And Still They Serve

My mention of the milkman recently surprised a friend who says she hasn’t seen a milkman or milk float for about 30 years.

“And you get milk in bottles?” she asked incredulously: “Proper glass milk bottles?”

Well, yes. Having been out of the country for forty years, I had been unaware of the decline of the milk delivery service in the UK. The father of our present milkman used to bring milk to my parents; this one has been delivering for about twenty years, and his son is also now involved in the business (and the physical resemblance in the generations is startling). I simply hadn’t realised how rare this is nowadays – and how fortunate we are. Apparently, less than 10% of British households now have milk delivered.

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Empty milk bottles waiting to go out for collection.

I understand that now that the dairies have gone online and you can order virtually anything, from pet food to garden compost as well as milk and associated products, the milkman is set to be making a comeback. Hurrah for that – it’s easy enough to pick up a litre-sized plastic bottle from the supermarket, but there’s something infinitely more delightful in finding a pint glass bottle or two on the doorstep at breakfast time. And the foil tops go into the collection for guide dogs for the blind.

“How do you pay him?” my friend asked. I replied that I left the money in the empty bottle overnight. Horror! “And it doesn’t get stolen?”

We must live in a very law-abiding neighbourhood, because no, neither the milk nor the milk money gets stolen. Though I have now opened an online account with the dairy, so my bill will be automatically paid through my bank from now on.

“You’re living in the past!” cried my friend. Then: “What’s that noise?”

The sound of a discordant trumpet and a raucous voice wafted in.

“That’s the scrap-iron man,” I said. We have several of those, scrap metal being a profitable business. Here they are known as tatters. Until recently, one of them would walk up the road blowing three notes on his trumpet and shouting, “Any scrap EYERN!” but now they use a recording with a megaphone on top of the van or lorry cab. They are very obliging, and will take almost anything, including an old wooden bedstead we no longer needed: “Tek it off yer ‘onds, luv!”

My friend shook her head. “Who else comes up and down your road, buying and selling things?” she asked.

“Well, we have the ice-cream man.”

This is a genial middle-aged Indian gentleman who regularly stops his van outside our house, as I got into the habit of buying a 99 from him most days last summer. We would hear his chimes playing Girls and boys come out to play as he did his rounds, and I always had the change for my ice-cream ready on the windowsill by the door. “Here you are, darling,” he would say, having already prepared my cornet as soon as he saw the door start to open. For obvious reasons he hasn’t been around since November, but I have no doubt he will be back with the spring. He probably does a reasonable trade, as we have a fairly large Indian population in this part of town, and Indians are known to love ice cream.

“And we also have the Kleeneze and Betterwear people,” I added. They leave little catalogues with all kinds of household gadgets that you didn’t realise you lacked until you saw them pictured, as well as other useful stuff. Since our local hardware shop (that’s in the sense of ironmonger’s) closed down, there’s nowhere local to buy pots, pans, brooms and kitchen electrical goods. You place your order and it’s brought to your door about a week later. A boon for those who are housebound or have no transport – just try carrying a mop and bucket back home from a shop on the bus, plus all your other shopping. And where else would you have found a singing-dancing Christmas tree?

What else do we have, as relics of a bygone age surviving in our little backwoods? Well, English windows open outwards, making them quite difficult to clean: I would have to perform acrobatics to do our upstairs windows. Thus we have the window-cleaner, or rather a family of window-cleaners. Like the milkman, we have known 3 generations of the same family carrying on this business, which is now shared by 2 brothers and a brother-in-law. We follow their fortunes with great interest – one fell off his ladder and broke his ankle last year, and we rejoiced with him when he resumed normal service (though he now stays off the ladder), another proudly showed us photos of his new baby, the third is a keen gardener and we have exchanged horticultural tips and cuttings throughout the seasons.

In my childhood, we also had a baker nicknamed Leggy who delivered bread and cakes to his customers. He always wore a flat cap, and we children were in awe of his skill in carrying a large tray of cakes balanced on his head. Many of the houses he went to were terraced, and had a narrow passageway – known locally as the entry* – between two adjoining houses leading to the back doors. Leggy’s party trick was to turn round in the entry underneath his tray without spilling anything – the tray would be held against the walls, of course, but it was nevertheless quite a feat.

I grieve the passing of these important characters in so many parts of the country, and am pleased that, however backward and deprived my native town may be, they linger on providing valuable services in the community. Fingers crossed that, with so many people shopping online, some of these little businesses might thrive again.

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4 thoughts on “And Still They Serve

  1. Some of the things remind me what it was like here in Australia some thirty or forty years ago. Most of the deliveries do not take place anymore. People are used to buying everything in the super markets now.
    We used to get milk and bread delivered, and Mr. Whippy, the ice-cream man, drove regularly through the streets. The children would know, when he was around. He always played his theme melody: “Greensleeves”.
    These days Mr. Whippy stops only at certain places.

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