With concern about the impact plastic waste is having, are glass milk bottle deliveries making a comeback? Chris Bond joined a milkman on his round to find out more.
It’s ten to six in the morning. The in-car temperature gauge tells me it’s minus one outside and peering through the window into the silent, inky darkness it would appear that the residents of Thorngumbald are still tucked up in bed (which is where I’d like to be).
But not everyone. Keith Adams has been on the go for more than six hours now and is approaching his final stretch as he pulls up next to me in his van laden with glistening milk bottles. “It’s afternoon for me,” he says with a chuckle, as I clamber into the seat next to him, and we disappear off into the blackness in the direction of Burstwick.
Mention the word ‘milkman’ to anyone over the age of, say, 35 in this country and it will conjure memories of foil-topped glass milk bottles and the unmistakable gentle hum of the milk float as it heads down the street.
Back in 1970 almost all milk was delivered to people’s doors, but now doorstep deliveries account for around just three per cent of all sales. Changing consumer habits, deregulation of the British milk industry in the 90s and the decision by supermarkets to sell milk – cheaply – in plastic bottles had a game-changing effect.
Despite all this there are still milkmen and women working up and down the country doing a job that in essence has changed little.
Keith has been working for milk&more in this corner of East Yorkshire for the past five years. His patch stretches from Hornsea on the coast down to Thorngumbald, just outside Hull, and all manner of villages and hamlets in between, which today includes Burton Pidsea, Elstronwick and Roos.
A milkman’s round begins earlier than you may think. Keith heads to the depot in Hull where he loads up and starts delivering at around 11.30pm. He has 620 customers and today he’s calling on 300 of them. “I think I must cover one of the biggest areas because on average I’m driving around 100 miles a day.”
Some things have changed. He needs a van to cover such a wide area – he wouldn’t get very far in a milk float – and the milkman’s garb has had to move with the times, too. Gone are the cotton coats and the leather money bags, replaced by a more health and safety-conscious outfit that includes a cap, complete with a little torch that comes in handy on dark mornings.
Keith, 53, comes from a family of milkmen. “My dad was a milkman and my uncles and cousins have all done it... it must be in the blood.”
Many people would recoil at the unsociable hours but Keith enjoys it. “It’s nice and quiet and the beauty of it is there’s nobody on the roads at this time,” he says.
“I like being in the fresh air and I get to see all the wildlife out here – there’s deer, badgers, foxes and plenty of owls, you name it...” And right on cue a couple of young deer bolt across the road and then disappear behind a hedgerow.
What about the weather, surely that must be a pain? “The cold, wet days can get you down a bit and there are times when it feels like it’s never going to get light. But then you’ll get a few little notes of thanks from customers and it brightens your morning up. Plus it’s a totally different job in the summer. When you’re out here with the sun coming up and the birds singing it’s just beautiful.”
Even on a wintry day like today, with the light slow to soften under gloomy skies, there is a beguiling beauty to the snow-covered fields that ripple like frozen swells far out to sea.
And not even the harshest Yorkshire weather can stop the milkman from delivering. “We always get round one way or another. Though there have been times I’ve put bags of salt on the back of the van and taken a shovel with me.”
Keith’s customers include everyone from farmers to pensioners. “I’ve got young couples in their 20s and families right up to old folk in their 90s – I’ve got an old lady who just turned 93 on New Year’s Day.
“I get to know their aches and pains and especially in the little villages you get to know what’s going on,” he says, chuckling again.
For many people the appeal of getting their milk delivered is convenience, for others it’s wrapped up in nostalgia.
“Some of the older ones like it because it reminds them of how it used to be. They like to stop and have a chat with you and if they need anything doing you pop in and help them get something they can’t reach in their cupboards, little things like that.”
There’s a feeling that the milkman is still an integral part of the local community in places like this.
“It’s a great British tradition,” says Keith. “We’ve had milkmen for over 150 years and it’s part of our heritage, and the job I’m doing is more or less the same except now it’s come into the 21st century with the internet.”
This means that while some people still scribble down notes or pop out and pay him at three in the morning, others set up an account and place their orders online.
There have been suggestions recently that milk deliveries, and glass bottles in particular, are making a comeback.
It comes after several reports, including in the BBC’s hugely popular Blue Planet II series, highlighting the damaging impact plastic is having on the environment.
Recycling has been a hot topic for some time but are glass milk bottles, which can be reused up to 25 times, enjoying a renaissance, or is it just a marketing gimmick?
“I think there’s more interest definitely in the past year or so. With programmes like Blue Planet people are thinking more about recycling,” says Keith.
“It’s got to be an individual choice. Glass bottles don’t work for everyone but I’ve certainly seen an increase in people asking for them. Each week I’m picking up another two or three customers who are coming back to glass milk bottles.
“In fact I picked another two up yesterday morning and they both said they were fed up with plastic and wanted to have glass bottles. It’s funny but most people say it tastes different in a glass bottle, they all say it tastes like it used to.”
There’s more to this than just a hankering after a rose-tinted past, there’s a social aspect here, too. “I get so many people say to me how much they like the sound and some people say they like hearing the clink of bottles because it makes them feel safe, that someone’s around. Quite a lot of village shops have closed down and a couple of my older customers have said to me ‘you’re my lifeline’.”
Given the problem of loneliness and social isolation it adds another dimension to the milkman’s role. “A lot of people who can’t get out don’t want to impose on family or neighbours, which means you’re providing an important service because they know you will always turn up.”
Surge in interest in milkman deliveries
Around 5.5 billion litres of milk is sold in the UK each year. Dairy UK says it’s too early to confirm whether there is an increase in doorstep deliveries.
However, the firm milk&more has seen a recent surge of people interested in in having their milk delivered in glass bottles and last month reported a 20 per cent increase in the number of visitors to its website.
Its marketing manager Chris Munn said: “We have seen significant recent interest from people who want their milk delivered in glass bottles. Our 1,200 milkmen and women deliver over 100 million pints of milk in glass bottles to more than 500,000 homes across the country every year and we are expecting that to rise over the coming months.”