The return of the milkman: Does this time-honoured tradition still have a place in the 21st century?

Good for farmers and good for the planet, the milk round is back with a 21st-century twist, discovers Emma Hughes.

It’s early on a Saturday morning and the air smells intoxicatingly of spring. I’m in the kitchen in my dressing gown, with the window open, waiting for the kettle to boil. I reach for the fridge door reflexively, then I remember. Pulling my slippers on, I race downstairs like a child rushing to the tree on Christmas Day. There, waiting for me on my doorstep, is a cool glass bottle with a foil top.

A couple of weeks ago, after spending my entire adult life buying milk in plastic cartons from supermarkets, I signed up for a weekly glass-bottle delivery. It costs a little more per pint (about a third extra), but I was happy to pay: not just to support dairy farmers and cut down on waste, but to help create a sense of community that can be hard to find if, like me, you live in a city. Dave Cousins, the local milkman, has been doing the rounds of my patch of London for decades.

‘Some of our shoppers describe it as a visit from the milk fairy’

When I was born in the 1980s, some 90% of the milk consumed by Britons was delivered to their doorsteps. However, three years ago, the percentage had dropped to just 3%. The boom in so-called ‘alt-milks’ (almond, oat, soy) was partly to blame, but, mostly, it was a matter of convenience and price: with a pint of milk functioning as a litmus test for competitiveness, many stores run it as a loss leader, creating a race to the bottom and devaluing milk as a whole.

We all know we should be doing more to make sure producers are properly recompensed and reduce our reliance on planet-clogging plastic, but does the milk round really have a place in modern life? Even the phrase feels old-timey, conjuring up images of Norman Wisdom in The Early Bird and Benny Hill being chased down the road.

However, although the latest official figures from Dairy UK are yet to be released, anecdotally, things are looking rosy—and it’s down to a combination of digital innovation and the good, old-fashioned human touch.

In the Somerset village of Beckington, Geoff Bowles and his family have been milking first Friesians and then Jerseys at Ivy House Farm since 1982. In 1998, he started looking at ways to diversify – ‘the price of wholesale milk couldn’t sustain our small business,’ he says.

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Mr Bowles went organic in 2000 and began selling to the likes of Fortnum & Mason and Neal’s Yard Dairy, before teaming up with Farmdrop. This online retail start-up lets London buyers shop direct from small producers and have their groceries delivered in convenient one-hour time slots.

A year ago, they discussed offering milk buyers the option of switching from plastic bottles to glass ones. ‘We respond to our customers and it appealed to them,’ reveals Mr Bowles.

‘It was immensely popular as soon as it launched,’ confirms Damian Hind, Farmdrop’s marketing manager. Fifty percent of Ivy House’s sales through the company went straight into glass and the numbers have held. ‘We just had to figure out how we’d get all the bottles back to them,’ he laughs.

Once you’ve finished your bottle of milk, you wash it and return it when your next order arrives. Farmdrop drivers unpack people’s deliveries in their kitchens from reusable crates, so it’s extremely easy to do the handover.

‘Lots of people were surprised to find out we still existed’

For the company, facilitating this modern-day version of the milk round is part of a wider commitment to reducing massively the amount of plastics it uses. ‘Food only lasts for a few days and people are wrapping it in materials that last hundreds of years. It makes no sense whatsoever and we knew our customers were keen for us to do more,’ explains Mr Hind.

‘Lots of people were surprised to find out we still existed,’ admits Andrew Kendall, deputy chief executive of Milk & More, the company that linked me up with my milkman. It started life as Britain’s largest glass-bottling facility for milk, in Hanworth, south-west London – determined to ensure the milk round’s survival, the team started asking potential customers what was putting them off signing up. They found that, although a lot of them worried that a milk round wouldn’t fit into their lives, they loved farm shops and were keen to cut down on packaging.

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‘Blue Planet definitely accelerated things,’ believes Mr Kendall, referring to the final episode of the second series, in which Sir David Attenborough delivered a devastating verdict on plastic pollution. The interest, clearly, was there – the company just needed to find a way of harnessing it.

The solution? A digitally powered ‘farm shop on wheels’, which combines a traditional milk round with foodie add-ons (of quality bacon-and-egg ‘breakfast bundles’, say). Customers create an online account and can make changes to the next morning’s delivery until 9pm the night before. There’s also an app, which has been downloaded more than 20,000 times in the first three months of this year alone. Crucially, milk arrives before 7am, meaning you can bring it in before you go to work (rather than coming home to a pecked top).

‘People are craving a direct link to them – they feel like they’re doing their bit by working with us.’

Today, Milk & More’s network of milkmen and women deliver from Grimsby to Camborne in a fleet of electric floats. During their rounds, they’ve foiled burglaries, rescued pets in distress and retrieved countless lost sets of house keys.

Last year, the company signed up 45,000 new customers and, right now, it’s averaging 100 million glass-bottle deliveries a year. Mr Kendall says there are ‘pockets of really strong growth in every part of the country’, but the Home Counties, London, Bristol (‘probably one of our fastest growing areas’) and Oxfordshire are frontrunners.

Shoppers, he’s finding, are increasingly keen to do the right thing by Britain’s 13,000 dairy farmers and their herds. ‘People are craving a direct link to them – they feel like they’re doing their bit by working with us.’

And, of course, there’s the magic of waking up in the morning and finding something delicious on your doorstep. ‘Some of our shoppers describe it as a visit from the milk fairy,’ Mr Kendall laughs. ‘And everyone tells you milk out of glass bottles tastes better.’

Who delivers where?

  • The Dartmouth Dairy – Glass-bottle deliveries in south Devon – it also does goat’s milk
  • Farmdrop – Daily deliveries of organic Jersey milk in glass bottles within the M25, plus groceries
  • Find Me a Milkman – Dairy UK’s official service linking buyers to their local milk-delivery service
  • Milk & More – Glass-bottle deliveries across the country, excluding the North-West
  • Parker Dairies – Glass-bottle deliveries of milk from Pensworth dairy in Southampton, across east and central London