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Dreamscapes: Suddenly I was five years old again...

The Coffee Roasting Machine
Sam North

I was walking past Lloyds Bank and suddenly, quite alarmingly; I was five years old again. Standing in the exact same spot.

The feeling lasted just a few seconds, at most, but for that brief moment I was in Grimsby 1958, my face and eyes glued to the coffee roaster in Chambers Grocery and Restaurant Emporium on the Old Market Place. God knows what had done it, but I could see everything quite clearly. I could see my now young again mother Joanna, shopping basket in hand and my new little sister Sara in the other, as she went into Chambers with her list. I was there, in my blue and grey St Martins school cap and grey shorts (most famous old boy the actor John Hurt) inhaling the coffee fumes. (Little did I know then what a coffee addict I would later become. All I knew was that roasting coffee was the best smell in the whole world. Better, even than the smell of baking bread at Malby’s bread shop across the market place.

I turned around quickly as another memory jumped into my mind. The ancient Corn Market building; was it still there? Once Grimsby boasted it’s own ancient leaning tower in the corner of the market (later torn down in the sixties by unscrupulous Grimsby councillors who cared nothing for history or elegance.) Yes. It was a curious structure tilting 20 degrees following subsidence after it was built a hundred years before. Another opportunity for future tourism lost when they tore it down. There's a few grand Victorian houses on Abbey Park Road still standing that tilt in the same fashion. Back in Chambers there is a special lunch advertised on the wall – 'Grilled Pork Sausages courtesy of Pettits the butchers', remarkably still in ’04 they remain best butchers in all of Lincolnshire.

I watched myself go inside. Chambers then seemed as big as any Sainsbury’s now, but the choice was, if anything, better. The noise was amazing. In the middle were mounds of fresh vegetables beautifully displayed, the turf of two very dominant females who made you wait if they didn’t like you. To the sides, acres of tins and biscuits, the long deli -counter, where huge hams and other cured meats hung on silver hooks from the ceiling. The walls would be covered in tins and objects and in those days you didn’t help yourself. Clerks would take your order or your lists and scurry up ladders or around the shop gathering everything you wanted. Naturally if you are five you played with the fruit or scoops in the sugar bins until someone slapped your hand or you teased your baby sister. (She was still too young to be teased then.)

My mother paid (around three pounds for everything.) After that they’d box it all up and deliver it all to our home later that afternoon. No heavy plastic bags to lug out to the supermarket car park. There were no plastic bags, no supermarkets back then. Good service and quality ruled and of course rationing had long ended, everything was plentiful again. (Although the Government still controlled prices.) Now there would be a treat. Morning coffee. Usually my mother would meet a friend or my godmother, Eva Sharpe or maybe one of her acting friends. (Joanna was a leading actress at the Caxton Players at the time.) Unlike most five year olds I wouldn’t mind as I loved to go upstairs and watch the orchestra from the balcony. But not today. We would be lunching here later with my father. So my Mother grabbed us and took us around the corner on Victoria Street to Guy & Smiths for coffee – the department store. She knew I’d be unhappy about this as I’d trapped my fingers in the lift doors the year before and hated the metal sliding cage
doors. She always took the stairs now, even though Sara was a heavy baby to carry around.

Perhaps she’d stop to look at some fashions? This would be time-consuming. I’d usually escape for half-an-hour whilst she tried on clothes. There was no need to fear about your kids back then, in town or country. There was no danger; no one would touch a kid. They might short change you if you actually had any money to spend, but never harm you. Hard to believe this now, but almost everyone was honest and respected the law. Certainly as a child I’d wander all over town or in the countryside when I was there and never be afraid. (Except of bulls or wolves, which were central figures in many of the stories I read.)
I loved to go down to the Riverhead. Not the gathering of bars and bus station it is now. But still very much scarred from bomb damage in the war. Our neighbour, Authur Lee, had a big furniture store on the corner (now the Post Office) and our Sandilands seaside neighbour Mr Sutcliffe had a hardware store (I believe) across the way. I just loved watching people and listening to the sounds of Victoria Street then. I was already nostaglic for I missed the trolley buses that had already been withdrawn a year or two before. If I had time I’d run all the way back up to the Bull Ring and the toyshop there to see if they had any new Dinky Toys. At one time I had nearly two hundred collected (but sadly had to sell them to pay for an operation in Canada twenty-five years later.)

I’d usually get back to the tea-room in time for the ‘where have you been? I have looked everywhere for you?’ but Ma wouldn’t be too concerned, after all, I was back and ready for toasted tea-cakes and what? I can’t remember what I drank then. I was very fussy I remember. Certainly not coffee. Children weren’t permitted coffee and besides it never smelled quite as good as when it was roasting. This was a very formal tea-room, with white table cloths on the tables and long velvet seating against the walls with natural light coming from the skylights, and always lots of cakes on display on circulating trolleys. Children were not ignored at the table. You would be included in the conversation, but, of course, any opinion you expressed on a matter would be completely ignored. In the main I’d wait patiently and watch the funny ladies hats, amusing myself with the sugar until my fingers got slapped.

Old Grimsby
At some point the theatre or films would be discussed and luckily my Mother was keen on both. Grimsby then boasted a huge range of places to go. The Empire Theatre Repertory, The Caxton’s Theatre where she performed and The Palace Theatre, besides the tilting bridge across the docks. I had been to see Snow White there and I had already met the famous Elsie and Doris Waters there too, (Jack Warner of 'Dixon of Dock Green'' fame comedy sisters.)

The cinemas provided the most choice. The Tower, Savoy, Rex, Globe, Chantry, Ritz, Royal, Regal, Plaza, Rialto and Queens. It would be the Savoy (then a Gaumont) where I’d be watching "Dr No" with my father on November 22nd a few years later and the manager came out to tell us President Kennedy had been shot and sent us all home. I remember we were all shocked. Some people cried. The Savoy is now a Macdonalds sad to say.

If it was a Friday, it would be the one day in the week that my mother and father would meet for lunch. It would nearly always be Chambers, because my father Bob always ate lunch there, at the same table served by the same waitress, Gladys, who had in turn served my Grandfather Sam. I loved going to Chambers for lunch. The corner booth table, the little three-piece orchestra, usually murdering something by Strauss or Mozart and especially Gladys. Her tall willowy figure, always flustered, but knowing all our names and what we might order. She always knew what was cooked best in the kitchens. My father, would arrive in his business suit and make a fuss of baby Sara and then me. I have no recollection of any conversations, but I know I would nag Gladys slyly to try to persuade the orchestra to play 'Teddy Bears Picnic' for me and that became quite a ritual. They always played it, of course, and I’d go the circular railings and watch them saw away on the violin and bash it out on the piano. They’d then take little bows towards me, mocking me I think, but at the same time appreciating that at least someone was listening.

My father would order something like partridge and it would come with all the trimmings and several vegetables, all for about 4/6d. (46 pence today.) I’d probably be given liver and onions or steak and kidney pie (things I would never eat now); my mother would be on a diet and Sara would eat a grated carrot. It’s funny, all I can recall is the booth, the music, the smile on my fathers face, the burnished orange texture of his tweed jacket but nothing of what was ever said.

We’d separate after the sweets. (Jelly and custard or apple pie) and in a rush my mother would ‘do the market’ getting vegetables or cheeses from the stalls or kippers perhaps from the wet fish stall. I’d disappear, of course, usually to inhale one last fix of coffee roasting, or race over to Betty Hartung’s hairdressing shop to say hello. Her young daughter and pianist Victoria would become a lifelong friend until she moved to America.

I don’t recall many of these visits because I was then sent away to boarding school forever – so the Grimsby I remember from my youth is still vaguely medieval, rather than the place it is now. A five-year-old knows nothing of what a town is really like, you just know you way around it by smell and instinct. Above all old Grimsby was a place of smells- a blind man would never need be lost. The bakers, the fishmongers, Pettits the butcher with his pheasants hanging outside the windows where you could stroke the still unplucked dead birds. The heady scent of Hewitts Brewery alongside Pasture Street that was sometimes so strong I’d feel dizzy walking past. The steam trains that would go to London direct in those days in just three hours via Alford, Boston and Peterborough. The fish docks, the timber docks with my father’s mill emitting ear splitting screeching from Swedish and Finnish timbers being sawn for floorboards. I recall also the sawdust warehouse, the contents of which my Dad would swop for free tickets to Billy Smarts’ circus that came once a year to a field near Old Clee. I hated what they did to the animals but the clowns were funny, unless they made you join in!

It’s a different place - different world. The surrounding elegant homes of Grimsby around People's Park signify that once Grimsby was something altogether more grand a hundred years ago. But like many other towns in the sixties, it sold it’s soul to the devil (who apparently was a scheming architect with a taste for ugly concrete), and destroyed much that was worth keeping and built nothing that is worth saving. By luck it has the excellent Freshney shopping centre in the middle of town built in the late eighties that has kept the town cohesive and focused. It escaped an out of town mall that has killed so many towns across the world. But alas, no place there, that I know of, roasts coffee anymore.

Standing for that brief moment as a five year old again, you see with astonishment that forty-five years ago the town still looks quite Victorian. You realise that, even in 1958, half the population would have been born when she was still Queen. Despite the wars and being in the dawn of a new atomic era, the town was very old fashioned. I can’t believe that I too was born into a time that wouldn’t look out of place in a Miss Marple episode. Anyone young now transported there would probably hate it. How drab it would seem. Only two TV channels, no mobile phones, no computers, no nothing, save Saturday morning ‘serials’ at the cinema and maybe a dance at the Winter Gardens. If you looked tall enough you’d probably get into the many hundreds of pubs. Of course, it was safer and there was something like full employment, albeit in the fish docks or factories, nothing glamorous like real estate or designer stores. A new home would cost all of 750 quid and they were building council houses by the thousands back then. But for a five year old, entering Chambers, passing by that roasting coffee drum, it was as good as entering Aladdin’s cave (and a good deal safer) and I’m happy to have been there again today, even for a few seconds.
© Sam North Jan 2004 -

Grimsby - The Dock Tower shown is a town of 120,000 people on the East Coast of UK

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