This morning we watched the rain in dismay as we counted down the hours to the Steeple Aston church fête, one of those traditional festivities that used to mark the English summer, with the promise of home-made cakes and jams, tombola and coconut-shy. It offered old-school bucolic fun, where townies like us could travel out of urban central Oxford to rub shoulders with country folk and, briefly, inhabit the world of the Archers.
Would they still bowl for a pig as in days of yore, I wondered? I feared not: that kind of entertainment would surely be long gone, consigned to history decades before Covid cramped our collective style and led to the cancellation of countless rural events. (In fact, and to the organisers’ credit, there was bowling for a pig, of a sort: the winner was awarded a pork joint, rather than being obliged to tuck a live porker under their arm).
To me, Steeple Aston offered an element beyond mere “normality”. The somewhat geriatric Big Band that I joined in retirement in 2018, Abingdon Swingtime, was booked to perform under the inspiring leadership of the rector: together again after a painful 18 months without playing a note.
So far, so good. But Mrs Trafford and I realised we had overlooked the matter of being equipped with plenty of small change – which, in 2021, means £1 coins.
You want cash, madam? From a bank?
Through lockdown, we’ve lost the habit of carrying coins: even traditional markets have switched to contactless payments. But, we thought, the worthies of Steeple Aston, plying their wares and entertainments, wouldn’t have that technology.
Accordingly, in central Oxford a few days ago, I searched my wallet and found an ageing £20 note. My wife offered to dart into the nearest bank in search of £1 coins.
Here’s where the problems started. Santander, right opposite Oxford’s famous Carfax clock-tower, asked whether she had an account with the bank. She explained patiently that she just wanted to change the note for a handful of coins.
You’d have thought she was after magic beans. The bank’s rules forbade her to make the swap. So she went next door, where the smart new premises of the Metro Bank looked more promising.
She didn’t even get as far as a cashier. An officious masked figure informed her that, unless she banked with Metro, they couldn’t take her note. No reason was given, though we were beginning to fantasise that it was something to do with money laundering.
Writing on the (hole-in-the) wall
I should have been warned of a problem when, a fortnight previously, I’d popped into NatWest: we don’t bank with them, but our eccentric choice of bank, the Swedish Handelsbanken (which doesn’t have high-street branches), has an arrangement so that we can pay cheques in at NatWest branches.
Mrs T had a yen to hold one of those new £50 notes, boasting a picture of mathematical genius Alan Turing: my Bletchley-born wife went to school in the shadow of the famous Park, its function and history then still shrouded in secrecy.
NatWest couldn’t let me present a bank card and withdraw the required note: but I was permitted to use an in-branch cash dispenser and exchange the cash obtained for a £50.
Coming up with the cash
Back to the saga of the £1 coins, which ends happily. Nationwide Building Society, initially nervous, located a clerk who reckoned she could rustle up twenty coins, gained special (signed-for) permission, and effected the switch, twenty coins for a single £20 note.
Hurrah! Well done Nationwide, billing itself as “Building Society in Oxford”, a statement that seems over-obvious.
But here’s the moral of the tale. It seems we can get money out of a wall anywhere, at any time: but don’t try asking for it in a bank, even offering good currency in return, if you don’t have an account there.
“Yes, madam, this is a bank: but, no, you can’t have any small change!” This, I guess, is still banking: but, as Star Trek might have had it, it’s not banking as we know it, Jim!
Oh, and the fête was great!