In which The Author goes on another nostalgia trip
According to the BBC news yesterday, the further deregulation of Sunday shopping in England and Wales seems to be on the cards. My younger readers won’t remember a time when it was barely possible to buy a newspaper or a pint of milk on a Sunday.
That all changed in 1992, when the law gave shops the right to open for up to six hours. Now it looks as though even that limited trading regime might be on the way out, and replaced by a retail free-for-all. Unusually for the BBC, they stooped low enough to speak to a representative of USDAW (the shopworkers’ trade union), who was understandably concerned about the possible repercussions for their members. It all sounded very familiar to me.
I quit working in Waterstone’s when they announced that staff numbers were being cut back, and that the remaining employees’ working rotas would be redrawn. All full-time staff would be expected to work on Sundays, starting at 9 a.m. Even though the doors wouldn’t open before 11 o’clock, they’d be expected to tidy the shop and so forth. The legal opt-out, granted to those of us whose contracts pre-dated the original Sunday Trading Act, was to be deleted from the new contracts we were all expected to sign. As there’s absolutely no way to get to Cardiff from Aberdare before 11 a.m., that was the final push towards the exit I needed. I took the money and ran all the way to the University of Glamorgan.
I thought I’d turn back the clock to the 1970s and 1980s again, long before the law changed and the out-of-town supermarkets laid our shopping centres to waste. I’ve been thinking about revisiting old Trecynon for a while anyway. After seeing the photos of old Cwmaman on Friday, I’ve been inspired to sit down and do it for real. I’ll try and describe how much my local area has changed over the last thirty years or so. I’ve added a few photos to show you how it looks today.
I want to start in Trecynon, simply because that’s where I grew up and my memories are still fairly strong. Then, as now, Mill Street was the centre of the village. Trecynon was originally known simply as ‘Heol-y-Felin’, and in 1844 it consisted of just two streets – Plymouth Street and Mill Street – together with some short rows of cottages dotted around the place. (Plymouth Street was later renamed Harriet Street, as I explained in Nooks and Crannies.)
Mill Street survives to this day, running east-west from the main road towards the river Cynon. The section between the main road and the junction with Harriet Street is still lined with shops on both sides, although most of the businesses which were there thirty years ago are now just memories. I’ll start at the corner of Harriet Street and work my way around.
A few years ago I was chatting to Gaz, who bought his house in Trecynon some years ago, although he was brought up in Landare. He asked me why the cast iron pillar box on Trecynon square is on the corner of Harriet Street and Mill Street, instead of being outside the post office. That surprised me: Gaz went to the same schools as I did, and I’d assumed that he must have spent as much time in Trecynon as I did when he was younger.
I explained that the post office used to be on the corner, and the pillar box was outside it. It used to have a stamp machine attached, and for 50p you could buy an assortment of stamps in a little cardboard sleeve. You only used the second class stamps, of course, so you were left with a load of smaller value stamps which never added up to enough to post a letter. (If you’ve ever wondered why your grandparents always had loads of 1p and 2p stamps in a drawer, that’s probably the reason.)
Trecynon Post Office always seemed to be dark and dingy. I think there might have been a couple of 40W light bulbs to illuminate the entire place. It was quite narrow, with a long counter on your right as you walked in, and a narrow shelf at the far end where you could address your envelopes and fill in your postal order counterfoils. The walls were covered with leaflets and brochures advertising National Savings, Premium Bonds, useful government information, and the latest postage rates. There were glass screens at the counter, from which you were ‘greeted’ by the joyless faces of Tommy James, the postmaster, and his wife Glenys. Neither of them would have lasted five minutes in this era of ‘mystery customers’ and service standards charters. Both of them must have been well past retirement age when they actually handed the business over to a new couple, about the time I was doing my A Levels.
A couple of doors down was a shop owned by D. Allen (I never knew his first name, but that was the sign above the plate glass window). For some reason, I always remember his shelves were stacked with Leo dried peas, bags of flour, and plastic jars of salt. I’m fairly sure he had a freezer at the end of the shop, but I can’t remember a lot about it now. We rarely had reason to go in there, but Mr Allen’s place was the exception in that it opened on Sunday afternoons. If we fancied a bar of chocolate, we had no choice but to go there.
Opposite these two oddities was a third curiosity – Frame’s. I’ve mentioned this place before, in Straightforward? Pah! By the time I started frequenting it, in my mid-teens, it was run by a couple named Mansel and Miriam. It was a proper hardware shop. They sold all manner of things: paraffin refills; household items like firelighters, clothes pegs and mousetraps; everything you could possibly need for ‘that little job’ around the house, as well as bric-a-brac and small electrical items. You could hardly move in the place, but Miriam could put her hands on anything you wanted within seconds. Mansel was an electrician by trade, and would be pleased to offer advice and handy hints while you were buying the things you needed for your own DIY project. They were a lovely couple with two grown-up children whom I later became friends with, as they were fellow Carpenters regulars.
There was another DIY shop on Harriet Street, owned by a nice couple named Colin and Pat. That closed in the late 1980s too, if not earlier.
Mansel and Miriam are no longer with us, alas. In fact, none of those shops still exist. It’s hard to imagine them being anything other than houses when you walk past them now.
Just across Ebenezer Street from Frame’s was Les Loyns’ shop, part of the BOB group of independent retailers. (I thought they’d completely vanished until some years ago, when Pam, Gaz and I were exploring the Welsh marches on one of our occasional road trips. I think we were somewhere in the Leominster area when we found a BOB shop in a small village. I doubt it’s still there now, though.) That was where Mother used to do most of our weekly shopping when I was growing up. As a result, the kindly ladies who worked there were known to us as ‘Auntie Betty’ and ‘Auntie Hazel’. There was an enormous stock of tinned and packet foods piled up on the shelves at either side of the aisle, which snaked the length of the shop and back again to the checkout.
Les’s shop was crammed with the brand names I remember from my childhood: Hovis; Bovril; Whitworth’s long grain rice, split red lentils, split yellow peas, and dried fruit; Homepride and Kardov flour in huge 2lb bags; Borwick’s baking powder; Oxo; Knorr stock cubes, packet soups and sauce mixes; Smash (dehydrated mashed potato was originally produced for the NASA space programme, hence the aliens on the popular TV ads); Leo dried peas (again!); Vesta curries (pretty much the height of exotic cuisine when I was young); Bird’s custard powder and Dream Topping; Angel Delight; Nescafé, Maxwell House and Camp coffee; half a dozen brands of packet tea like PG Tips and Ty-phoo, but especially Glengettie, which is almost exclusive to the Welsh Valleys; Ovaltine, Horlicks, Bournville cocoa and Cadbury’s drinking chocolate. If you were spring cleaning, you could stock up on Windolene, Mr Sheen, Vim, Ajax, Flash, Dreft, Omo, and Comfort.
As well as these store cupboard staples, there was a bewildering range of jars, bottles and cans: Heinz soup in all its 57 varieties; Heinz and KP baked beans; Heinz and KP plum tomatoes; Branston pickle; Sharwood’s curry powder; fruit and vegetables from half a dozen manufacturers; Hartley’s jam; chopped ham and pork; tongue; Spam; Fray Bentos corned beef and steak and kidney pie; John West tuna, salmon, and sardines; Goblin hamburgers in gravy; Heinz spaghetti, or ravioli if you fancied going slightly upmarket; Ambrosia rice pudding… Seventies food sounds impossibly unadventurous and provincial by today’s standards, doesn’t it? Yet you can still buy most of these commodities in B&M in Aberdare today, if you look hard enough.
Looking back on it, Les’s shop was surprisingly well-placed to cater for a village the size of Trecynon, at a time when nearly everyone cooked from fresh. My gran’s motto was always ‘fresh daily’, and Mother had learned to cook from the best. She’s still got the Good Housekeeping cookery book she had as a wedding present. A few years ago she baked a lemon meringue pie from the recipe in the book, and it took us about three days to come down from the sugar rush. It took a long time to make it, too; we could have probably bought one from Tesco if we’d felt like it, but it would have cost twice the price and been stuffed full of additives.
If, like Mother, you were into baking, Les stocked everything you needed – fresh eggs, milk, cream, dried fruit, several different kinds of sugar, Jif lemon juice, cocoa powder, and even the baking tins and cake decorating bits and pieces. The chilled cabinet held what seemed – at the time, anyway – to be a huge stock of dairy produce, but which was probably limited to a few types of cheese, several brands of butter and margarine, some pre-packed meat, old-school oddities like pâté and black pudding, a very basic cheese and onion pizza (20 minutes under the grill), and pint bottles of full-fat milk. We very rarely had to buy milk, though, because we got ours delivered every morning by a chap named Jack. (At least one guy I know still has his milk delivered. That’s another dying business, surely.)
You could buy a range of bread, freshly-baked or ready sliced, depending on your preferences. Does anyone else remember Nimble? Marketed as ‘bread for slimmers’, it tasted of nothing and was therefore undoubtedly good for you. (I remember Julie F. mentioned it on Aberdare Online a few years ago, and summed it up perfectly. It had exactly the same shape, colour, texture, and quite possibly flavour, as expanded polystyrene tiles. The first time she saw it, Julie said, she wasn’t sure whether to make sandwiches with it or paste it to the ceiling.) You could buy cakes and fruit and vegetables; everything was freshly delivered and turned over promptly.
A counter at the far end of the shop was the nearest we had to a delicatessen in those days. A couple of weeks ago, Rhian and I were talking about the amount of food we waste in the UK. She told me that her partner has a habit of opening a packet of sliced meat to make sandwiches, deciding to have something else the following day, and throwing the rest out when it goes past its sell-by date. We didn’t have that problem. Les would cut just as much as you wanted off the cooked ham, the chicken, the beef, the ham and egg pie, the haslet, or the cheese, wrap it in greaseproof paper, and seal it with a price label. It never stayed in the fridge long enough to go stale.
The approach to the counter was lined with chocolate and sweets, in what must have been Trecynon’s token nod to retail psychology. (The global rebranding process hadn’t started, so Snickers were Marathons and Starbursts were Opal Fruits.) You could do your entire weekly shop under one roof, long before Tesco moved to its larger premises in Cardiff Street. There were Woodbine or Players cigarettes for your father, Black Magic chocolates for your mother, Fry’s Five Centres, Texan bars or liquorice tobacco for you, and Pedigree Chum and Kattomeat for your pets.
Your fruit and vegetables would be weighed at the counter, using proper old-fashioned scales. Everything would get rung up on a huge clunking till. Mother would pay for our shopping, then we’d go home and wait for Les to deliver it in his van on Friday evening. It was much easier than trying to cart everything on the bus. A few days ago I was in Lidl, and my mate Steve commented that he’d never seen me buy so much in a single visit. I have to bear in mind how much I can carry home, after all.
Next to Les’s shop was another stalwart of old Trecynon – Bob Mock’s paper shop. It was a surprisingly large premises, going back a fair way from the front door. Actually, it was a great deal more than just a newsagent’s. It sold books, stationery, greetings cards, sweets, cigarettes, toys, games, Airfix kits and all the paint… All the daily papers would be piled up on the bottom of the rack, with the Aberdare Leader at one end and the Western Mail at the other. The magazine selection was vast, and if they didn’t stock it they’d order it in for you.
The shop had a pillar in the centre which separated the newspapers and magazines from the stationery and toys. The tall glass-fronted counter held the sweets and chocolate bars, and there were glass jars of sweets ranged on shelves behind the counter. The till was more or less at waist level, and the big ledger containing details of the regular orders and deliveries lived on the counter next to the till. Our Saturday evening treat was to have ‘a feast’, where Mother would give us some money and we’d go to Mock’s to buy sweets: a quarter of raspberry ruffles, a quarter of chocolate limes, a quarter of humbugs, and so on. We’d munch our way through these while watching TV together later on.
Mock’s would open at the crack of dawn and stay open until about six o’clock in the evening, six days a week. He opened on Sunday mornings until about eleven, so that people could buy the papers. (We had our Sunday paper delivered by a chap named Cyril, who used to cart his load around in an old pram.) Mock’s would close on a Saturday afternoon for a couple of hours, reopening before the Football Echo arrived on the van from Cardiff. I was chatting to a chap in the Lamb in Penderyn a few weeks ago, who’d grown up in Trecynon and worked in Aberdare Cables as a young man. He told me that Bob Mock used to do a roaring trade first thing in the morning. Everyone making their way to work would call in for a paper and cigarettes or tobacco. Then he had the second wave, with kids on their way to school buying sweets and comics. There’d be another peak at lunchtime, when the boys from the school would descend on the square, and another peak in the evening, with people on their way home from work picking up the South Wales Echo and maybe some more cigarettes.
Mock’s was where Mother bought me my first Doctor Who novel, when I was home ill from school, sparking my lifelong interest in reading science fiction. It was in Mock’s that I encountered OMNI magazine, which took me to the next level of SF and which I wrote about in OMNIscience. The selection of books was fairly representative of the late 1970s and early 1980s, too: thrillers by Robert Ludlum, Leon Uris and James Hadley Chase; a rack of pulpy horror novels padded out by some titles by Dennis Wheatley; racy chicklit (long before the term was coined) by Jackie Collins; Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, collections of jokes from the Two Ronnies’ TV show, and weak ‘humour’ cash tie-ins – the sort of thing you’ll find in Waterstone’s humour section today, in fact.
At my age I didn’t pay too much attention to the top shelf, but small newsagents like that often have an unhealthy selection of marginal interest publications. I probably missed out on imprinting my fourth circuit a couple of years early, now I think back on it.
Neither Loyns’ nor Mock’s survived into this century. Instead, they were knocked into one, substantially remodelled inside, and now the Spar occupies their shared site. It’s hard to imagine everything I’ve just described being crammed in there. At least half of what was Bob Mock’s shop must be taken up by the warehouse area to the rear of the shop. A surprising number of the brand names I’ve mentioned can still be found on the shelves of the Spar, though.
Next to Mock’s was Dr Nawaz’s surgery. Dr Nawaz was a legend, a lovely GP who was always up to date with the latest research. He was also a raging piss-artist. After he returned to Afghanistan, Mr Khan took the practice over. He was a nice guy, too, but I started working in Treforest and it was a tight squeeze to get to the surgery after work. I transferred to Dr Wardrop’s practice in Aberdare, where I’m still a patient today. When Mr Khan retired the surgery stayed empty, although I think there’s someone living in the flat upstairs.
Next up was a shop which changed hands several times while I was younger, and which continues to change every couple of years. Mark A.,who was a few years older than me and lived opposite us in Meirion Street, ran a computer repair shop there when I was about sixteen. There’s no sign of life there now, though.
I’m fairly sure there was a butcher’s shop on the square when I was younger. I can’t remember where it was though. It might have been the shop next door, which was until recently the offices of some sort of healthcare agency, I think. There’s no sign of life there either.
That brings us to the present post office, which is under review at the moment. There’s a plan on the table to relocate its services to the Spar. It means that the post office counter will be open seven days a week, instead of its present five days over six. The same thing happened in Cwmdare recently, and it seems to be working well. Martin, the postmaster, is probably coming up to retirement, so at least we won’t lose our post office entirely, unlike Llwydcoed and the Gadlys.
When we were younger, that building was Felix Aubel’s shop. Old Felix had come over from Yugoslavia after the war, settled in the valley, married a Welsh girl named Kath, and they’d opened a small shop on the square. Their shop was the only one that opened on a Saturday night, so if we were too late for Mock’s, Aubel’s was where we went for our feast. I think Old Felix had more or less retired by the time we started going there semi-regularly, as we only ever saw Kath behind the counter. I don’t remember much else about it, apart from the constant smell of root vegetables which permeated the entire place. The shop closed years ago when Kath called it a day.
Their son ‘Young’ Felix Aubel was still considerably older than me. He went into politics, as I mentioned in Underground, Overground, Wombling Free, and once called to see Dad and Mother when he was canvassing for the SDP in the mid-80s. I’ve no idea what he’s up to now. I was in Aberdare Cemetery on Saturday afternoon, working on another project, when I came across the grave of his parents. I didn’t know Kath had passed away. It made me sad to see their names together on the headstone, and that was one of the seeds which got me thinking about the shops of old Trecynon.
The Jubilee Bakery was originally set up in Jubilee Road, Godreaman (hence the name), and opened a second shop in Trecynon when I was in school. It’s changed hands a couple of times, but it’s still trading as a bakery. It was always popular with the boys from school, as it was an easy stroll along the main road. I’ve already noted that the Trecynon businesses generally got a boost from all that passing lunchtime trade. They’ll probably take a considerable hit when all the pupils from my old school relocate to the new Community School at the Ynys.
Next to the bakery is the massive edifice of Trecynon Hall. The library closed a few years ago, and the building has been split into a couple of units now. One of the units is Deno’s tattoo studio. I was browsing through my photos of Trecynon earlier, and I realised that I’d accidentally found an old Aberdare Local Board of Health sign on the side of the hall. I checked this morning, and it’s not there now. Talk about a happy accident!
There’s a tanning salon and beauty parlour opposite the post office. I think it’s now a legal requirement for every Valleys shopping centre to have at least one, for the reason I pondered in And Now For Something Completely Identical. I don’t know what was there when I was younger. It was probably a hair salon; they tend to stay in one place and just change hands repeatedly, like the one behind the Mount Pleasant.
Sheppard’s Pharmacy has been in its current premises for as long as I can remember – although when I first knew it, Dad still called it ‘Parry Lewis’s’. I can’t remember whether it was owned by Mike Rayner, whose daughter Karen I was in school with. I know he had a pharmacy in Aberdare, and I’ve got a feeling he might have owned the one in Trecynon as well. I could be wrong. I have a vague memory of the internal layout when I was a kid. I seem to recall there was a hatchway where the prescriptions were dispensed, and a surprisingly large selection of wines and spirits on sale. Maybe I’ve just dreamt the whole place, though, as it’s one of the places I visit in my dreams quite regularly.
There’s a florist’s shop a couple of doors away, as we approach the main road. It’s been various things over the years, including a couple of short-lived greengrocers’ shops. I can’t remember what it was when I was younger.
The building next door was the Hot Pot café for many years. Steve and Meg retired a while ago, and it’s now trading as a fish and chip shop. I’ve got a funny feeling that the butcher’s shop might have been there, rather than further down. It’s funny that I’ve got such vivid memories of some places and not others. It’s obviously a sign of how much time we spent in certain places, and that the rest were fairly peripheral.
Opposite the Hot Pot there used to be a wool shop. Mother was a keen knitter when I was growing up, and every so often I’d have to go to the square and buy her a pattern she’d seen in the window. As a result I only went in there a couple of times. It’s now part of the carpet shop, which extends all the way around to the Cross Inn.
When I was growing up, the carpet shop was the premises of Phil Griffiths, a gents’ outfitter. His business was subtitled ‘West End Tailor’, which didn’t mean anything to me at the time. When I was a bit older, I assumed he was aiming for an upmarket clientèle. Now I think about it, it was probably just a reference to the shop’s position at the west end of Mill Street.
The Trecynon business which has traded uninterrupted since I was growing up is on the corner of Mill Street and Llewellyn Street. It’s a second-hand car dealership called the West End Garage. To judge from the lack of Bentleys, Aston Martins and Porsches currently on the forecourt, I’m sticking to my ‘west end of Trecynon’ theory.
I only found out a couple of weeks ago that Phil Griffiths’ shop was originally part of the Aberdare and District Co-operative Society. In Trecynon, there was a large Co-op in Llewellyn Street, where my friend Ian’s grandparents did nearly all their weekly shopping. The shop is still there, owned by a couple of friendly and cricket-mad Indian lads, although the frontage has changed considerably. (I called in there on Saturday, and the boys were practising their game across the width of the counter.) It used to be owned by an extremely non-observing Muslim chap from Pakistan named Aslam. He loved his dog and he loved his booze. However, the Aberdare and District Co-operative Society is an entry for another day.
There’s one more shop in Trecynon that I want to mention, and it’s also disappeared from the scene entirely. Ann and Eric Webb ran a small convenience store a short walk from the Mount Pleasant. It had a fairly basic range of the household staples, a cabinet full of ready meals, frozen food and ice cream, and a tremendous range of sweets and chocolate, both pre-packed and in jars. They even used to sell toffee on large flat trays, which would be broken up with a little hammer before being weighed out. Being open from early mornings until nine at night Monday to Friday, six o’clock on Saturdays, and until Sunday lunchtime, it had a captive market of schoolkids from Comin, the Boys’ School and St John the Baptist School. It made sense to cater for their collective sweet tooth.
It was just unfortunate that Ann hated children. She made her dislike of youngsters almost palpable whenever she was forced to come to the counter, so we would make things worse by pretending to take ages to make up our minds. I can still hear her exasperated sigh while she was waiting for a decision.
We hardly ever saw Eric behind the counter, though. He was a stalwart of many sporting clubs and teams in Trecynon. He was probably glad to get out of the house. He died unexpectedly, and one of the trophies in the old Cynon Valley Quiz League was named in his honour. Ann eventually retired and the shop closed. It’s now a private house.
There was another little sweet shop on Hirwaun Road, just up from Comin School, when I was quite young, but I don’t remember it at all. I don’t think I ever went in there. It must have closed before I was ten years old.
And that’s about it. Love’s fish and chip shop closed a couple of years ago. There was a small shop at the top end of Trefelin when I was in school, but I don’t think I ever went in there. Fai’s Chinese takeaway, a few doors up from the old Co-op, is still going strong. I always go to the Pagoda, though.
There’s a strangely shaped building on the corner of Alma Street and Meirion Street, which I’ve mentioned previously. It doesn’t appear in Richard Arnold’s list of pubs and beer houses, and I’ve got a hunch that it might have been a shop at some point.
It’s surprising to recall just how many small businesses our village was able to support in the days before out-of-town supermarkets decimated the sector. It’s also good to see so many of them fighting on, reinventing themselves as social trends change and buying habits evolve. Who’d have thought that it would be possible to maintain a Spar and a supermarket within a quarter of a mile of each other, only half a mile or so from Lidl and less than a mile from Tesco? I might come back to this entry in ten years from now and update the picture. In the meantime, I’m going to devote the second part of this to Aberdare itself, and see how much I can remember of the town when I was growing up. As usual, watch this space…