The role, he says, dates back to Medieval times when someone did this job for every parish. These days there are 71 parishes in South Lakeland and three large ones across Furness. The problem is trees grow leaves which block up the drains. Road signs need cleaning and gulleys need clearing out.

Archie says: “Flood water has got to go somewhere, whether it’s into a beck or a river and eventually into the sea. If a drain is blocked, the water runs along to the next drain and the next drain, and if they are all blocked, it floods the road. I always tell people there’s a whole world underneath our roads." Archie’s bread and butter are the little odd-jobs that keep our villages spick and span.

Such is his standing, people send him photos of drain covers from all over the world. “They’re very big in Japan,” he says. “And they have some beautiful ornate ones.” It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. His washing line at Penny Bridge ‘always has something yellow’ on it and his wardrobe glows luminous with all the hi-vis jackets branded with the parish councils he works for at £16-an-hour.

Some days when he comes home muck up head to foot, his wife Beth, who prefers to stay out of the limelight, won’t let him in the house until he’s out of his dirty clothes. He may work in the gutter but he’s looking at the stars. My Life In The Gutter is the title of his presentations and he is booked solid until September 2020 with the village halls and parish rooms eager to hear his stories of ‘filth’. Four hundred turned out to hear him at the Coronation Hall. His territory is vast – encompassing the backroads and backwaters around Ulverston, Askam, Kirkby Ireleth, Coniston, Colton, Cartmel and Allithwaite. Next year, Lindal and Marton join his growing round.

Misty-eyed old men come up to him, as one did in Coniston: “Do you know, I’ve lived here 40 years and never seen anyone paint those bloody railings,” said the misty-eyed village stalwart. “You’re doing a grand job, lad.”

Dutch tourists take selfies beside Archie’s lovingly-restored black and white road signs which were left grey, twisted and rusty. Village halls ring with laughter at his one-liners and the likes of the One Show and Gaby Roslin try to entice him down to London to sit on their sofa and talk about being a dull man.

Archie has been known to knock them back if it involves ‘missing his tea’ or a ‘dentist’s appointment’. He stresses: “I’m not doing it to get on TV,” he stresses. “That’s not the aim of it. Neither is it about making money.”

A fit feller, Archie won’t give me his age but says he qualifies for a bus pass. He is strong enough to be carting around cast-iron drain covers in all weather and they’re as ‘heavy as a lorry battery’. By hand, he digs out crusted-up covers and rusted-up drains - hacksawing through 20 years of solidified leaf mould, rust mud, grit, stones and discarded litter.

He finds the ever present McDonald’s wrappers everywhere. Every drive-thru should print the car registration on all the packaging, he says. That’d soon see them taking it home instead of chucking out the window. Such is his attention to detail, he knows that there’s a female driver round here who regularly does her make-up on these winding country roads.

Why? Because he keeps finding her discarded wet wipes – slung from the car and lashed with mascara and smudged with lippy. Has he ever found anything of value? I ask: “Sadly, I haven’t,” he replies. “A two pence piece, car keys, the odd frog or mouse, and a very horrible looking spider!” Archie has already found what he was really looking for. As he puts it: “I get a great deal of satisfaction from it. What was it I said on the radio…it gives me a tingling feeling.”