Northern Ireland

The last of the milkmen?

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Media captionRobert Ross delivers his final carton of milk after 49 years of red-eye starts

Robert Ross has lived his life to the staccato chink of glass milk bottles and the soft thud of a plastic carton on a doorstep at dawn.

Step out on a dark morning and the world is misty magic.

"You might come upon a badger waddling up the roads, foxes on the prowl or whole families of hedgehogs," he said.

Winters can be punishing, dark and cold but summer sunrise is bright and beautiful as a Sunday School hymn.

On Saturday, after nearly 50 years delivering milk up and down the back roads of County Antrim, Robert hung up the keys of his lorry for the last time.

Glass to cartons to plastic

Robert has seen times change over 50 years.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption People who live far from the shops on country roads still appreciate the doorstep delivery

From big glass bottles to small ones and on through cartons to plastic - he has watched the switch from pints to litres.

The days when the milk came with a thick layer of cream on the top are a sweet memory - and the times when cheeky robins pecked the silver foil tops to steal a drink are long gone.

On Saturday, Robert said a fond farewell to nearly 250 customers. To them, he was much more than the early-morning stranger, delivering the milk.

He was the friend who would carry in a scuttle of coal.

He was the trusted man you could call on to work out why the washing machine refused to drain and who was happy to unscrew a jar too tight for an arthritic hand.

He kept an eye out for the elderly and those living alone - if the milk was still on the doorstep from a previous day, he knew to alert the neighbours.

"I'm sad to go," he confessed. "I've been doing this for so many years."

In his early days on the milk round, Robert was one of 62 men who arrived at the creamery yard to collect the crates of bottles, load up their floats and set off on rounds across Antrim.

"Now, there are just two of us left," he said.

The community milkman has fallen victim to cheap supermarket milk in big plastic bottles.

Image caption 'You are out meeting people and there is never a dull day,' said Robert of his work

But people who live far from the shops on country roads still appreciate the doorstep delivery.

"I started out when I was 16, just out of school. I was a helper for Andy Cochrane in Cullybackey back then," he said.

Fast forward half a century and he still counts Andy Cochrane's widow among his customers. There are about 10 families who were customers from his first day in the job and remain loyal customers still.

"It is your own business, your own run, you are out meeting people and there is never a dull day," he said.

Winter starts are at 04:00 GMT but in summer the start is half an hour earlier as you have to get the milk out before the sun gets too hot and might curdle it.

He will not miss lying in bed on a winter's morning and hearing the wind wail and the rain batter the window, knowing he has to get up.

The life of a milkman is also short on holidays. In fact, the last fortnight he had off was 18 years ago.

"Summer holidays are the stuff of dreams," he admitted.

"When I started it was a seven days a week job. If you wanted to go away, you had to get somebody to cover and that was hard. There were not too many people wanting to get up at 3.30am.

"I might have got two or three days for a wee break in Donegal, but I'm not complaining."

He did get that fortnight's holiday 18 years ago. The family went to Canada and it is the stuff of legend.

"The downside of the job is that if you were sick, then there was no milk delivered. Thankfully to the man above, it didn't happen," he said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Robert Ross never had to use a sledge to deliver bottles, unlike this Surrey milkman in 1947

In his years up and down the back roads of Cullybackey and Portglenone, he has seen plenty.

"Once, we came upon a terrible sight. A lady came out of her home and she was bleeding from her head and arms. The Collie dog had gone mad and kept attacking her zimmer when she tried to move it," he said.

"I got the zimmer from her and the dog came after me, ripping and tearing the frame. They had to come and shoot the dog."

Another time in the dark of the morning, he came upon a body stretched flat out in the middle of the road.

The find was not as grisly as it first appeared. It was a drunk man who had fallen asleep.

Twenty foster children

Robert has many stories. His wife, Elizabeth, has many more, as do their children.

Between them, they have six and have fostered nearly 20 more.

William, who has learning difficulties, adores helping out: He'll miss the joy of delivering the milk to doorsteps up and down the countryside.

"The blue and red milk cartons have helped him learn his colours and the customers love him too," said Robert.

Image caption Robert Ross's retirement is the end of an era - there is no-one to replace him

Robert's wife, Elizabeth, knows how important her husband has been to all his customers.

"If I go out shopping with him, I can't get to the shops for people stopping and chatting to him," she said.

"They'll say things like: 'I'm so grateful for you calling in to see my mother.'

"He is just very human but he is quiet too and he wouldn't tell you what he has done."

There is no-one to take over the milk run. Robert Ross's retirement is the end of an era, not just for him but for the whole community.

Still, he has his eyes set on the time to come.

Elizabeth has a few plans too. They include a holiday in the Rockies... after all, she has been waiting for 18 years!

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