A bright red sign announces road works ahead. Rounding the bend on the country road, traffic lights are red and we draw to a halt. Orange and white cones line the middle of the road, and bright orange lights flash consecutively, allowing there to be no mistake as to the presence of a hazard ahead.
Road works on country roads fifty years ago had a fascination for a small boy. Perhaps it was just a boyhood interest in anything that was different, perhaps it was because they somehow seemed more personal, more human. Traffic lights were rare, and generally unnecessary, traffic was light and moved much more slowly . The roadworks might be barricaded by wooden poles resting on trestles. At night there were big metal lanterns, with glass lenses on four sides and shaped so as to create a metal hook on top, they were fuelled by oil and gave only a fraction of the light of the battery powered beacons of today. Often there would be a road menders’ shed, a corrugated iron structure that was brought on the back of a lorry, a brazier might burn outside of it, providing warmth for those working on cold days and heat for boiling water in a black soot-coated kettle.
For a small boy, what was most fascinating of all was if there proved to be a nightwatchman at road works, a man to safeguard the equipment and to ensure the safety of the workings. Night-watchmen seemed always to have a magical and mythical quality, their work seemed somehow removed from the prosaic activity of the daytime, as if the men working with picks and shovels during the day were engaged in an enterprise unrelated to the man who peered out from the impenetrable darkness of the hut.
To someone who feared the dark and who always insisted that the landing light be left switched on at night time, the night watchman in his metal hut was a brave and formidable figure, a man who had no fear of the mysteries and the dangers of the dark hours. The night watchman not only had no fear of the dark, he had no fear of the weather; with his dark greatcoat wrapped tightly round and his cap pulled firmly onto his head, he seemed indifferent to even the most extreme elements. The brazier seemed to ward off all unpleasantness and created a sense of something homely about the road menders’ shed.
It is a long time since a night watchman sat at road works. They would not make economic sense. No small boys now will ponder those who sat watching while the world all around was deep in sleep.