Our mobile army is a rural lifeline

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The original photo of Stokesley Market that accompanied my dad’s Countryman’s Diary column in August 1977, with just one solitary man in the picture
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Helmsley market place in the 1950s

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 26th July 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 24th July 2017)

In my Dad’s column from 23rd July 1977 is a picture of a busy market and the caption aptly reflects the era in which it was taken. It reads: ‘Summer scene in scores of country market towns up and down the country – here it is the housewives of Stokesley who are shopping at the market stalls.’

In the picture are dozens of women in flowery frocks with 1970s curled helmet hair doing their weekly shop. There is just one solitary man in the image serving on a stall. How times have changed! My parents visited Helmsley market nearly every Friday for as long as I can remember, buying locally grown and freshly produced goods. When we were very small in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and before she got a job in later life, my mum was one of those flowery-frock-clad housewives. Dad would have been working then, but once he left the police force and became a full-time writer, he would take time off on a Friday morning to go and help Mum with the shopping. I have been to the market many times over the years, and I can say with some certainty that today, the market is filled with men and women from all walks of life, many of whom own small businesses or are self-employed and for them, our rural markets are a vital source of essential fresh local produce and saves them from the burden of having to travel miles to the nearest supermarket.

Dad was a fiercely loyal supporter of the local economy, insisting on using nearby small businesses, even if it proved more expensive than going to large chains further afield. It’s only as I grew up that I really ‘got’ it, and admired him for tolerating over the years my habit of berating him for paying several pence more per gallon of petrol at the local garage than he would have paid had he bought it from Tesco, a 25-minute drive away.

A couple of local services that were lifesavers during Dad’s illness and in the days following his death were the fruit and veg man and the butcher van. In his final weeks, Dad needed round-the-clock care, which we provided for him alongside visiting carers (the Ryedale Community Response Team, who were amazing!). Until I did it myself, I didn’t appreciate how intense and exhausting caring was. We grabbed food and sleep whenever possible, and during the short windows of time off during our family ‘shift’ changes, we stocked up on ready-meals which we could prepare in minutes. Thankfully, the fruit and veg man and the butcher called on set days, selling fresh produce from their vans. We’d leave a bag on the front door handle with money and a note of what we wanted, and during the morning the bag would miraculously fill up with either meat or fruit and veg and the correct change would be left in the bottom. It was a simple, personal, and indispensable service for a family in crisis, which was so appreciated by us. It meant we could still make food from scratch when we had a moment, or grab an apple or a pear to at least eat something nutritious.

The trusty vans driving round villages selling produce seem a bit quaint to us folk who don’t live in the remotest parts of the country, but that experience really brought home to me what a vital service they provide for rural residents. Out of necessity, they will charge a bit more for their wares, but they are lifelines, especially to those who are elderly, ill or disabled and simply cannot get out, or perhaps are not comfortable using an online grocery service. They deserve our patronage and support.

So thank you to all you mobile shops serving our countryside communities, you’re doing a grand job!

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