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Pain in the Royal Mail

Times Staff Writer

These days, villagers who want to send a letter can go onto the Royal Mail’s website, print out postage, and place the envelope in their delivery box out on the road. But that would be missing the point entirely.

Here on the endless North Yorkshire moors, where the wind is ubiquitous, the trees are sporadic and the cottages are often low and lonely, mailing a letter often means a trek up the muddy farm track, skirting the sloe-eyed sheep, then down past the 12th century stone church and into the narrow post office doorway.

Inside, the morning chill surrenders to the orange-bright electric radiator in the hearth. Postmaster Sonia Leeming is laying down a plate of hot lavender scones, pretending to ignore Andy Elliott from down the road, who leans on the counter with an envelope of his new photographs of the local foxhunt and the steam train at Pickering.

By the time you’ve arrived, you’ve forgotten what you came for.

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“Na then,” Elliott will be saying.

“Third time he’s been here t’day,” Leeming announces, shaking her head. “And he ha’n’t bought a thing.”

In all of England, there is little so central to village life as the rural post office: The cheerful corner shop stuffed to the brim behind its battered oak counter with tidy rolls of stamps, express mail folders, and jars of gumdrops and homemade jelly. It is, aside from the pub of course, the principal destination for just about everyone just about every day, even if it’s for just about nothing.

It is a landmark one imagines has changed little since Henry VIII first established the “Master of the Posts” in 1516. The outposts serve as an enduring symbol of the Royal Mail’s commitment to deliver 98% of all first-class letters within a single day and the neighborly, if eccentric, character of the English village.

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In Britain, only the foolhardy or those with major transactions venture into the long lines of the central urban post offices. Even in London, most people visit the postal counter at their local mini-mart, where dropping off a parcel can be greeted with an inquiry about the recipient’s birthday, and a Cadbury chocolate bar can be purchased for the walk home.

Charm, however, has its limits. Post Office Ltd., the government-owned company that runs Britain’s 14,376 post offices, says it is hemorrhaging $5.8 million a week, in large part thanks to the sprawling network of tiny outlets in just about every village and neighborhood across the country.

After a year of warnings, studies and anguished debate, the government has announced final plans for closing 2,500 post offices by the end of the year, a great many of them in rural outposts with little else but the post office to define themselves as a proper village.

The proposal has unleashed turmoil across the country. A petition in opposition, with more than 4 million names, is thought to be the largest handed to a British prime minister in peacetime.

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To no avail. Last month, authorities identified for closure 47 post offices here in North and East Yorkshire, where villages tucked in the moors and dales are sometimes so remote that getting to the next post office can mean a drive of 10 miles. Worse, many towns fear the small convenience shops whose anchors have always been the postal counters will be bled dry when that revenue runs out, leaving locals with neither services nor a place to catch up with the neighbors.

“There’s a lot of older people round about. How will they get on?” Audrey Pounder, a longtime North Yorkshire resident, said over tea and toasted biscuits one recent afternoon at the Hawnby post office, which faces closure in the next few months.

“Well, they don’t care, do they?” said Darren Leeming, who runs the outlet with his wife.

The Leemings have offered to forgo the $88-a-week payment they receive from the government and run the post office for free as a means of keeping their shop open. That was rejected, as was their plea to continue offering a series of services hitherto available at most post offices: cash withdrawals from pension and welfare allotments, pay-as-you-go cellphone recharging, and collection of outbound mail. Allowing them to do it, authorities said, would divert business from postal outlets in neighboring towns that must boost their revenue to avoid closures down the road.

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The problem, government officials say, is the same one that besets postal services across the globe: more e-mails, fewer letters; tough competition from private delivery services; stamps for sale online and at supermarkets; direct deposit of pension checks, which used to be handed out at the post office.

The number of customers using the post offices throughout Britain has dropped by 4 million in the last two years.

“The bottom line is there are too many post offices open, and to maintain a sustainable future, these closures are one of the steps we’ve had to take, difficult as it is to some of our customers,” said Nick Martens, a spokesman for the Royal Mail.

“Everyone probably wants their little rural post office to stay open. But they don’t always use it, I’m afraid. Some of those smaller offices have as little as a dozen customers a week going in.”

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Hawnby is a village of 60 souls embedded in the Hambledon Hills, with an additional 200 or so spread out on the rolling moorlands around it. Verdant, sheep-dotted valleys give way to the kind of bleak, boggy grasslands that inspired “Wuthering Heights” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

When the fog crawls out of the valley bottoms and seeps across the moors, leaving only a few inches illuminated in front of a car’s headlights down the lonely roads, the cheery tea room at the post office fills with villagers and hikers. The Leemings bring in pots of Yorkshire tea, scones and buttery bacon sandwiches. They are reputed to serve the best bread and butter pudding north of Watford, about 180 miles to the south.

Buying the 150-year-old post office was an “Under the Tuscan Sun” dream for both of them, Sonia Leeming said, when they held down jobs in the city of Leeds but yearned to move to the country to raise their two young sons.

The post office, like most of the rest of Hawnby, is part of the land holdings of the eighth earl of Mexborough. The Leemings put down their entire $40,000 in savings to buy the business in 2001 and have had a steady stream of customers since -- especially in summer, when flocks of tourists hiking the moors stop in for tea and newspapers.

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Sheep farmers use the post office regularly to register their new lambs and apply for European Union subsidies. One family in town runs a mail-order cushion business out of the post office; another one, a vintage jewelry operation. Hawnby is the main postal outlet for the nearby inn, riding school, boarding kennel, gliding club and real estate office.

To supplement their income, Darren Leeming repairs tractors, and the couple sells groceries, homemade jams and locally made rare-breed pig sausages out of the post office.

The steady crop of postal customers at the Hawnby counter belies any notion that rural post offices are withering, the Leemings say, and without theirs, they are not sure they will be able to keep the store and tearoom open.

“How much more can we go through?” Darren Leeming said. “We’ve had foot-and-mouth disease. We had the floods two years ago: Three road bridges washed away; I had a cow floating down the street off my front step. It seems like you get through one thing, and then there’s another one.”

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Under the closure plan, the government says, 95% of all rural residents will still have a post office within three miles; though in Hawnby, the next closest is six miles away; and a few others could be even farther for far-flung farmers. Authorities say residents can phone in for home postal service delivery, but many people doubt it will be worth much, since remote farmsteads can’t even now get mail delivered past a box near the main road.

Elliott, the photographer, has popped in at Hawnby “for a chuckle,” to learn whether anything has happened since the last time he appeared, two hours earlier.

“When I go for walks, this gives me a focal point, a sense of purpose, a place to go,” Elliott said.

“It’s all very short-sighted of the government. It’s punishing the countryside for something the countryside hasn’t done. It’s splitting England into two, rural and urban, and I think it’s ruining the social life of people who use this place as a place to know one another,” he said.

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Sonia Leeming nods approvingly. “Coopa tea?” she says.

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kim.murphy@latimes.com


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