Eye witness: Britain's lorry drivers just keep on tuckin'

A haulage boss wants truckers to swap sausages for salad. Fat chance.
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First savoury rice with sausages, then Yorkshire pudding, chips, and spring rolls. Then scampi. Lots of it, piled high on the same plate with the rest. The woman behind the hotplate at the Eddie Stobart canteen is being generous, and candid: "The chicken in white wine has all gone. Only the shite stuff left."

Her boss would agree with the sentiment if not the choice of words. Edward Stobart, the millionaire Methodist, has taken another bold step in his mission to transform the haulage industry. First he dared order truckers to wear uniforms and keep their machines spotless. Now he wants them to eat properly.

Mr Stobart offered his staff a free cholesterol test after being told his own levels were too high. Last week a nutritionist who trains Olympic athletes was brought in to suggest healthy alternatives for the company canteens. Getting truckers to choose a salad is another matter.

"You should see how they pile it all up," says my new friend with the serving ladle, laughing as she creates another edible Ben Nevis. She's new to the place and still marvels at the appetite of her customers. "They're all fat bastards, really."

So are the rest of us, it seems. Obesity contributes to 30,000 deaths a year in Britain and costs the country billions in NHS bills and sick leave, it was announced last week. One adult in five is obese.

Neil Jamieson is not one of them yet. The reasonably trim 49-year-old from Stobart's home town of Carlisle spends at least four nights a week on the road, sleeping in the lorry and finding nourishment where he can. They call his kind "trampers". A shower and hot grub at the depot is a luxury. So what has he got for his £2.30? "I'm not sure," he says, looking down at the plate with a grin. "A mixture, like."

We met four hours ago at Tilbury Docks, where his 40-tonne lorry was being loaded with wood pulp. The orders were to drive it 400 miles across England to a paper factory at Workington on the Cumbrian coast, by tomorrow lunchtime. First he wanted to impress on me the glories of his truck, Tina.

"It's a Volvo FH12 XLCD30 Experience," he said with pride. "Multi-play CD, television, full leather seats. And I get paid to drive it." The velvet curtains and fridge were bought with his own money, earned at £6 an hour. Eventually I spot the compulsory half-eaten Yorkie bar.

"You never get to eat at the same time every day," says Neil as we leave the depot at Daventry. "Plays havoc with the bowels."

This is the worst time of year to be a trucker because it's dark and the weather is often bad. Neil pulls over for the night at Stafford Services on the M6 but it's too cold for a walk and there's nowhere much to go anyway. So he pulls the curtains, and gets into bed to watch Friends. Sometimes other entertainment is on offer. "Wolverhampton is notorious for prostitutes knocking on your window. They want your wallet, apparently."

Neil phones his wife Trish before he goes to sleep. They have been married for 31 years. She bakes him bread, and he carries it with a big bag of fruit in his spotless cab. Stobarts have clearly not given me a stereotype to ride with.

We set off at seven the next morning after coffee and Weetabix. "I have a quick wash and clean my teeth before I go," says Neil. "Some jump out of the bunk straight into the saddle. There are a lot of scruffy buggers out there in t-shirts they've worn for three weeks."

We pass a few at roadside burger vans on our way to the truck stop at Lymm, where a fried slice, egg, bacon, beans, two sausages, hash browns, and buttered toast are mine for £4.05. Other drivers are eating more, loading up for a long day.

"The old transport cafes are dying away now," says Neil. "At one place I know you have to swat flies off the table it's that dirty, but the food's great. They cook steak pies on big plates and give you half."

I feel stuffed and drowsy. We're high above the road on air-cushioned seats and the truck is well within its limits at the cruising speed of 56 miles per hour. Tina seems to run on rails, although she would take a lot of stopping. It must be hard to avoid dropping off I say, mindful that a trucker has been jailed for eight years after doing just that and killing a couple in a car. "Motorways are so monotonous and they make these vehicles so comfortable that the brain says it is time to switch off," says Neil.

He wakes me up at junction 40 where the fells rise and the scenery is suddenly gorgeous. On the A66 near Bassenthwaite Lake a car flashes its lights. "Eddie spotters," says Neil. "You see them standing on the balconies at Hilton Park Services."

A few years ago the musician Jools Holland admitted to logging lorries on long journeys. A fan club grew up and now has 25,000 members. Hunter Davies, the Beatles' biographer has published a book exploring the cult of Eddie Stobart but it's a mystery to Neil. "They can't have much of a home life."

We unload at the paper factory just before noon. "So have I converted you to the life of a lardy arsed trucker?" When he reverses his 60ft vehicle through a narrow doorway I know the answer is no. We listen to The Archers on the way to Carlisle. Soon Neil can go back to Trish and the home he left before six on Monday morning. But first he wants to wash Tina. "I like my truck," he says. "It's the bee's knees. My wife says I'm a bit in love with it." He smiles. "I suppose she's right."

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