231019 WAF 39

The milkman was once an essential service available to all households but by 1995 doorstep delivery had declined to just 45% of the retail milk market. Today it is a mere 3%, and still falling.

Our milk came from Bartonsham Dairies located alongside the east bank of the river Wye, just south of Hereford. As a child I well remember the Friesian cows, interspersed with a few Jerseys grazing those pastures, all part of the alluvial flood plain that, through its annual flooding, supported grasses so rich in nutrients. 

We of course loved the Jersey cows with their gentle nature and light brown colouring, but commercial realities had already led to a strong preference amongst dairy farmers for the ‘Black and Whites’ as descended from the cattle of Friesland in north Holland and the Schleswig Holstein herds of northern Germany. 

Friesians are now the dominant breed in industrial farming worldwide, partly because of their robust health but mainly because of the comparatively high milk yields: 17.6 kgs against 11.7 average per day for Jerseys. Against that, Jersey milk is 15% richer in protein and calcium and contains considerably higher concentrations of the essential vitamin B12….and it tastes better! 

Gold, silver or red foil capped bottles which were delivered to our side door (tradesman to the side!) by 7 a.m. each morning, all against the night-time ritual of leaving ‘empties’, well rinsed and clean, on the doorstep for collection. I will never forget the chinking of bottles in their crates, the whirring of the electric battery-powered milk-floats as they stopped and started in the street outside, and of course the routine of Friday evenings when the milkman would call, leather money bag over his shoulder, collecting cash for the week’s deliveries.

Those milk floats, often to be seen ‘struggling’ back to the farm at walking pace with batteries deplete, were invented by Philip V Pocock who created SPEL Products, a company now dedicated to the manufacture of a wide range of products including GRP cladding panels – but that is another story… 

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The point of all this is that I had, as a child, a clear understanding of where our milk came from: I often visited the farm when sent by bicycle to buy another ‘pint of gold top’ or some cream; and I walked the fields where the cows grazed and canoed the river adjoining the farm; I even knew the milkman. Likewise, the baker, the butcher and a host of other local service providers. Even where I did not know the producer, I was aware that much of our food – meat products, fruit, vegetables, and of course cider – were all sourced locally by our shopkeepers.

But those days, the ‘50s turning ‘60s, saw the closing of the era of (predominantly) local supply: indeed, during my grandparents’ lives, food had travelled an average of just eight miles before arrival on the table. Today, within the UK, the average food item travels 1,837 miles to get from farm to plate – it’s 1,500 miles in the USA, 1,864 in Canada and a staggering 43,496 miles per dish in Melbourne Australia!  If you want to stretch that further in the UK buy a MacDonald’s Big Mac for which the combined ingredients will have clocked some 8,000 miles en route to you.

And ‘waste’ is just as bad: everything that ‘emanated’ from the house of my uncle and aunt just outside Hereford ended up in the soil: they had an earth closet which was dug out regularly, the contents being dispersed across the garden as fertiliser; other rubbish was burned periodically, and nothing was wasted. The plastic and polystyrene packing and wrappings of today would have been rejected out of hand as they had no way to safely dispose of such dangerously toxic and carcinogenic materials…….

But it is not the issues of sustainability that I address here. Rather I wish to focus on the astonishing transformations to the fabric, rituals and ‘choreography’ of our cities and city-life that have taken place in the recent decades consequent upon the revolution in retail supplies and delivery. 

My first proper job was as a van driver employed by the local town grocer delivering orders around Hereford and to remote locations in and around the villages across the county, right up into the Welsh borders. That world came to a crashing end with the arrival into town of the supermarket chains. Buying patterns of generations were upended, seemingly overnight, as these new stores with their underground or closely adjoining carparks attracted shoppers to a single supply source: bread, meat, fish, fruit, indeed all groceries and the rest under one roof, transactions at one till. Rapidly all the local specialist food suppliers within the city centre were forced to close, their offerings (irrespective of the quality of product or service) too expensive and too inconvenient. 

This, of course, coincided with the shift to full time working for most women, so late opening and single point sourcing of supplies with convenient parking became agents for such change, and I get that, but gone for ever were the sights of locally trapped rabbits and pheasants, and the pungent smell of fish, in the stalls that had for centuries adorned the town’s historic and lively Butter Market. And gone forever was a way of life for traders and those who serviced and supplied them, for customers, and indeed for the entire city.

As with smaller towns across the country, Hereford was thus left with an abundance of clothes shops and other retailers but even there, as with food, ‘local’ was lost: the likes of Burtons, Dorothy Perkins, Stead and Simpson for clothes and shoes; Smiths and Menzies for magazines, Boots pharmacy and so on: these were the national retailers whose names and brands became the familiar backdrop to our provincial ‘high streets’. They now called all the shots, and they called them with little or no sympathy for local interests or tradition.

So, with their arrival came the rapid de-populating of town centres, for gone were the local retailers and with them the tradition of living (or at east letting out rooms) ‘over the shop’. The national brands would yield no space for access to upper floors (100% shop front being the mantra), and they would countenance no messy residential letting operations or problems with washing machines leaking from flats over into their retail outlets.

So, over the decades, those lovely provincial shopping streets with their three and four storey Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings, hitherto occupied across all floors, became (save for some commercial lettings to small professional businesses) largely unoccupied save for the ground floor retail. You only had to look in winter months at the darkened upper floors in places as far afield as Canterbury, Tewksbury, or Blackburn for the evidence. Terry Farrell’s ingenious work for the Comyn Ching development in Covent Garden proffered an alternative to such waste, but alas, national retailers cared nothing for the towns that they exploited. 

So fast forward to today and the crisis in retail and I can see nothing but more seismic changes to come: Ocado – you now see their vans everywhere – are fast set to render the Supermarkets of Tesco et al completely redundant in another twist to the story of food distribution. (What is it about the British and grocery trades? Founded in 2000 in a single room in London this is now a £2.5 billion operation with major expansion into Europe, Canada, and the Far-East). 

Headquartered in Hatfield, they have no shops…simply warehouses such as their huge unit at Andover, full of high-speed ‘bots’ which ‘whizz’ about ‘picking’ products for customers’ orders from atop a 3D grid of crates packed with items. A 50-item order is completed in minutes, then bagged ready for transport. These videos and the photo below give a taste of tomorrow… today.

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Put simply, why would you contemplate the grim chore of pushing a trolley round a store, loading up the Weetabix and trooping home by car, when you have Ocado delivering to your home at pre-agreed times against an on-line order. 

And then there is the future of delivery by air not road: tomorrow’s tomorrow looks more like the world of Dan Dare comics with drones flashing about the skies, ‘dropping’ parcels to our garden pads! Fantasy? No…. it’s already in train with Amazon: 

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A drone carrying a box

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Take a look at this video for the story: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-67132527.

What does this mean for the Basildons and the Barnsleys, the Peterboroughs and the Prestons of the UK? Quite simply this: Good News! With the demise of the dreadful supermarkets and national retailers we can now completely rethink the meaning of town. Remember Cedric Price’s adage: 

  • Medieval towns were like boiled eggs – citizens slept safely inside the gated walls and worked in the surrounding fields by day.
  • Industrial towns were like fried eggs….we worked in the centre by day and left to sleep in the suburbs.
  • Modern cities are more like scrambled eggs with the spread of work and residence well intermixed.

We now face a new era of great transition where we can turn our cities into the utopia that they really should offer….places of culture in its widest sense where we live in homes which are supplied with all our essential needs by robots. 

Incredible………And in terms of architecture and planning: nothing but opportunity as we completely re-think citizenship and the fabric within which it is hosted.