Remember when chief executives of the big banks vied with each other to close the most branches?

It was a virility test, tempered, not always successful-ly, by a degree of guile.

A loose-tongued director of Barclays once confessed that the trick was never to be left with the last branch in a high street.

Locals rarely minded that their own bank was quitting so long as there was somewhere left to pay in a cheque.

They reserved their outrage for the last survivor, so prudent branch-cutters got in first. Takeover and merger plans hinged on the numbers of branches that would over-lap and be dispensed with.

In practice that never quite worked out and when The Royal Bank of Scotland mopped up NatWest they found colossal savings without any great cull of branches. The cull had been done before.

In the brave new world of telephone and internet bank-ing, plastic shopping and holes in the wall for cash, branches were a costly anachronism. So we were told.

Few people ever visited the branch where they held their account. Of course, they didn't. There was no manager there any more to discuss your overdraft. So when you move home there is no point in moving your bank account to a new branch.

If you were well-off you w ere awarded some "personal" or "business" manager to keep a file on your account(s) and try to be helpful if help is needed - with a remit to sell you one of the bank's services or some insurance or investment package as frequently as he dares. Less monied customers could make do with a voice in a call centre.

Strangely, it is not quite like that any more. Wholesale branch closures came to an end some while back.

The Royal Bank of Scotland has even instituted a system at NatWest whereby the voice at the call centre can put your call through to a branch where there is somebody who can nip out of the office and check if you left your debit card on the counter.

Now HSBC has earmarked £450 million for its UK branch network.

That is likely to be spent on shifting some branches to places where people want them nowadays, and sprucing up others, rather than increasing the total number. Just the same, £450 million is serious money.

HSBC and its rivals are delighted that more and more of their customers trust the internet and use it for their banking. They welcome the rise of plastic and the decline of the cheque.

But some of us still write cheques and still have cheques - or, indeed, cash - to pay in. We can't do that over the internet, however secure we are told it is. And when something goes wrong we prefer to go down to the branch and sort it out face to face rather than struggling with a call-centre voice whose computer is "doing funny things things morning".

The strange thing is that there are so many of us that HSBC, and no doubt the others, have decided that it is worth this money and effort to keep our custom.

Maybe it is stranger still that so many of us are prepared to stand in queues for a service which we could probably obtain electronically.