Irene Hall, 47, was named Britain's best milkperson for 1993 in October. She lives with her husband, Ken, who also delivers milk, and their two grown-up sons in Blackburn, Lancashire.

'WE ALWAYS wake up at 3.50am, even on Sundays when we don't deliver. It's such a pleasure then to sit in our big Victorian four-poster bed and have a chat, knowing that we haven't got to go out.

'We really love that bed. A mahogany four-poster was one of my three lifetime ambitions and I finally got it last year. It's like a lounge with all those drapes. We often go in it in the daytime and have a cup of tea. Our 20-year-old lad's just as bad - when we're not there he asks if he can lie in it and read.

'I don't mind getting up in the middle of the night. You know that so many people are relying on you to have the milk on their doorsteps before breakfast. We're finished by 8.30am and then we have the rest of the day for ourselves. We don't go to bed early, but I usually get five hours' sleep, and that seems to be enough. I don't think I ever dream.

''Our customers have become our friends. They leave cakes and home-grown vegetables out for us. We meet them to talk to on Friday afternoons when we call to collect the money. We don't go out socialising in the evenings, we don't need to - we've been happy with each other's company for 22 years.

'There are some elderly people we keep a special eye on. We have keys to their homes and we check they're all right every night when we're doing the rounds. Sometimes they leave notes asking us to run little errands for them. We've done all sorts, from posting letters to peeling potatoes.

'A while back I found one old lady still up when I went into her house in the early hours. She looked ill and said she had a stabbing pain in her chest. I was worried she was having a heart attack. She lifted up her top to show me and she was wearing this big pink whalebone corset. One of the bones was sticking right into her. I pulled it out and she was so relieved]

'We keep an eye out for burglars, and Ken's chased many a person off from interfering with vehicles. We each have our own milk-cart, but Ken's never far; I know where he is by the bottles on doorsteps. I'm not nervous being out by myself in the dark. When our two boys were little I used to take them with me, all snuggled up in a blanket. They loved it. It seems to have given them a healthy life and both of them are milkmen now.

'I sing as I go along the quiet empty streets. People wouldn't believe their ears] I like hymns and Elvis Presley. Ken made up a song about Emma, his float, and I had that on the brain for a while: 'Roll on Emma, through the cold and the dark, Emma she just rolls along' . . . it's quite catchy.

'I love the night. You see some wonderful things, like ducks waddling in a line down the main road. There are hedgehogs and squirrels, too. One little dog used to get in front with me at his house and stay until the end of my round, when I'd give him a bowl of milk. But owners aren't allowed to leave dogs out now so I don't see him any more.

'Everything is so peaceful and still. You see a few people, policemen, nightworkers and so on, but generally you're all alone. My mind wanders and I often think of the past. My father died last year and I was with him most of the night, holding his hand as he passed away. Ten minutes after he died I was on the milk. I had to leave my mother and that was really hard. I relive that moment a lot.

'I haven't had a day off in 11 years. I'm never ill - it's all the milk I drink] Even when we went to London for the awards ceremony we got up at 2am to do the round before we left. We don't need an alarm clock because I can set my mind to waking up at whatever time I like. It's never failed yet.

'Going to London was the second of my great ambitions. The only one left now is to fly on Concorde. We got to see all the sights and we still talk about the trip because it was so exciting. But we couldn't sleep down there. It was terribly noisy, there were cars in the street even at 3am and street lights blazing - we never draw our curtains at home.

'I'd never stayed in a hotel before, and they'd given us single beds. We're used to being together, talking and laughing until we fall asleep, so we didn't like that. In the end Ken snuggled up with me in my bed.

'I made the beds and tidied up in the morning. I know you're not supposed to, but I just didn't like the thought of someone else doing it for me.'

(Photograph omitted)