Customers who lose services not impressed by bank statements

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The Independent Online

They marched through the narrow streets past the gift shops and tea rooms. Pensioners, children and their parents snaking their way through rows of stone-built terraced cottages until they reached the main square. There, with the solemnity usually reserved for a funeral, they laid a wreath at the door of Barclays bank.

The people of Belford, in Northumberland, are just one of hundreds of villages and rural communities that lost their banking facilities yesterday as 171 branches of Barclays closed their doors for the last time.

Like villagers all over the country, they had signed petitions, staged sit-ins and even blocked the surrounding roads with farm machinery to try and persuade the bank to change its mind. To no avail.

Geoff O'Connell, who led the six-week campaign to save the Belford bank, said: "This closure is going to cause a substantial amount of hardship for people in the village, especially the elderly, infirm and people with small children. Our nearest bank will be in Seahouses 10 miles away. It doesn't seem a great distance but the public transport isn't great; it's a half-hour bus journey and it's going to cost us £4.50."

As the children from Belford First School gathered in the square to perform a rap song composed especially for the campaign to keep the 127-year-old bank open, similar protests were going on all over England.

More than 1,000 people from villages in Lancashire signed petitions against the closures. John Fretwell, a Lancaster district councillor, said: "It is appalling how people have been treated. The bank is turning its back on people who have supported them for years."

In Terrington St Clement, in Norfolk, where five pensioners and a Methodist minister staged a five-hour sit-in that led to the bank being closed for six days so the staff could recover from the "psychological trauma", a notice was pasted on the door: "Bank to let. Sympathetic bank or building society that cares for its customers. Guaranteed no sit-ins." Staff at the bank were told to close early yesterday if they felt threatened.

Back in Belford, Mr O'Connell said: "In their mission statement Barclays say they have a duty to support the communities in which they serve - and they are not doing so."

Nick Johnson, who runs a building business in the village, said: "My family have banked in that building since 1957 and we didn't even get a letter to say it was closing. We have a turnover of just under £1m which goes through that bank and we will have to look elsewhere now."

A post office in the village will operate personal bank accounts from Monday but local businesses, like Mr Johnson, and the farming community will have to travel one of the surrounding towns for transactions.

The Post Office, which has already run a pilot scheme in Cornwall offering personal banking services, said yesterday it would expand the service to cover all of England and Wales, and the Nationwide Building Society announced that it planned to install 70 cash machines in the affected areas.

But for most customers that does not make up for the feeling they have been badly treated by a bank to which they remained loyal for years. Alan Buck, 81, said: "The closure is very upsetting ... It's affecting the whole life of the village."

Barclays' advertising campaign claims that a big world needs a big bank. It seems that a small village needs no bank at all.