An invisible man and a nice cup of tea

On dimly lit suburban streets, in the hours before dawn, it’s as silent as our world can be.

Up in the lofty fir trees, knowing owls watch for prey.

Foxes prowl through tangled brambles growing beyond neat garden fences.

And six days a week, a bold human interloper joins in that world of the fox and the owl.

All year round, he makes his halting progress. Down avenues, round crescents. Up terraces, through lanes.

Gliding along, with a purr and a whine. The occasional rattle of glass on glass. Or the click of a latch on a rare shut gate.

He floats through this crepuscular world, powered by an invisible force.


‘He’ is Keith, our milkman. And electricity powers his milk float.DSCN1349 (2)

The forerunner of the electric milk float first took to the streets of London in 1889 – at the hectic speed of 2 mph. By the late 1940s fleets of the humming carriers were out and about and horses were everywhere being retired.

The milkmen of Britain have, ever since, been traversing our streets in these quiet, electric-powered vehicles.

They’re not as common as they were – but there still are brave businesses – and customers – who withstand the onslaught of cheap supermarket milk.

Our milkman sets off for work when clubbers have not yet come home. Before bedroom lights have been lit, or kettles boiled for our morning pots of tea.

We’ve not actually seen him, to be honest – he may be an invisible man for all we know. But the glass bottle’s there, by our door, every morning.

When the wind blows 105 miles an hour.

When the amber warning’s out for a flood.

When the snow falls – and sticks.

But Keith’s just one, small cog in a wheel of production and delivery that begins with a cow in a field.

One day (bear with me) I was taking in some donations for refugees. Got chatting to the man who’d delivered them – who offered to help transporting stuff around.

‘I can use one of the wagons after work,’ he said.

DSCN1350 (2)I knew he worked at Bates’ Dairy. But, I thought, that’s a bit bold – won’t he get into trouble?

‘Won’t your boss mind?’ I asked.

The response was just a smile. And it dawned on me. His surname. It was Bates.

And if you’ve read much of my blog you know how nosy I am. Always up for a visit to see machinery at work, making a product I like.

Before long I’d blagged my way into a trip round his business, a couple of miles away.

DSCN1318 (2)The Dairy’s one of the biggest private employers around here, with a staff of around 90. And it operates every single day of the year. Christmas day included.

‘The cows don’t stop for Christmas,’ as the man says.

He gives the staff a break on Christmas day, though. Is there himself to welcome the farm-fresh milk and load it into the tanks.

Then it can become the pasteurised, homogenised, skimmed, semi-skimmed or just plain whole milk that ends up on our doorsteps.

Talking of semi-skimmed – have you ever wondered how it ‘happens’?

Well, it’s made using the same machine that does the homogenising. To homogenise whole milk it’s forced through narrow pipes under pressure to hit a plate, with some force, smashing the cream and milk together.

To make semi-skimmed milk, first a centrifuge separates the fat from the whole milk, leaving skimmed milk and cream. To create semi-skimmed, some of the cream is returned to some of the milk and forced through the homogenising machine.

Voila! Semi-skinny for your semi-delectation.

The bottling plant does both plastic and glass – but the ‘rinse and return’ glass bottles first have to be cleaned. I don’t feel quite so guilty, now, about the less-than-perfect job we often do on rinsing – the cleaning is exemplary.

DSCN1340 (2)As the glass bottles are filled, piles of colour-coded bags of plastic containers sit in the wings, waiting their turn on the merry go round.

Watching the conveyor belt takes me back to my one, short-lived factory job, bottling condensed ox-blood. That’s where the similarity ends – bottles. No pools of smelly sticky blood here, I can assure you!DSCN1332 (2)

Bates’ Dairy is super-clean. Lots of stainless steel. Clean white coats and hats.

DSCN1321 (2)The floor’s wet, with milky water heading for drains. Men in wellies rush around in a non-stop bustle of activity, packing, unpacking, cleaning, checking.

The milk comes from farms to the north, east and south – all within what I’d regard as our local region. The plastic bottles don’t travel very far, either.

DSCN1339 (2)Bates supplies local shops, caterers, care homes, individual homes – and other people’s milk rounds too. No plans to supply supermarkets – and no desire to do so. What they do is enough.

Isn’t that refreshing? Enough?

Perhaps that’s because it’s always been a family business, since 1939.

Things have changed, certainly. It’s bang up to the minute, technologically speaking.

And I’m betting no-one in the family is sad to see the passing of the era of the ‘phone up right till the milkman leaves’ cancellation option.

Stevan Bates’ auntie apparently used to get the occasional 2.30am cancellation phone call. You can imagine how that went down.

Even to the casual passer-by it still feels like a local, family business. Thanks largely, I reckon, to the company’s brand identity.

DSCN1351The logo’s just the family name written in script, in blue, on an appropriately creamy background.

There’s a kind of lusciousness about it, like a clotted cream tea. It says comforting, reassuring.

Reassuring in a genuine, not-owned-by-a-hedge-fund kind of way.

It’s great to know it’s on our doorstep.

DSCN1361And so, write-up done, it’s time to put the kettle on.

Make a nice cup of tea. Dunk a biscuit.

Then put out the empties.

Rinsed, for return, thanks to Keith.

DSCN1347To find a milkman in the UK try this:      

Believe it or not there’s a milk float website with FAQs:
and Londoners can hire one

This entry was posted in Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to An invisible man and a nice cup of tea

  1. ricardo says:

    What an excellent story. It reminded me of my childhood when there was a delicious layer of cream at the top of the milk bottle that everyone coveted. Keith and the folks at Bates are real treasures.


  2. charliebritten says:

    A lovely article. Wonderful that you were able to go into the dairy and have a look around.

    We still have a milkman. His milk is more expensive than buying milk from the supermarket, but he saves us frequent journeys into town (a consideration when you live in a village without a shop) and he’s there for other people in our village who don’t have cars and/or are sick or elderly.


    • Thanks Charlie, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, it’s a more expensive way of getting milk but environmentally sound and good for the community, wherever it is. It’s so nice for us now to have a local family business supplying us too after years of Dairy Crest et al. I am feeling quite chuffed as Mr Bates snr has asked if I’d be interested in helping him do a little write up of the family firm’s history. We’ll see if it happens but nice to be asked.


  3. EllaDee says:

    I particularly loved the intro of this… time and place wonderfully evoked. Back in the late Sixties of my childhood bottles of milk were delivered by horse and cart, then the milko truck with its moo horn. Mostly we had little use for either as my grandparents had a dairy farm. But I loved that both were part of our neighbourhood, the way I love that Bates is part of yours, and a little envious.


    • Ooh – didn’t get notification of this D sorry for late reply. I’m glad you liked it – I am sad that so few people use the milkman now – it’s not much extra to pay for a family business that employs local people, treats farmers fairly and is environmentally pretty sound. Hey ho. What’s even nicer is that Stevan Bates is helping us with refugee donations, transporting masssive loads around. Win win – as they say. Hope you’re enjoying the country life!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Maid in Britain and commented:
    This is a post from another blogging site I run, I’m going to reblog a few old posts that fit more or less with my Maid in Britain theme … bear with me, there will be more new material soon.


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