Churning out the tales
PUBLISHED: 14:26 19 June 2017 | UPDATED: 14:26 19 June 2017
John Wright turns back the clock to talk to a man whose job once took him around the lanes of Devon in all weathers to make sure the milk got through
Snow dominates the early memories of former milk churn lorry driver Jimmy Wills in the days when the Milk Marketing Board beckoned the public with adverts like Drinka Pinta Milka Day and Accrington Stanley, Who Are They? A teenager during the Big Freeze of ’63, Jimmy tells me the snowdrifts of February 1978 around Devon, where he’d spent ten years driving milk churn lorries for the Milk Marketing Board, were even worse.
He remembers one big snowfall compacting: “I walked with a mate on top of the snow, bent down and touched the top of a telegraph pole. We were out looking for a bread van. We went along with an eight-foot bean rod poking down as we went but never found it.”
Three weeks later they did when the thaw came; luckily no driver inside. Only the bread was past its ‘use by’ date.
“We also had a milk tanker stuck out in the countryside. The driver was rescued by tractor and the milk was still fresh after all that time; it froze. We collected at night in temperatures down to –17ºC and by day in –6ºC. Once I had to light a fire under the lorry to thaw out the diesel.”
Jimmy remembers one blizzard, leaving his Crediton depot in a white-out with mate Derek Saunders. “We had our nose pressed against the windscreen just to see a few foot in front.”
Eventually arriving at North Tawton, the snow was so bad they felt forced to wait it out in the Fountain Inn. “Derek stayed with me for a week before snow was cleared.” Jimmy got in so much darts practice during these ordeals that, despite once being hustled by an American tourist who “asked what he had to do” he went on to win 220 darts trophies.
Floods came too. “I have gone through it so deep it would come in the cab and that was scary. I recall the hurricanes of 1987 and 1990 and taking my chainsaw with me in the cab. Many is the time I cut limbs off trees to get through.”
Jimmy recalls drivers and farmers getting on pretty well in those Milk Marketing Board days of collecting from farms and delivering to dairies. “I used to take farmers out a newspaper and had tea at a few farms. One used to cook me a Walls sausage or two.”
His foreman asked him to repair things they’d run into like milk churn stands. One day he was at Upton Pyne repairing a stone pillar fronting a big estate, and was ordered off the job. “I’d started dismantling the stones when a man walked up and said, ‘Morning’. I said ‘Morning, mate,’ and he said ‘I must ask you to call me My Lord.’ I said: ‘I’m afraid I only know one lord and that isn’t you.’”
Now for the mushy bit, so unromantic souls can look away as Jimmy remembers 1974! “Following a messy divorce, I went overnight from a lovely three-bedroom house I built in Crediton to a mobile home. The next year I met Margaret in Tawton cheese factory canteen where she worked. She offered me lodgings as the mobile home was so cold in winter and I helped her repair her cottage. We became good friends and guess we fell in love. I lived there until we married in 1982 and I could never picture a day without her.”
Milk churn collection wound up in 1978, after which Jimmy drove milk tankers, the Milk Marketing Board era ending in 2002. “The pride I felt working for them could never be matched. I also had a good working relationship with workmates and milk factory staff, nearly 33 years of wonder in all seasons.”
The memory he treasures most was one particular milk churn round in 1969, approaching Christmas. “My daughter was about to be born, and I went into a farm at Wallen Barton and asked the farmer if I could use the phone to see if she was born yet. He said of course. After I made the phone call he played a piece of music on the piano, and I remember thinking how brilliant that was.” The music still plays.
THE PROS AND CONS OF DRIVING THOSE DEVON LANES
CONS : My 30-foot (9m) milk pick-up hose once jumped off and wrapped itself around the back wheels, making it twice as long.
Once I almost reached the top of an icy hill, got out with a shovel and the lorry started sliding back, chasing me down the narrow road and hitting a tree.
Being bitten by a few dogs.
PROS: I saw a grass snake a metre long and on the Dartmoor rounds on sultry summer days you’d sometimes see an adder basking on top of hedges.
The loveliest thing I saw was a brood of eight little ducks on a stream at Washfield, near Tiverton. When I remembered I used to take them pieces of bread.