The Lancashire occupation that requires a head for heights, but the views are fantastic
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 September 2020
A former marine from Wigan went up in the world after he learned the ropes of a new career
Matt Lavery is at the height of his career. In fact, his days are generally spent hundreds of metres above ground attached to strong ropes in a business that is definitely on the up.
He daily enjoys the high life – along with panoramic views of some of the most spectacular vistas in the North West – as he and his teams undertake all kinds of height work from cleaning and renovating church towers to pest and rubbish control high in football stadia.
Matt’s high rope business specialises in getting up to places – and, sometimes, down to places – which are particularly hard to reach. And the specialist work requires all his considerable skills as he is well aware that a significant percentage of the thousands of people injured at work each year come from falls from high places.
His love-affair with heights and his unusual business, however, would never have happened if Matt hadn’t had “a rogue, very traditional scoutmaster” looking after the troop he attended as a young lad in Preston.
‘He was very keen on hunting and similar challenging activities so he did all kinds of things with us scouts – including dropping us off in the middle of the Lake District on our own for a couple of nights,’ recalls Matt.
These early lessons in resilience not only fostered a sense of independence but also got young Matt interested in outdoor activities. So, when he attended a scout camp in Devon and they visited an open day at the Royal Marines’ commando training centre in nearby Lympstone, he was completely hooked.
‘I knew I wanted to be a marine and all that involved, but that didn’t go down well with my parents,’ he says.
By the time he was 16, however, Matt was still as determined to become a marine so ‘my parents let me join, hoping I think, that I’d fail and get it out of my system’.
As luck – and talent – would have it, however, Matt became one of the youngest entrants ever to pass his training and he soon found himself posted to a commando unit in Arbroath, Scotland. Here, he began a career with the Marines which saw him not only become highly trained in a variety of technical and engineering skills but also travel the world.
But when Matt met now wife Julie and decided to leave the Marines and settle in Civvy Street, his ambitions harked back to his childhood and the times his dad had shown him videos of his steeplejack hero Fred Dibnah, tackling chimneys and lofty buildings.
‘I decided I wanted to train as a steeplejack but this skill was changing,’ Matt says.
High ropes were now increasingly popular for this kind of work, and considered more versatile, so Matt took his qualifications in this unusual field. ‘I’d never been afraid of heights and liked working in high areas, so I set up the business.’
Since then, he and Julie have settled in Appley Bridge, Wigan and now have two children, eight year-old Tom and Lucy, five.
Over the years, Orb Rope Access has built a reputation for taking on tough jobs all over the region, the country and abroad.
‘People just seem to assume that we clean windows,’ says Matt. ‘But our work is much more complicated than that.’
They do carry out cleaning – “loads of pigeon poo!” he laughs – but also building maintenance and repairs, painting, building inspections, putting up signs and banners, de-vegetation and geotechnical services. Matt particularly likes working on listed buildings and a particular favourite is 16th century Scarisbrick Hall School near Southport.
After being asked to inspect the outside of the hall’s 100-foot tower for loose stone, they ended up completing internal cleaning work inside the tower itself. A roof spire survey and the installation of netting on the spires followed to prevent any debris from falling from the building.
‘It’s amazing what you can find, after we’d cleaned away all the bird poo inside the tower we uncovered some graffiti put there by the men who had originally built the tower.’
Another challenge was at Preston North End’s Deepdale Stadium where they had to access the higher sections of the stands and stadium towers. The team’s work getting to hard-to-reach areas impressed management there and led to other work and jobs at other stadia.
Matt and his team are not only highly qualified (with the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association IRATA among others) but also use state-of-the-art drones, for aerial inspection, surveying and other work.
Matt also enjoys working on high bridges, and on multi-storey buildings in American cities. Matt is acutely aware of the dangers that working at height can bring. He does, though, love the work, the peace and the fabulous views. But he always bears in mind the words of his hero Fred Dibnah on the reality of working at height: ‘One mistake up here and it’s half a day out with the undertaker.’