'Feel this; that's 995 grams," says Dave Lugsden, thrusting a long pole proudly into my hands. I give it a jiggle, then a quick swish through the air, Luke Skywalker-style. It does feel pretty lightweight. We are standing in the driveway of a perfectly manicured bungalow in the outer suburbs of Bournemouth, not only smack-bang in the heart of curtain-twitching territory, but quite possibly the very spot where curtain-twitching was invented. Already I'm wondering if the burden of profiling this innuendo-laden occupation might not prove too much, and not just because When I'm Cleaning Windows – George Formby's cheeky ukulele homage to the trade – has been jangling around my head all afternoon.
In his smart blue fatigues, Lugsden looks tanned and healthy in the autumn sunshine. The pole and brush in his hand is hooked up, via the yellow hose, to the water supply in the van; he twizzles a small valve on his belt and a jet of water squirts from the end of his brush. "Now the technology's there, the job's a lot easier," he admits, briskly scrubbing the bungalow's front window. "When I started 10 years ago, you could set up for a hundred quid and still make an OK living. But I fell off my ladder twice in the first two years. It was horrendous." Fortunately he escaped serious injury, and when he was tipped off about a new system that would let him reach six floors up without a ladder, little further encouragement was needed.
We peer into the back of his pristine blue and yellow van, which, far from containing an assortment of sponges and buckets, is half broom cupboard, half scientific laboratory. Besides his poles, neatly racked inside the roof, there are a couple of 2,000-litre plastic water tanks, two reels of bright yellow hose, something resembling a traffic cone, and a digital sensor that monitors the pump flow of water from the tanks through the pole to the end of his brush – "the secret" from which he has built up his company, Pole Position, to become Bournemouth's dominant window cleaning firm. No doubt Formby would have been pleased to see there is still an honest bob to be earned from window cleaning, although he might have struggled to work some of the modern-day technological nuances into his lyrics; for example, the distinction between "pure water" and "tap water", which I had assumed was just marketing blurb. "Oh no," Lugsden says, earnestly. "It goes through six filters and it's absolutely pure. Tap water is 400 parts [impurities] per million; this is zero. If it goes over seven parts per million, it leaves marks on the windows."
Critically, the water's purity means it needs no detergent and no wiping afterwards, speeding up the job considerably. In summer, that can create enough time to clean 15 to 20 houses a day – a gruelling enough schedule – but it's in winter when discipline is really needed. "When it's dark at half four, if you have an hour for lunch and you're chatting with the customers, you've had it," he says. "If you don't get the whole daily worksheet done, we're so busy that I've got nowhere else to reschedule the customer. And that's when you lose them." How could I have failed to notice the advent of window cleaners transporting 800 litres of their own microfiltered water around with them? Part of the reason is that many of us never see them at work. "About half my customers are never in when I come round," he points out. "Some of them I've never met in five or six years of cleaning their windows." Lugsden marches round the back of the bungalow, flicking his hose expertly past a terracotta plant pot in the driveway. So far he has scrubbed two big windows and I've glimpsed nothing more scandalous than a cream sofa set against a maroon carpet. Disappointingly, he seems much more interested in his side of the glass.
"Anyone can get a window wet and it looks clean," he says dismissively, sploshing water over a double-glazed patio door. "But if you use water that's not pure, or you haven't rinsed it properly, it'll go all spotty and smeary." Despite the recession, he is comfortably expanding his business, with three vans – two of them subcontracted to other window cleaners – already in the fleet and a fourth planned for next year. A salesman is employed to knock on doors, drumming up business in new parts of town. Perched on the slightly dog-haired passenger seat normally reserved for his springer spaniel, Murphy, he shows me a pile of neatly arranged customer worksheets, all of which are linked to an online payment system. It looks more like a courier schedule than a window cleaner's round.
"It's the beauty of it," he explains enthusiastically. "I had a dabble into carpet cleaning a while back; you spend a lot of time doing the quote, then it's a hundred quid or so, then it's done. With window cleaning, once you've got the customer and been professional with them, you can come back every few months. It runs itself." This sounds like a rather modest assessment; it seems to me that Lugsden has built up his business with impressive drive and clarity. Does this not lead to friction with other local window cleaners? "I wave at everyone, but you do get to know the ones who don't wave back," he admits, cautiously. "In the old days it was more 'this is my patch'; that doesn't happen these days. Maybe in London or inner cities it might." He doesn't sound entirely convinced, though. He thinks the bigger he gets, the more dirty looks he's getting. "But maybe I'm imagining it," he sighs.
We drive a few doors down the street to a large semi-detached house, where the owners are out and the side gate locked. "Here's another common problem," he says, leaping swiftly onto the side wall and vaulting straight over the top, dragging his hose behind him. It's easy to forget the amount of trust we place in the hands of people who work around our homes and, surprisingly, people rarely ask him what he's up to. "I've been jumping over gates for 10 years – all the big millionaire places – and only ever been questioned once," he says, with bemusement. I loiter self-consciously at the front of the house while Lugsden vanishes round the back. "The amount of people who leave doors open is ridiculous," he chimes loudly from round the back. "They've got dogs, so they leave the patio doors open. It's amazing." At 42, he seems truly content in his work, after having explored several other less successful careers, including spells as a tree surgeon and running a mobile video rental business.
Still, it rankles that many people don't view window cleaning as a worthy occupation. "To tell the truth, I often get a bit embarrassed telling people what I do," he says, looking genuinely affronted. "I might earn two or three times what they earn but I still feel 'only a window cleaner'. It's a bit of a sore subject, to be honest." Despite the success he has achieved, there are serious issues on the horizon. Lugsden has long marketed his pure-water method as an environmentally friendly, chemical-free system but a customer recently pointed out to him that half the water he filters for his business is wasted. "I need to find a new way to recycle the water," he says. "I've got three vans, so I'm using 4,500 litres a day. Down here we haven't had a water shortage for 30-odd years, but in future it's going to be a problem. If there was a hosepipe ban, I'd be absolutely stuffed. Every pole user would."
For now, Lugsden's window cleaning for the day is done. But before he heads back to his office, to work through the dozen or so new leads people leave on his answering machine every day, I'm hoping he'll reveal all, and spill the beans about some of those things he really shouldn't have seen on the job. He takes a deep intake of breath. "In 10 years, I've caught a woman in her bra and knickers, and how can I put this? A bloke..." He struggles for the words. " ...pleasuring himself. That was when I was up a ladder, obviously. You can't see stuff with the poles, short of putting a camera on it." Does he get asked that question a lot? "All the time." He grins cheerfully. "I was trying to get the DVD of [the 70s soft porn movie] Confessions of a Window Cleaner recently, just to see what it was like. But it's only out on video." His face drops slightly. Even so, George Formby would have appreciated the effort.
Pay "A window cleaner off a ladder could earn probably £20k a year. With the poles, if you don't work too hard, you could earn £25k. I'm a workaholic, so I do a lot of hours. I make a good living."
Hours Long weekdays, especially in summer, and often Saturdays to fit in new customers. "I'm doing 10-12 hours a day, including admin, but that's my choice."
Work-life balance "It is hard. I didn't take any time off this summer. My wife took the kids to a holiday park in Bournemouth for a week. But we're going to hire a villa in Spain next year, hopefully."
Highs "I'm my own boss. I'd never work for anyone else again."
Lows "The only stress is when you have to get to someone at 9am and someone else at 11, and you have to work out your route, then you're running late. That's not huge stress, is it? I can live with that."