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On The Rounds With The Olympic Milkman

August 10, 2012
by the gentle author

Kevin Read

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.

In Stepney.

Sunrise over the Bethnal Green Rd.

In Shoreditch.

In Shadwell.

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 kevinthemilkman@yahoo.co.uk

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On the Rounds with the Spitalfields Milkman

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina B permalink
    August 10, 2012

    Yes, a Gold for Kevin! Wonderful work!

  2. Hardy permalink
    August 10, 2012

    Kevin and his attendant – double Olympic Gold Top Medallists. Bravo!!

  3. Libby Hall permalink
    August 10, 2012

    ‘….that looks like a meccano kit where someone lost the instructions’ – Lovely!

    I was on a train to Essex a few weeks ago, and when we passed through Stratford, one of a group of university students sitting across from me announced: ‘That red thing is rubbish’. I thought that would have made a wonderful title for how I have felt about the Olympics. (But it’s excellent that ‘you are part of it’ meant a lot to all those who did want to feel part of it.)

    Milk delivered in glass bottles is most definitely a service industry. A service that is a quietly reassurring connection to a sense of order and continuity and of ‘Home’.

  4. JerryW permalink
    August 10, 2012

    People like Kevin are the true nobility. I hope he gets the rewards he deserves in life. Heartwarming stuff

  5. August 10, 2012

    Keep hearing about you onLBC nice to put a face to the name, your a star

  6. Colin Thomas permalink
    August 10, 2012

    The photo of Kevin with the title ‘In Shadwell’ is Haverring Street – That’s the street where Kenney Jones of the Small Faces parents lived in the 60′s. I think it was also used in the film clip for Lazy Sunday Afternoon when Steve Marriot was chased away by a old lady neighbour at the point in the song where he complains that the neighbours – ‘They stop me from groovin’, they bang on me wall. They’re doing me crust in, it’s no good at all!’

  7. August 11, 2012

    i love the sense of dawn over london one gets from the time lapse in the sequence of pix– dawn over stepney, beautiful, your light there in bloighty is sublime. when you have some. and, MILK TO THE FARM???
    your nocturnal adventures are among my favorites, never will forget the christmas eve one.

  8. Kevin the milkman permalink
    August 11, 2012

    Thank you Colin, I have just watched the Lazy Sunday video! I love the Small Faces. I even play bass guitar in a group, but we are a 70′s punk group!! Still very British though!!

  9. Colin Thomas permalink
    August 13, 2012

    My pleasure Kevin! Punk is good too and just as much a creation of London as the Mod movement. I thought yesterday, when watching the Olympic Closing ceremony, that the Kaiser Chiefs should have played a Small Faces number instead of the Who – especially as they were on themselves later.

    Keep on delivering! I still have milk delivered to my house in Ware, Herts but I do miss the sound of the electric floats in the still of the night. Gone forever and never to be heard again, I’m afraid.

  10. Colin Thomas permalink
    August 14, 2012

    Kevin – you’re getting a bit famous geez! Heard you mentioned on Steve Allen on LBC. I’m actually living and working in Houston, Texas (my family are still home in Ware Herts, hence the ongoing milk deliveires). It was strange, me being here, listening to a radio station from there, mentioning you who I’d been in correspondence with! The world is a small place.

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