Goodbye to pair at the heart of Cold Bath Road Post Office

NADV 1208181AM1 John Moretta and Christine Ford who are retiring from the post office on Cold Bath Road. (1208181AM1)
NADV 1208181AM1 John Moretta and Christine Ford who are retiring from the post office on Cold Bath Road. (1208181AM1)

They are known as the face of a campaign which united the town. A fight to save their sub Post Office from proposed closure in 2007 which made national newspaper headlines.

But John Moretta and Christine Ford are known locally as something more than that: a genuinely lovely couple.

tis  Protestors including Phil Willis MP and partner in Cold Bath Road Post Office and News John Moretta walk into the town centre.   040108M1i.

tis Protestors including Phil Willis MP and partner in Cold Bath Road Post Office and News John Moretta walk into the town centre. 040108M1i.

This, at least in part, is the reason why people fought so hard to save their store.

And, now that the pair have sold the shop and taken an early retirement, it will be what customers miss the most.

“We were so touched by what happened,” said John, who ran the Post Office with partner Christine for 12 years. “As we look back on it now, we see those as really happy times.

“People really took it to heart and we were humbled by their fight.”

tis  Partner in Cold Bath Road Post Office and News John Moretta talks to protestors at the start of the walk.   040108M1b.

tis Partner in Cold Bath Road Post Office and News John Moretta talks to protestors at the start of the walk. 040108M1b.

The Cold Bath Road Post Office appeared on a list of proposed closures in November 2007.

John and Christine were stunned – their shop made a profit. It was busy and popular. Why, they wondered, had they been chosen, out of so many in Harrogate, to close?

“I will never forget the day they came to say we would close,” said Christine. “I was absolutely devastated. I just kept thinking of our staff.

“Then I was quite cross. The Post Office wasn’t doing the right thing. We had to fight it. We weren’t about to lie down and let them close it. We weren’t going to roll over easily.”

TIS. Sub post master John Moretta and sub post mistress Christine Ford. Picture : Adrian Murray. AM0802082

TIS. Sub post master John Moretta and sub post mistress Christine Ford. Picture : Adrian Murray. AM0802082

But they were tied up in red tape. Christine, the sub-postmistress, wasn’t allowed to talk to the press.

So her partner John, who had stood by her side since they bought the Post Office in 2000, became the face of the campaign.

“It was a big thing in Harrogate, we were on the front page of the Harrogate Advertiser week after week,” he said.

“There were camera crews parked outside, the BBC filmed a documentary about us, we were talked about in the Houses of Parliament.”

By the end of the Save our Post Office campaign, backed by the Harrogate Advertiser, 11,000 people had signed petitions.

Many hundreds of people had braved a cold winter’s night for a public meeting at St Mary’s Church Hall, many more to protest at a council meeting at the Cairn Hotel.

One memorable image which came to signify the strength of feeling was the sight of a great sea of people on a protest march through the streets of Harrogate.

Young mums with pushchairs, elderly men and women in wheelchairs and with sticks, great crowds of schoolchildren and businessmen, all taking to the icy streets on a cold January morning to support the Cold Bath Road Post Office.

“My memory of that time is John having to stand on a crate to be heard above all the crowds,” said Christine.

“If you really believe in something, you can say what you need to.”

The couple said that their customers’ support of them at that time left them quite emotional.

“One of the most moving times was when we had a public meeting at St Mary’s,” said Christine.

“It was a cold, wintry Monday night, Coronation Street was on, but there were all these hundreds of people trying to fit into that hall. One lady had walked there on two sticks to support us.

“That was the point when we really realised how much it was valued. We thought then that we had to fight to keep it open.”

John added: “It was like a snowball going downhill, it really galvanised everybody. One lady went down Cold Bath Road measuring curbs with a tape measure.

“It was such an amazing, eclectic mix of people that supported us and it was the customers that made the difference.

“The person whose decision it was was at the public meeting at the Cairn Hotel. I remember asking for a quiet word and he said they were looking at it again. We knew then we were at the tipping point. That was a nice feeling.

“In the end they said they kept it open because of parking.”

So what was it about the Cold Bath Road Post Office that really spurred people into action? There was the location, the easy access and parking, but more than that, it was John and Christine themselves.

“They are lovely people - they don’t make us feel like fools”, said one lady at the time, another writing to the Advertiser to say that they were the “real heroes” who had saved the Post Office.

After writing to their customers recently to warn them they were leaving, the couple have been sent scores of letters and cards and have been overwhelmed with the response.

“You’ve been a valued part of the fabric in this area,” read one letter, while another said: “It wont be the same without you. You will be a very hard act to follow.

“It has been the centre of the community and much appreciated by all who use it.”

John and Christine, who live on Arthur’s Avenue, first bought the Post Office, then known as SG Hitchens, in 2000.

Christine had already been working there for 13 years, having moved from the central Post Office where she trained after leaving school.

John, whose background was in retail, working in electrical stores and as a sales manager for All Sports, joined her.

“The tills broke on the day we bought it but we managed,” he said. “We gave it a bit of a clear-up, a lick of paint, and we were ready.

“We found, with a bit of hard work, people gradually started coming back.

“It was what people thought of as a proper Post Office. I was always told to do what you know, and do it to your best, and that was what we tried.”

Christine and John, both 60, said they were sad to leave the Post Office but that it had been the right decision to make.

“It’s been a very happy place,” said Christine.

“Our staff have become friends, we have watched the paper boys blossom to become young men. We have seen mums coming in with bumps - now those bumps are all grown up and going to the Grammar School.

“It’s been a wonderful time. But we worked really hard, one of us was there from five in the morning until six or seven at night, every night.

“Even on the day John’s mum died, we still had to put the papers out in the morning.

“But life isn’t a dress rehearsal. We always said we would give it up while we were still fit and able to live it.”

John said his time at the Post Office had been a lesson in life.

“We see all sorts, some good, some bad, although very rarely so,” he said. “Even the people walking home at five in the morning, when I’m setting up the papers, are very friendly.

The early morning starts, although tough for John, have provided some of his favourite memories.

“A guy came in one morning to buy cigarettes at about 5am,” he said. “He looked like he was on his way to work, suit jacket, shirt and tie.

“It was only when he went to get out his wallet that he realised he wasn’t wearing any trousers.”

Another time when putting out the early papers, John noticed that a man dressed as Batman’s sidekick Robin was asleep in the phone box outside.

“He was just a guy, on a night out in fancy dress in Harrogate, who couldn’t remember where he was staying and had lost his friends,” he said.

“It was a cold winter’s night, he was only wearing a latex suit with a pair of underpants on top. I suppose he was trying to keep warm.”

Over the years, there have been disagreements over which elderly lady gets to rest on the store’s stool and three different stray dogs have been brought to the Post Office to find their owners.

“It really is the heart of the community of Cold Bath Road,” said Christine.

New owners Trevor and Sue Spurgeon, from Filey, took the reins on August 18, but John and Christine are actually working in the shop this week while they are on holiday.

“We will get used to doing less,” said John. “We will be able to do the food shopping before 8pm, that will be novel.

“So far, we’ve had a couple of days of paperwork, a day in the garden, a day taking our grandson to Scarborough and letting him exhaust us.”

Between them, the couple have three children. John has Christopher and Lisa, and Christine has Jordan. They have two grandchildren, three-year-old Daniel and Georgia, just three weeks old.

Christine said: “People have asked if we are going on a cruise - we don’t even have passports, ours expired so long ago and we’ve not been able to have holidays for so long.

“So we will definitely be fitting in some holidays. I’m sure there will be a little bit of childminding. But we will always just be a phone call away. We want them to do well.”

Both of them will look back fondly on their days at the Cold Bath Road Post Office.

“We really do see life, there from five in the morning until six or seven at night,” said John.

“People are tremendously good. School kids get a bad rap, but not from us. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a kid helping an elderly person across the street, or we’ve had a young one in to apologise for stealing a penny sweet.

“People have let us into their lives, treated us as a family friend, a confidant, an advisor.

“We started with a lot of customers but we come away with a lot of friends.”