Fings aint what they used to be

Since it was announced that Chase Homes intended to buy Bircherley Green the newspapers, message boards and pubs have been full of hopes, plans and wish lists. Unfortunately the planning process does not work that way.

I have lived in Hertford since 1980 but was born and grew up in Camden Town. On Saturday morning I was dragged along by my mother to do the weekly shop. I hated shopping then and still do now. Ask my wife!

However back in those far off days of the early 1950’s shopping was a far different experience from what it is now.

We started at Allens Newsagents in Camden Road to pay the paper bill and to pick up my copies of Beano, Dandy, Lion and sometimes Topper. Then across the road to the butcher. From there to Camden High Street. Our first call was Talbots the Fishmongers. They had a large metal tray outside the shop in which several eels swam. Once chosen the evening meal was taken to the back of the shop and beheaded and sliced into ….. slices.

Next the Greengrocers. I think it was called ‘Greens’. Anyway my mum had an excellent relationship with one of the proprietors, Chic. They weighed everything on large scales with weights. I doubt if the measures were ever correct but once weighed the potatoes and larger items such as cauliflowers were tipped straight into my mother’s shopping bag. Fruit tended to be shoved into a large brown paper bag and then into mum’s bag.

Our final routine call was to Biroths the Bakers. Bread was always freshly baked; always a wonderful smell wafted out on to the street. They were open for a a few hours only on Good Friday to sell hot cross buns. Once gone, they shut. My mum was always an early bird then, bringing home freshly baked and still warm hot cross buns.

There were of necessity some days with other routine stops such as Pages the general store for all things household such as needles, cloth, knicker elastic etc.

These were easy going days. My mum knew all the traders  by name and vice versa. Such as Montagu Saxby the leather goods man who sold cases, satchels and handbags. We all bought our sweets from Pugh’s – which for some reason my mother and all her friends and acquaintances called Puckies.

She had a Christmas club everywhere so we ate and drank well in the season to be merry.

Now they’ve all gone – the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. I’ve never met a candlestick maker but he is up there with the best of them.

As Bruce Springsteen once said: ‘these jobs are going boys and they aint coming back’.

People in Hertford are hopeful of a return to those good old days but at the risk of repeating myself: they’ve gone. Shopping and the High Street have changed forever.

You cannot demand that River Island, Next or Harrods open a store in town; or even Bircherley Green Shopping Centre. You can try but they will not come.

These big firms know all about demographics, return per square metre of selling space or in plainer terms – footfall.

However there is one aspect of shopping in those days which is so, so far ahead of today’s world. We knew all about recycling and carried it out.

Milk bottles were washed and left out for the milkman the next day, along with a note asking for just one pint to cut down on waste. Bottles from the Off Licence were returned for the small deposit. Yesterdays newspapers were given to the fish and chip shop. There was a minimum of plastic packaging as everyone used their own shopping bags and if you did get a bag from the shopkeeper it was usually a plain brown one given a bad reputation  by purveyors of ‘glamour magazines’.

We weren’t wealthy and neither were the bunch of kids who I knocked around with. If we wanted a new football we knocked on doors and took all the newspapers we could cram into a an old pram and took them to the rag and bone man under Camden Road railway bridge for a few pennies. We did our bit!

So, what future for Bircherley Green? One with no butcher, baker and the other one. That’s for sure.

The two black and white photos come from a booklet called ‘The End of One Story – A Souvenir of the Borough of St Pancras’. There is a page of photo acknowledgements but they are not referenced to page numbers. The booklet was issued in 1965 when the boroughs of St Pancras, Hampstead and Holborn were merged to form Camden.

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By John Barber

John Barber was born in London at the height of the UK Post War baby boom. He had careers in Advertising, International Banking and the Wine Industry before becoming Town Centre Manager in his home town of Hertford. He has been writing professionally since 1996 when he began to contribute articles to magazines on social and local history. His first published book in 2002 was a non-fiction work entitled The Camden Town Murder, a hitherto unsolved murder case from 1907.