On The Rounds With The Olympic Milkman
If delivering milk ever became an Olympic sport then Kevin Read, the Spitalfields milkman, would undoubtedly win a gold medal for Britain. Kevin does his entire round on the run – carrying three bottles in each hand effortlessly as he pounds up and down staircases, leaping in and out of his van – displaying astonishing stamina in his six hour circuit each night, stretching from the East End to the West End.
“I like to think of myself as the Olympic Milkman,” Kevin admitted yesterday morning when he picked me up in Spitalfields at three, “I been delivering to the site for more than six years now, since before they put the fence up.” It was a clear summer’s night and, as we drove through Whitechapel, crowds were leaving prayer at the mosque and a few vans were making deliveries, but once we passed these, the streets were empty. “We feared there would be road chaos, pavement chaos, train chaos – you name it – but in reality it’s been fairly quiet,” Kevin assured me. We barrelled east in his diesel milk float along the deserted Mile End Rd, between the empty bus lane and the empty Olympic lane, skirting the Olympic site with its tall red sculpture that looks like a meccano kit where someone lost the instructions and the empty Olympic Stadium in which images of the flame burned through the night on huge screens.
Our first call was to deliver a pallet-load of breakfast cereal to Bovis, the contractors who built the athletes’ village. The wind echoed like a strange ghostly choir as we ascended the lift of an empty tower block on top of the shopping centre opposite the site to make our delivery. From here we could see the futuristic buildings of the Olympics gleaming in floodlights beneath the golden moon in a deep blue sky. Next we drove over to deliver milk to the Olympic transport department, through a dark maze of temporary access roads, encountering numerous security checks and crossing empty parking lots, in a secret hinterland of the site used as a service entrance.
Since the Olympics were announced, this has been first port of call for Kevin every night, delivering enough milk to make the tea for everyone that worked to conjure this intricate landscape, currently home to the world’s sporting heroes.“On every sign, while this was under construction, they had the phrase, ‘You are part of it,’” Kevin told me proudly, “It was good because every cleaner, every road sweeper, every electrician and labourer saw that, and we all felt it too.”
Two years have passed since I first joined Kevin in his cabin and he revealed his quest to rebuild the lost milk rounds of the East End. And the good news Kevin has to impart now is that he has acquired many more customers over the intervening time and his round has grown significantly. “It’s definitely a trend,” he confirmed, speaking of the return to the delivery of glass bottles of fresh milk direct to the doorstep, “but you’ve got to break people’s habits and, in a city where 20% of the population moves every year, you have be continuously canvassing just to keep up.”
By now we were into the round proper, navigating at speed through narrow streets of housing, scattering this year’s fox cubs that take possession of the byways at this hour, as Kevin spiralled around in his float, making all his calls and moving steadily westwards while the dawn came up around us. “A year ago there were gangs roaming the streets, I got lumps of wood thrown at my van,” he confided to me, recalling last August’s riots, “but I just went off to do other parts of my round and came back later to make my deliveries, I wasn’t going to let them stop me.”
“People don’t understand this is a service industry, not a food industry,” Kevin continued evangelically, philosophising about the subject of milk delivery as he scrabbled through his notes to check which customers were on holiday, and warning me gently not to slam the van door because people sleep with their windows open at this season, “I try to give the service I’d like myself.”
We coasted along Cable St in the pink sunrise, turning onto the Highway and taking a circuitous route, avoiding Olympic traffic restrictions, to arrive at a cluster of nineteenth century blocks in which Eileen, one of Kevin’s most senior customers, resides. Eileen lives in the flat where she was born with her five siblings, all now between the ages of seventy-one and eighty-three, and she still shares it with two of them. When a bomb destroyed the next building during the blitz killing almost fifty people, Eileen and her young brothers were only children, yet they pulled people from the rubble and an empty space exists to this day between the blocks. I sat and contemplated it as Kevin ran upstairs with Eileen’s pints of milk yesterday.
It was six forty, and Kevin had a series of calls to make within the Central London Congestion Zone before the charge for entry began at seven o’clock. Passing the Tower of London, we crossed quickly through the Barbican to Charterhouse next to the old Smithfield Market to make a delivery and then hastened north to the streets behind St Luke’s Old St, where Kevin also delivers to the office of shoe designer Christian Louboutin. At last, we reached the Old St roundabout which marks the boundary of the Congestion Zone with just three minutes to spare, and were on our way to deliver the milk to Crossrail, London’s next grand project after the Olympics.
Kevin took it all in his stride but I had been sweating as the minutes ticked away before seven and was relieved as we headed back down Great Eastern St towards Spitalfields. Kevin is a consummate professional, experienced and indomitable. He travelled fifty-file miles yesterday, as he does every night throughout the year, after just five hours sleep, to deliver the milk to the East End, old and new. This is the heroic work of the Olympic milkman that no-one sees, bringing us essential supplies for a new day.
By Broadway Market.
In Bancroft Rd.
Sunrise over the Bethnal Green Rd.
In Cable St.
In Stepney Green.
“Look, a lot of people trust me!”
A quick cuppa on the go.
Delivering milk to the farm.
If you want Kevin Read to deliver milk or yoghurt or eggs or fresh bread or even dogfood to you, contact him directly by calling 07940095775 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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