Kielder in Northumberland holds the dubious honor of being the furthest UK village from an ATM. Residents of this quaint community, which is just three miles south of the Anglo-Scottish border, must travel 18 miles to reach the nearest free ATM at a co-op store in the village of Bellingham.
A round trip by car on the winding lanes can take two hours or more. Those who rely on public transport face an even tougher struggle.
Getting to a bank is a bigger challenge. Bellingham once had three branches – a Lloyds, a Barclays and a TSB – but these have closed in recent years, leaving residents of Kielder no choice but to travel to Hexham, 30 miles away, to reach branch. Kielder may seem like an extreme example. Yet it offers a glimpse into the future of thousands of communities across the UK, which risk being turned into money wastelands without access to physical cash.
The fact is that the banks are rushing us towards a cashless society by closing more and more branches and ATMs. The number of big banks has halved in the past eight years – and another 263 are already slated for closure this year.
When banks flee, they also rip out their ATMs. Nearly a third of ATMs were removed during the same period, more than 20,000.
Take Me to the Money: Toby Walne with Farmer John Richardson, and Go Cycling
Kielder Parish Council Chairman Dick Graham shakes his head in disbelief at how banks have been allowed to abandon communities without any accountability.
The 69-year-old retired Forestry Commission worker says: ‘Banks spend millions on advertising claiming they are there to support us, but the truth is they just want to extort every penny we have.”
“Abolition of branches and ATMs, forcing people to spend with cards rather than cash, only increases their profits.”
Cash network organization Link says banking centers where several different banks share the same premises could be a solution for residents of Kielder and Bellingham.
However, although 34 such hubs are in the works nationwide, only four have actually opened. Branch closures continue as banking centers open at a snail’s pace.
Graham adds: ‘Hodes of tourists come to take advantage of our rural location, but struggle to come up with cash. An ATM or mobile bank could be a boon for our village.
Go to the ticket machine
Driving is by far the easiest option to get from Kielder to Bellingham – although it can take up to an hour when the weather closes. Meanwhile, a round trip to Hexham on difficult routes can take three hours or more. As I am in Kielder without a car, I inquire about a taxi instead. But, the return trip will cost me £120 – a huge sum for anyone’s budget and impractical when the ATM limit is just £250.
Next, I look at public transport. Kielder resident Jeannette Barron, 63, tells me she pays £10 back for a dialing service to get to a bank and shops in Hexham.
But the service is only available on Tuesday and Friday, with only one bus per day. Passengers are picked up in Kielder at 8.45am and arrive in Hexham almost two hours later. The bus returns at 1:45 p.m. Jeannette, a retired custodial officer, says, “Unfortunately, due to our location, online banking is necessary, but not by choice. This makes you more vulnerable to hackers, and those of us who aren’t into computers can really struggle. If more banks close, millions more will be forced to bank online.
I call the on-demand service company Adapt (NE) to book a ride. Someone answers and says he is busy and will call back in ten minutes. I’m still waiting for that call. Then I pay a visit to the village bike rental company, The Bike Place. Here I can hire a pedal bike for £35 for the day or £60 for an electric. Manager Martin Lively said: “If you pedal now and don’t hang around you can be at the Bellingham vending machine in 90 minutes.”
But the rain is starting to spit and I don’t like the look of the steep hills in front of me. Politely declining the offer, I quickly leave.
Running out of options, I decide to try hitchhiking.
However, it’s a gamble because I might get stuck on the way or trying to get back. There is also the small problem that there are few vehicles on the road and locals are rightly wary of a strange stranger holding a notepad.
I think I struck my luck when I came across sheep farmer John Richardson checking his 300 Swaledales on 100 acres of land at Yarrow, just beside the six-mile-long Kielder Water Reservoir.
The 83 year old has a twinkle in his eye as he rolls around in his 450cc quad and encourages me to get on board. He says, “Of course, we all need money, even living here. But the banks just don’t want to know or care.
However, John concedes the quad won’t do for a trip to the Halifax branch in Hexham, where he counts. He can only take me on tracks away from the tarmac as he doesn’t have a quad driving license – not ideal when it’s raining.
At least the Post survives
For those who are very flexible on schedules and do not prefer the anonymity of an ATM, the post office offers another option. It is open from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Monday and Saturday and six hours a day from Tuesday to Friday.
Unlike the banks in the region, the post has survived thanks to strict regulations, essential to preserve access to cash.
Sign of the times: Residents of Kielder have 29km journey to ATM
When I go there, the entrance is locked, with a sign on the old, weathered blue door saying, “Please ring for service.”
Postmaster Julie Webb opens the small post office kiosk, covered in advertisements from a bygone era – promoting fishing rod licenses, telephone cards and national savings.
It’s freezing cold because Julie can’t afford to heat the room – she’s wrapped in a hooded blanket.
There’s nothing to sell but used books to raise money for the local air ambulance service. The store where the post office is located was closed years ago.
Julie says: “About 95% of every postcode district must be within six miles of their nearest post office – and that minimum level of access keeps us alive. Banks have no such rules.
This post office survives with the bare bones of a service but if Julie decides to close, it’s hard to imagine who else could take on the limited service to serve locals.
Despite the challenges, money is always on the menu
When I finally arrive in Bellingham, I step into the Village Bakery, a shop that has been serving locals for over a century.
There are polite signs strewn around: ‘Please note – cash only. THANKS.’
Clever bank managers wanting to force customers to hand over a debit or credit card for payment – or ‘pass’ a piece of plastic over an e-reader – would be bullied by the bakery owner’s wife , Bridget Arnup. She doesn’t even have a cash register.
Bridget says: ‘We have no intention of helping banks and others make more money by charging us a commission for taking their cards and we won’t be intimidated into giving up the freedom to use credit cards. ‘cash.”
“You take money away and only God knows what could happen. Electronic payments sound great, but what happens when fraudsters hack computer systems. Cash also helps with budgeting.
And with this lesson I buy a scotch pie, hash and onion pie, shortbread and custard tart for the princely sum of £4.50 after withdrawing cash from the ATM neighbor.
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