JANE FRYER: Would last bank in Windsor be closed if Queen was alive?

JANE FRYER: Would they have dared close the last bank in Windsor if the late Queen was still in the castle?

Royal Windsor has a huge array of tours to entertain its millions of visitors each year. They cover everything from Windsor Castle to hauntings, the royals to the town’s Tudor architecture.

I’m told there was once even a coffee trail, set up by two tired mums obsessed with finding the strongest coffee in town. All have had extremely good reviews.

But yesterday, local councillor Julian Tisi and I invented a brand-new experience, which I named ‘On the trail of the long-lost High Street bank’, and I’m not sure I would recommend it for a cheery day out.

Because while Windsor couldn’t have looked lovelier in the blinding sunshine, with the bunting flapping and a group of Japanese tourists queuing up to take selfies with a cardboard cut-out of our late Queen, something rather off and iffy is happening to the historic town centre.

Over the past couple of years, every single one of the town’s banks has closed down. Yes, all of them โ€” with the exception of a small private Swedish bank called Handelsbanken, which I’m told, several times, in different ways, ‘is no bloody good for normal people like us’.

Royal Windsor has a huge array of tours to entertain its millions of visitors each year

While Windsor couldn’t have looked lovelier in the blinding sunshine, with a group of tourists queuing up to take selfies with a cardboard cut-out of our late Queen, something rather off and iffy is happening to the historic town centre

Lloyds Bank closed its doors in March last year, says Councillor Tisi. Today, standing tall on the curve of the ancient High Street, it is covered in scaffolding. Next went NatWest in July 2022, and Halifax in December. Metro Bank had only a brief incarnation, before being turned into an Outdoor Warehouse. ‘It had a big opening, with balloons and everything,’ remembers a lady called Sue Spooner, 43, enjoying an ice cream in the sun. And Santander shut its Windsor branch in 2021. The only one left in town is Nationwide.

Last month, HSBC joined the exodus. And, finally, Barclays โ€” perched in prime position in an exquisite building on the corner of the High Street, directly opposite the castle โ€” closed its doors the following day. For good.

‘They’ve all shut in the past two years, and we get the standard letters each time,’ says Councillor Tisi. ‘But when we got the Barclays one, I felt a bit sick. It’s all the usual ‘We’re going but we’re not gone’ nonsense.’

He means banking hubs: outlets created by teaming up with post offices or libraries, pop-up banking facilities, mobile vans, banking pods, telephone banking, enhanced online banking.

None of which cut any ice yesterday, when Joyce, 72, from Datchet, arrived for her fortnightly visit to Windsor โ€” a quick pop to the post office, a visit to M&S to pick up a few groceries, then a stop-off at the bank to pay in a couple of cheques and withdraw enough cash for all her small bills.

‘It’s closed! They’ve even boarded up the cash machine,’ she says, flabbergasted. ‘I’ve used this branch for as long as I can remember, every week, and I wasn’t told. It was a total surprise. I’m not sure what I’ll do.’

Jane, also 72, from Windsor, is feeling much the same, but angrier. She had banked ‘for ever’ at the HSBC branch and is ‘desperate’ to set up a standing order, but there’s no one to talk to. ‘I could go to Slough, to the branch there but that’s a bus ride and a walk at the other end and, well…’ she waves her walking stick at me crossly. ‘And they say you can use the post office, but that’s not really a bank, is it?’

Of all the places to go ‘bank-free’, Windsor does feel very much the wrong choice. Not just because residents are asking what the late Queen would have made of it. Would they have dared to shut down โ€” particularly those in plain sight of the castle โ€” if she were still in residence. But also because of the endless stream of tourists. Within five minutes of arriving, I am stopped by two separate couples from the U.S. on the hunt for a cash machine.

Of all the places to go ‘bank-free’, Windsor does feel very much the wrong choice

The borough has an ageing population, with 18.4 per cent of residents being aged 65 and over and 12.4 per cent declaring a disability. All of whom need a bit more help navigating today’s endless technological demands.

When Jane has calmed down a bit, I ask if she has ever tried online banking. ‘Don’t get me started!’ she says. ‘I’m old-school. I like cash. I like the feel of it. It’s far too easy to keep swiping that card and not keeping a proper eye on the balance! Not just for me, but for youngsters, too. I’ll never go online. I know everything changed during the pandemic, but I’m too old for it now.’

And, of course, she’s right. Everything has changed over recent years. Thanks to Covid, we were forced to revert to online banking and cash was squeezed out by many retailers who never embraced it again.

When I pop into the Windsor branch of Gail’s for a coffee, I’m told they haven’t accepted cash for years now.

Several bars in town have also gone cash-free. Those that haven’t now need to travel to bank branches in Slough to deposit their cash at the end of the day.

By the end of this year, HSBC, NatWest, Nationwide, Barclays, Virgin Money, TSB, Santander and Lloyds will have shut down 2,277 branches between them since 2019.

According to Barclays, about 95 per cent of their customers now bank online, which means footfall at their branches plummeted. You can see the commercial sense: these huge buildings, staffed, heated but not used so much.

When the closures first started a couple of years ago, no one was terribly alarmed. It was happening all over the country. The town had plenty of banks and everyone could understand why one, or maybe two, had to go.

But as they fell โ€” ‘like dominoes!’ says an old boy in a Panama hat โ€” it became a bit much. As Councillor Tisi puts it: ‘We can’t be like King Canute against the tide. We have to recognise that people are not using cash so much. But what about the five per cent? They do exist! And why do it all so quickly?’

And it is not just the elderly and vulnerable who are affected. Scrolling through the local community Facebook pages reveals some very animated chat.

Not just about the closures, the lack of notice, shortage of cash machines, death of the High Street, the poor handling and the speed of it all, but the suggestion that the overloaded post office picks up the slack as the new community banking hub.

When I pop into Windsor’s post office, there are already 11 people standing patiently in the queue. Outside, a handwritten note stuck to the window says: ‘Due to shortage of staff, we shall close for lunch between 1pm and 2pm.’

So bang goes anyone’s chance of catching up on their banking in their lunch hour. At the taxi rank, tempers are fraying. ‘The banks closing is a total nightmare,’ says cab driver Javid. ‘We take cards, but customers are always wanting cash, and the card machines depend on good reception.’

Councillor Tisi and I trudge through Windsor’s streets, from empty bank to empty bank, and stop for a while to stare through the dusty windows of what was until recently HSBC. At the deposit machines and cash machines, splayed wide open, the pens still sit in their little dispensers and the hand sanitisers next to them, which will never be used again. What a crying shame.

There is one winner though โ€” the Nationwide Building Society, which, miraculously, not only has a cash machine and a couple of friendly clerks, Emma and Remon, but also a hastily erected sign outside which reads: ‘If your local bank is closing, why not join a building society instead..?’

Very good point. Why don’t they all just swap over and enjoy face-to-face banking again with Emma and Remon? ‘I’ve thought about it. Of course, I have,’ says Jane. ‘But how long are they going to be there for? You change everything over and, before you know it, they’ve gone too and I don’t think I could face that.’

And I can see her point. Because today I have learned a lot about banks. But most importantly that, to a lot of people, they represent far more than somewhere to get your cash, deposit some cheques, or sort out a loan. More than a bank, even.

Perhaps Jane sums it up best. ‘Banks are about community. They’re about security. You go to a bank with a problem and they’ll sort it out. They know what they’re doing. They’re part of the framework of our society.’

But, sadly, not in Windsor. Not any more. Here, they are just a load of empty old buildings.

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