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From Watford to Land's End, almost

Even blizzards can't stop this newspaper getting to your doorstep on time. Matthew Bell followed it from the printers

It's 7.58pm on a freezing Saturday in January. Outside the Mirror print works in Watford, a floodlit fortress overlooking the Asda car park, vans and lorries are trickling through security.

It's the 24th day in one of Britain's longest and harshest cold snaps; the temperature is hovering at -C, and more snow is forecast. The Met Office is advising against all travel unless absolutely necessary; flights and trains have been cancelled.

But while schools and businesses have closed, tonight is just like any other for the men in the yard. They will drive through the snow and ice to get the Independent titles to our readers in every town and village before dawn. It is a complex logistical operation, but in these treacherous conditions, the challenge ahead seems almost foolhardy.

How do they do it? I'm here in Watford to track a copy of The Independent on Sunday from its creation to its arrival at Land's End in Cornwall, over 300 miles away, the furthest distance a paper has to travel in England. One hundred and fifty miles away in Oldham, Trinity Mirror's northern print works will produce our newspapers for the north of England and Scotland. The mood is strangely calm as I'm shown around by Aqeel Butt, Watford group manager, while staff wait for the last page to be uploaded from the editorial offices in Kensington, typically the front page. I think about the mood back in the office at this time of night.

At 8.11pm the last page arrives and the race begins. In the quiet of the plating room, the final "plates"' are made, thin sheets of aluminium on which an impression of each page is etched. These are squeezed out of a machine which simultaneously makes plates for the Sunday Mirror, The People and the Racing Post. Isn't that rather dangerous, I ask production manager Paul Dominic – couldn't a plate end up in the wrong newspaper? "It has happened," he laughs, "especially with sports pages. But we've always caught them in time."

Every page has four plates, one each for the four colours that make up the spectrum in modern printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Each plate transfers its inked image on to a rubber roller, which in turn prints the page.

By 8.31pm, the plates are in place and the first paper is born. We go downstairs to a glassed gallery overlooking the printing presses, where men are stationed two to a table rifling through the first editions for mistakes, such as misaligned colours. We squish in earplugs and head upstairs to the inserting department.

Here, lined up against a wall are what look like giant loo rolls, the height and width of a small caravan. These turn out to be pre-printed batches of our magazine, The New Review, which is printed in our own plant in Ireland, then cut, folded and stapled before being flown over. Overhead, hundreds of newspapers race along a crazy network of suspended conveyor belts, coming up from the floor below. An ingenious machine inserts magazines into newspapers and off they go.

By 8.47pm, the first bundle is ready, and the "rush copies" are dispatched to London, sent to the offices of rival newspapers for plundering. At 9.12pm, the second edition arrives, with changes to just four pages. The plates for these are made up, the print run is briefly stopped, and minutes later an even more up-to-date newspaper is being churned out.

Down in the yard, bundles on pallets are being allocated to drivers. Sixty vehicles will leave the printers tonight, carrying the Sunday Mirror, The People, The Independent on Sunday and the Racing Post, from the small van that takes the Channel Tunnel to France, to the six-ton lorries heading for Wales, Birmingham and the West Country. It has just started snowing when I meet Fred Baird, my driver for the night, a cheerful 62-year-old from Taunton.

Whatever can be said about Watford, it is strategically located and within minutes we're on the M25. Fred, like almost all the drivers, has driven up from his depot in the afternoon, so is now on the home run. The rules are: no stopping for snacks, naps or pees – every second counts. But within minutes a call from HQ tells us the road home is closed. Snow drifting across the A303 has caused chaos and we're to take another route. "It'll add an extra half-hour at least," sighs Fred, as we join the M4. We chat about his life in trucking, and the surprising lack of gritters about: "Any excuse will do in this country." He has driven in all conditions, but the worst is snow. "You just can't see anything." It soon stops, and conversation turns to declining newspaper sales. "We used to go out fully loaded," he says. "Not any more."

As we swap the M4 for the M5, a lorry thunders past. "There goes the News of the World," says Fred. You might have thought environmentally conscientious newspapers would share lorries, but every night rival papers race to deliver first. Our lorry is speed-limited to 56 mph in accordance with the law, and we wonder how fast News International must be going. The excitement notches up as we learn over the intercom that we're catching up The Observer, with The Sunday Telegraph a few minutes behind. Fred tells me a load of News of the World papers were lost recently when a trailer tipped over on the Ilminster roundabout.

It's 1.50am as we enter Devon, and the temperature has plunged another degree. Our first stop, at 2.19am, is in an industrial estate outside Exeter. Fred artfully backs the trailer into a warehouse and within seconds the curtains of the trailer are pulled back and forklifts are loading pallets on to a waiting lorry, bound for Plymouth. Fred leaves me here and 10 minutes later a new driver, Barry Gouldthorpe, is driving us on to Redruth.

Our journey turns out to be snow-free. Yet all about it is piled high and I wonder how the past few weeks have been. Every night the papers have been delivered on time, says Barry, who like everyone I have met seems determined to get the papers out and on time at any cost. The only occasion in living memory when that didn't happen was last February, when snow cut off a hill on Bodmin Moor for hours. "But we got them there in the end, albeit early afternoon," he beams.

At Bodmin, we drop off more pallets, and quickly leave the wholesalers' depot to make room for the Sunday Telegraph lorry, the last one tonight. But in the yard, our wheels spin on the ice, and for a moment we can't move. I half think about offering to push, but already Barry has pulled a lever, raised an axle, and we're off. It's 4.50am as we pull up in Redruth, our final destination. The warehouse is buzzing with newsagents, counting, sorting and loading their vans. Nick the manager tells me he has been spraying the yard with cat litter since the grit ran out.

One man is inserting colour supplements one by one into copies of The Sunday Telegraph (they arrive separately). By 5.25am, the first van is ready for its round. I want to go on to Land's End, but as the driver isn't insured to take me, I go round Camborne instead. The Cornish are keen newspaper readers; one woman in Mousehole is always waiting at her newsagent at 6am. It's just gone 7am when we finish, and later, reading the meticulously kept data from Trinity Mirror, it seems this has been the story across the country – all papers made it on time. That's better than the Royal Mail, which has grounded vans because of ice.

Exhausted, I settle back to read my copy of the IoS on the train back home. I may not have made it to Land's End, but The Independent on Sunday has.