Thursday, 28 May 2009

A posting we all look forward to

He doesn’t have a black and white cat called Jess like Postman Pat, the character loved by kids all over the world who made his US television debut recently on children's network Qubo.

And he laughs at the idea of using a gyrocopter and a Blackberry to deliver his letters, but Steve Harrison, our local postie has all the qualities which made Postman Pat everyone’s favourite mailman. And I reckon he must be 100 times fitter when I see him cycling up Exmouth Road.

UK postal workers, it’s said, are living the nightmare of modernisation: job losses, closures and pensions at risk. But Steve keeps smiling. In a traditional town like Budleigh there is still an expectation of telephone boxes, village policemen and personal friendly service in local shops. And in our rural area the arrival of the postman does a little to reassure us that commitment and stability are still possible in the unstable and crazy world that we live in.

You could say that the traditional postie is still at the heart of British life, and there are plenty of people who will stand up for him or her. Devotees of TV’s best-known postman who has recently received a 21st century make-over have even revolted against the media trendies who want to turn Postman Pat into a “gadget obsessed freak.”

One of approximately 15 postal workers at Budleigh Salterton’s Delivery Office, Steve Harrison has worked for Royal Mail for over two years, having previously worked as a social worker in the Greater London area. The move to Devon was one of the best decisions he made, he feels. “I get really affected by the pollution now whenever I go back to London.” He reckons that the sea air combined with all the cycling and walking that he does as a postman have certainly contributed to a healthier lifestyle. Within the first nine months he found that he had lost three stone in weight. “I used to be cooped up in a van or an office. Now I’m in the open air most of the time. It’s a definite plus.”

He uses a bike to deliver mail for only part of his shift, on what he calls his ‘small loop’ along Exmouth Road, including Moorlands Road and Lansdowne Road, and through Knowle Village and Little Knowle. For the longer loop through Castle Lane, Dalditch Lane, Inner Ting Tong and Bear Lane he uses a van. Not only is this faster – his speed in the van averaging 6 mph, including deliveries, being double that of the bike – but also easier, as the weight of mail to be delivered can be considerable: Steve often finds that his bags can weigh as much as 16 kg (35 lb). In fact Health & Safety rules dictate that up to 32 kg (70 lb) is allowable on a bike, although as Steve points out this would be impossible on some of the gradients that he has to tackle.
Above: The Victorian postbox on Links Road, Budleigh - as traditional a feature in Budleigh as our local posties
Issues like the average speed of delivery and mail-load weights are bound up with the various management initiatives aimed at making Royal Mail more efficient, and Steve admits that such matters are very far from people’s view of their friendly postman with time for a doorstep chat. That’s certainly an aspect of the job that he appreciates, but he points out that Mondays and Tuesdays are best from that point of view. By mid-week, when businesses are back at work sending out mail after the weekend break, pressure is building up for postal workers.

Steve Harrison is in fact working on a part-time basis of 34 hours per week, but even so has to make an early start at around 7.00 am to be finished by 2.15 pm. There is a certain amount of flexi-time to the job, with long weekends on a cyclical basis giving it some variety. Meeting different people as he makes his deliveries is also something that he enjoys when he is not in a hurry; he agrees that the postman has a social role to play. A friendly conversation of 10-15 seconds is enough to check that an elderly resident is in good health, for example. On one occasion he spotted that a door had been left open; it turned out that the house had been burgled. “I always make an effort,” says Steve. “Of course I have to balance that out with the time pressures.”

The only people he is not so keen on chatting to are those with dangerous dogs. Injuries to postal workers’ legs and fingers really are an issue, it seems. “I’ve been bitten twice within a month,” he says. Some post-workers believe that feeding the animal before making a delivery is the answer, but Steve disagrees. “I’ve been chased down the road by dogs wanting biscuits.” Not surprisingly Royal Mail wants the law governing dogs to apply to private as well as public land.

Above: Steve with his Royal Mail bike and an appreciative customer
The other major negative of Steve’s work involves the weather. “Cold I can cope with, heat is bearable, but wet weather is awful. Nothing’s worse than pushing a soggy letter through a letterbox.”

When arranging the interview with Steve I had worried that my suggestion of using email as “an easy way of communicating” was a tactless blunder, given the decline in the number of people posting letters. No, said Steve. He is a fervent believer in the Internet. “It’s true that the volume of letters is going down, but the weight of mail deliveries is going up all the time. A paperless council tax mailing would have saved me hours of work today!” And many people in rural areas like Budleigh still tend to write letters as well as getting more parcels because they order goods by post or the Internet rather than do their shopping regularly at big city stores. For that reason, he believes, Royal Mail has an advantage over firms like TNT, which would prefer business with a high volume urban distribution.

And what about the new technology that Postman Pat has been threatened with to make him more efficient? Scanners are certainly used now for dealing with registered and tracked mail, says Steve. “Some time ago they were talking about motorised carts for making deliveries, but it didn’t really work out.” Maybe Budleigh’s awkward gradients were the problem.

So we hope to see Steve for many years to come, preferably on two wheels. The sight of him pedalling up Exmouth Road in Budleigh always inspires me to dust down my bike and get fitter by tackling some of those hills that drew us to Devon.

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