Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. I had wondered how the tree surgeon who had come to cut down the leylandii in my new back yard would manage. It was straightforward enough to remove the lower branches from ground level but then what? He stopped the chain saw, sat down, then strapped something under the soles of his feet which fastened around his calves. He’d given himself a pair of claw-like spikes, sharp enough and strong enough to allow him to climb the tree. Aided by a rope around the tree trunk and no small amount of courage, he made his way to the top, chain saw in hand slicing through the branches with ease. If the prosthetic attachment helped get him there, it was one that extended his body so as to enable him to grip differently, but still he had to make the climb to do his work.

Some days later, I met the local chimney sweep. I knew that people (often children) didn’t actually get inside chimneys to clean them anymore, but I wasn’t altogether sure how a twenty-first century chimney sweep would do the job. He joined a set of rods, one to the next, lengthening the handle of the brush he had inserted into the chimney. ‘Go outside,’ he said, ‘you’ll see the brush when it comes out the top of the chimney.’ I enjoyed the sight, especially when he set it spinning (it’s battery not muscle powered these days). The contrast with the tree surgeon struck me though – the chimney sweep’s prosthetic extended the reach of his body to do his job whilst allowing him to keep his feet firmly on the ground.

Now I’m on the lookout for other workers who must climb or somehow reach high for a living. There are many of them, as we’ve discussed elsewhere on the site, such as roofers, people who fix satellite dishes, clean neon lights, or even those who maintain the lifts on the Eiffel Tower. The next person I notice is the solitary man who turns up at the end of the road to do something to the wires at the top of the telegraph pole. After carefully designating his site of work, he secures his ladder and starts his ascent. The ladder takes him halfway. After that, he must rely on the supports on the telegraph pole itself to make his way to the top. Unlike the tree surgeon whose work is almost done by the time he reaches the highest point, this job requires the worker to climb in order to carry out his task – and hold his nerve once he’s there. The technology supports his climb and allows him to stay in place but remains separate from him.

Finally, there are the men who come to check the gutters earlier this week. Casually dressed with no protective clothing, they literally climb into the technology that will give them the access they need. I go outside to watch them and to my surprise get offered the chance to go for a ride! I hold on tightly… ‘It’s completely fail-safe,’ the ‘driver’ of the cherry-picker explains, as he manoeuvres the vehicle and adjusts its height from controls within the ‘cage’ in which we are standing. In this case, the technology contains as well as transports the body. ‘Umm, I think that’s high enough,’ I stammer as we are about to go beyond the roofline. ‘It will go about another twenty feet’, he says a little provocatively. That’s plenty of sky and air already I think but it brings to mind the other people I’ve been watching work at height and the ways in which they have presumably learned to be comfortable with their very particular sites of work. Danger and perhaps some exhilaration all in a day’s work.