Doing the rounds with Cotteswold Dairy
PUBLISHED: 11:14 28 May 2015 | UPDATED: 11:44 28 May 2015
© Thousand Word Media
Katie Jarvis delivers on the doorstep before tracking our precious pints back to the dairy - and meets some very committed characters along the way
I’m bleary eyed; bleary eyed, I tell you. I’ve been up since 5.30am (even some of the birds were still in pyjamas) ready for a milk-round with Nathan Williams, round the housing estates of Staunton and Corse.
Nathan greets me cheerily, but I’m suspicious. I mean, come on! Who on earth would willingly get up, five days a week, at 5.30am for work? Hmm?
“Six days a week,” Nathan corrects. “And I start at around 2am.”
Blimey. “In that case,” I tell him, shivering in the morning-chill, “I’ve just discovered the job I’m least likely ever to do.”
“Before this job,” he cheerfully adds, grabbing a couple of pints of semi-skimmed off the milk float, “I was a high-level window-cleaner. Abseiling and all that. High-rise buildings.”
“OK,” I update him, vertiginously. “I’ve even-more-recently discovered the job I’m least likely ever to do.”
Except that, as I deliver my first, wholesome doorstep pint in Chartist Way; as the children begin to emerge from blinking houses in sleepy school uniform; as people slide from snuggly duvets into cold cars, brushing yawns from bed-head hair; my second-worse job in the world feels good. It feels great, actually, that here, in a modern housing estate, very 21st-century residents are continuing a tradition reaching back centuries to farmers lugging creamy churns cottage-to-thatched-cottage around village greens. It feels great that humanity’s day is just beginning, while the world and I have already been communing for hours.
Today, Nathan will visit 290-odd houses – and that’s an easy day – delivering not just milk but other stuff, too - cream and newspapers, for instance. The complicated order-system is stored on his hand-held computer, but it didn’t take him long to memorise it.
Is there a correlation between the sorts of milk people order and the papers they read?
“Not really,” he says. “I do notice that people who have the Times generally have the Citizen. And you find it’s the older people who have the full-cream. Younger ones go with the semi-skimmed.”
And, yes, he does love his job, bumping into the posties halfway through the day (halfway being around 5am, of course); then it’s the delivery lorries calling at shops. For one thing, he gets to pick his kids up from school, after grabbing a couple of hours’ sleep in the afternoon.
“The most gratifying thing is the appreciation from my customers,” he says. “For some of the elderly people, I may be the only person they see in a day. You do have to take time out to talk to them, but I enjoy it.”
As I leave Nathan to finish his round, his boss Fred Tandy – retail manager at the Cotteswold Dairy in Tewkesbury – picks me up to take me to the depot. He did his first milk-round just before his ninth birthday; he’s 50 this year.
“It was just the other side of Malvern; I got £3 for a Saturday, £5 if I worked Sunday as well. Over in Colwall, where we used to deliver, we’d get involved in all the fetes each year. Everybody knew you as the local milkman.”
Not that that’s entirely changed. When Colin Ball retired from his round up in Staunton last year, villagers were waiting for him with presents and a cheque.
“And we had a letter come in yesterday thanking Steve, one of our roundsmen in Winchcombe. He got to a house early in the morning, noticed a fire in the bins outside, and woke them up.”
So does that happen? Milk-deliverers saving the day?
“Everyone has a story. I once heard, ‘Help me! Help me!’ as I was walking down a path. I broke in through the back window and found an elderly lady who’d pulled a wardrobe down on top of herself. She’d broken her pelvis and had been there all night... She never came back out of hospital. I had a nice letter from her family to say thanks for helping her.”
Another roundsman crossed a lawn in the dark, straight into a burglar hiding in a bush.
And customers are appreciative. For all the terriers that take chunks out of legs, there’s many-a-plus. Such as Mrs Calvesbert – back on that early Colwall round – who would always leave a hidden key and water on the Aga for their early-morning cuppa.
Roger Workman, chairman of Cotteswold Dairy, shows me his collection of historic milk vehicles. “When my father started out, he bought a business called Spa Farm from his brother-in-law and they used a 1936 Morris Eight exactly the same as this one to deliver the milk,” he says, pointing to a Dinky Toy-shaped van.
Electric milk-floats were used up to the 1950s; in fact, horses still pulled floats around local streets into the 60s. Roger moves around the vehicles as if journeying through time. “This [bicycle-powered cart] dates back to the 1920s, when people would come out with their jugs which they’d fill from the churn.”
Back in the office, there’s more memorabilia. Measures; churns; old-fashioned water-coolers for steaming milk straight from the cow; chunky-shaped bottles which were washed and topped by hand. “In 1938, my father was still delivering half his milk with a ladle; the rest was in bottles sealed with a cardboard disk. In the 1950s, public health deemed this to be not hygienic so they changed to a foil cap.”
In an album, there’s a black-and-white photo of Roger’s father, Harry, with his first employee, Murray Greening, who stayed with the company for 52 years; on the wall, there’s a drawing of Harry when he was Mayor of Tewkesbury from 1959-61. Harry – who’s still going strong; mind as sharp as a pin – was a visionary. He bought a piece of land in Cotteswold Road in the 1940s and moved the dairy, renaming it from Spa Farm in the process. In 1969, it moved again, to its current site on Northway Lane. But throughout the moves and expansions, principles have remained the same.
“When my father left school at 14, there were two jobs available: an apprentice at the International Stores; or he could work at WH Smith’s on the railway at Tewkesbury station, selling papers. His mother told him he had to go to the stores. There you were taught quality, cleanliness and service.”
From the minute Harry started, delivering 30 gallons of milk a day around the new-town Tewkesbury area, ‘quality, cleanliness and service’ were at the heart of everything. Roger – and now his son, George – have never deviated from that – nor from the family’s Christian ethos that permeates everything.
Before Roger shows me round the current plant, he lets me look at a precious copy of Harry Workman’s memories of Tewkesbury, 1938-present. It’s a compelling account not only of the business’s growth, but also a social history, packed with stories such as that of Oblo, a strong-hearted town workman. Oblo was spotted by a well-to-do business owner, carrying 100-weight of cement on his back uphill from the Back of Avon.
“Use my wheelbarrow,” the owner kindly suggested.
“Can I, sir?” Oblo replied, gratefully. Before carrying the cement back downhill to the wheelbarrow.
If its principles are old-fashioned, the workings of the current-day dairy are bang up-to-date. Roger shows me the huge 125,000-litre tanks where milk, arriving fresh from farms, is stored before the processing begins. Each type – organic, Welsh, Channel Islands, ordinary – has its own silo.
“As soon as the milk is unloaded and the silo is empty, it’s washed. There are spray-balls inside, and detergent, pumped at high pressure, blasts the tank. At one time, we’d get inside the tanks and scrub them. One chap, who didn’t believe the spray-balls would do the job properly, insisted on still getting in and cleaning – until one day, while he was inside, another chap turned on the automatic wash!” A good soaking ensued.
Here, in this plant, 400,000 glass bottles a week are filled – but that number is dwarfed by the two million poly-cartons. And, yes, glass is more environmentally friendly.
As we watch those bottles marching like soldiers around the washers, driers and fillers, I realise how lovely it is to hear a satisfying clink of glass. “We just can’t compete on price with the supermarkets that are determined to sell as they do; but we still have a lot of loyal customers who want to support the farmer and the dairy; who still like milk delivered in a glass bottle,” Roger says.
He’s the kind of man who’s never asked an employee to do a job he hasn’t done himself. But alongside his kindness, he’s also been shrewd. Reinvestment has kept the dairy in the game – they also bottle all of Rachel’s Organic milk, for example; and produce an own-label brand for upmarket Jones of London.
Roger smiles. “It’s not always been easy. I was convinced, at one time, there was a person sat in Brussels who was thinking of Roger Workman, wondering what they could do to muck him about. Some of the regulation is sensible but a lot goes over the top.”
So how has he kept his head above milk?
“I think we’ve always done the job right. You keep to your principles. You’re always beholden to your staff – your best asset – and you should look after them. Profit is important, obviously, but it’s not the main issue.”
With depots in Shrewsbury, Gaerwen on Anglesey, Conwy, Tenbury Wells, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury, those employees now number more than 330. Today, doorstep milk costs 71p a pint. Quite a change from when Harry, with his one employee, sold it for 3d in summer, and 3-and-a-half pence in winter.
Roseanne McEwan, Roger’s daughter and the dairy’s marketing manager, drives me out to Upton, to Sue Troughton’s farm. Her 450 verdant acres run down to the Severn on one side, and the M50 on another. Sue’s parents moved here – to Holdfast Hall – in 1935; since then, dairy farming has had its ups – and, boy, has it had its downs.
The cows are oblivious to any drama as they move freely around their roomy winter stalls. Soon, they tell me, with an excited flick of the head and an impatient swish of the tail, they’ll be out in those rich pastures once again. You can see why they’re regular winners of the annual Happy Herd Award.
Life for Sue hasn’t always been as relaxed as theirs.
“We’ve had some highs,” she says, as we sit with Bob Sanderson, her farm manager. “Showing cattle has been a highlight of my life.”
“In her younger days, she used to take cattle round the biggest shows in the country and win. British Friesians,” Bob chips in.
What makes a prize-winning Friesian?
“The first thing is a good udder,” Sue says. “And a nice conformation – straight back and nice head. But a lot of it is luck.”
If the TB leaves them alone, they’ll have 450 in their herd this year, 200 of them dairy cows. All the milk goes to the Cotteswold Dairy, which they love working with. Wouldn’t do any different. “The last to put prices that they pay us producers down and the first to put them up,” Sue and Bob agree. Nevertheless, the price has just had to go down.
“I was looking back in records and the milk price in March this year was a penny lower than 20 years ago,” Bob says. “And it’s 10p lower than it was this time last year. To us – and we’re a small producer in comparison now with most – that’s £10,000 a month less income.”
“We are struggling,” Sue agrees, “and we have tried to cut back on labour a bit, which is difficult because things don’t get done. Unfortunately, Bob and I don’t do the physical work that we used to. We want to but we can’t.”
Does the worry keep Sue awake at night?
“More recently it does, doesn’t it?” Bob says to her. “Be honest.”
Sue laughs, with gentle irony. “Everybody says to me, ‘Why the heck don’t you retire? What are you keeping worrying and fuddling around for?’ I say, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t want to sit at home and watch telly. And, if you go out, you spend money.’ I’d much rather do this.”
It’s in their blood. Bob’s daughter and granddaughter do the milking. “My family always say, ‘Don’t you dare turn the cows out unless we’re all here!’ They love seeing the cattle kicking like spring lambs.”
Sue and Bob are inveterate optimists; but they couldn’t help but be upset recently when a television a reporter showed a litre of milk he’d bought for 68p, and a litre of water for £1.05. “That’s just rubbing salt in it,” Bob says.
The problem is a complicated one. Farmers aren’t good at PR. Bigger processors are forcing prices down. And, worst of all, supermarkets persist in using milk as a loss-leader. “The irony is that, when they interview shoppers, 85 percent of them at least don’t know what they’ve paid for a pint,” Bob says.
At least the Cotteswold Dairy is fighting their corner. At least the Workmans understand that the fields, with their myriad crops and colours, only look like that thanks to farmers.
And that not all milk is the same milk.
“Oh gosh, yes,” Sue says. “If you empty a bottle of our milk, you have to give it a good wash out with hot water. If you buy it from the supermarket, the bottle is still clean.”
For information on doorstep deliveries from the Cotteswold Dairy, visit www.cotteswold-dairy.co.uk or call 01684 274132.