Fond memories and vanilla slice

THERE is nothing to beat a nice cup of tea and a vanilla slice as a little treat to mark the satisfaction of completing another Through the Porthole column.

THERE is nothing to beat a nice cup of tea and a vanilla slice as a little treat to mark the satisfaction of completing another Through the Porthole column.

In honesty, that is more wishful thinking than fact because although the welcome cuppa is readily available here in Peggotty's Hut, the scrumptious cake is a “high days and holidays” indulgence and my annual intake is probably fewer than half the 52 columns I pen each year.

Mrs Peggotty rations the frequency of my vanilla slices (filled with synthetic cream, not the real stuff) in a good cause - that of a healthy diet - and I reluctantly accept her judgment that you can have too much of a good thing. There are compensations, like her delicious chocolate muffins, ginger cake or banana loaf, all of which she home-bakes using the most wholesome of ingredients.

Bread and pastries are harder to find these days because bakers' shops are growing fewer in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, a situation probably duplicated throughout Britain as the supermarket stranglehold kills off the small trader. Yet on visits to Spain and France I notice that the family baker survives despite the competition from supermarkets, although the grocer is less in evidence.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see the local trend being bucked by a new kid on the block, as it were - the Almond Bakery that opened a month ago on Shrublands in Gorleston. I wish the venture well in these testing times for neighbourhood retailers.

Because of its proximity to Peggotty's Hut, my occasional vanilla slice might well be bought there (assuming these delicacies are among its wares) although we have not tried because I am not due for another of these rationed goodies yet...

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Another old favourite (not of mine) is the egg custard tart, and recently we were surprised when The Bakehouse in Gorleston High Street told us they had stopped making them. So we strolled up to Copland's where we bought two for a hospitalised elderly relative.

In 1937, urban Yarmouth and Gorleston boasted 56 baker and pastry-cook shops, most of them small businesses although that figure included nine branches of borough-based Matthes - a family enterprise that covered East Anglia at its peak - and 10 of Purdy.

By 1972, that figure had dropped to 21 outlets, among them eight Matthes branches! Purdy Cakes was listed because of its North Quay bakery but no retail premises were mentioned although its Market Place shop that had incorporated the Kenya Coffee Bar (now the Halifax) was possibly still trading.

I reckon the current number of bread and cake shops in the town is two fewer than a baker's dozen: Yarmouth - Baker's Oven (King Street), Bales (Northgate Street), Lighthouse Café (Market Gates mall), Norfolk Oven (Hamilton Road), Riverside Bakeries (North Quay) and Watson's (Howard Street North); Gorleston - Almond Bakery, Bakehouse, Benge's (Bells Road), Bushell's (Magdalen Square) and Copland.

The possibility must not be discounted that there are bakers' shops that are not listed in the latest phone directory, or that I have not spotted. Some of our villages have bakers. Apart from supermarkets, plenty of convenience and general stores sell bread.

Matthes and Purdy have both long gone, the first completely axed by Spillers Foods in 1978, four years after it acquired its bakery and shops. Only in the past year or so came the departure of Carman's on the corner of King Street and Regent Street in central Yarmouth, a mobile telephone vendor moving in.

Names that have vanished down the decades include Beckett, Bullard, Daykin, Downing, Lynes, Took's, Westbrook...

One veteran continuing to soldier on is Watson's that featured in all three lists, deservedly so because it has a long history. Fifty years ago, the Yarmouth Mercury reported that Watson's had moved into a new bakehouse and shop constructed entirely by family and friends.

As soon as the place was in full operation, the demolition began of the building Watson's had vacated - opposite. It was a milestone for the family baker, for it was founded in the doomed building 69 years earlier, in 1881. Site redevelopment had necessitated the move.

Between 1968 and my retirement from the Mercury in 1994, most of the vanilla slices I bought daily to enjoy with my sandwiches came from Watson's. If they had sold out, I had to take second best - a cream doughnut. If neither was available, it was into Woolworth where there was once a bakery counter.

Then and now, I occasionally buy other bakers' vanilla slices on my wanderings around town; none fails to please, although the sprinkling of coconut on the pink icing by Bales makes their offering all the more mouth-watering.

Around the end of the war, when rationing meant bakers were restricted in output, my Saturday morning errand was trying to head the cakes queue outside Westbrook's shop in Bells Road, Gorleston. Those towards the front of the line could choose some of the more exciting pastries, but once those goodies had gone, other customers had to be content with humdrum fare like congress tarts (“concrete tarts”, as my father called them).

At home, Matthes' delivery man called on us three times a week and my mother bought Sunshine Bread, unsliced but wrapped in waxed paper. Occasionally his range included a raspberry puff - a Victoria sponge-size circular pink-iced flaky concoction with cream in the centre. In other words, a vanilla slice big enough to be cut and shared by a family.

The downside to the baker's thrice-weekly visits was that his horse regularly relieved itself of many foaming pints outside our house at the blind end of a Gorleston cul-de-sac. The combination of stench, wet road and urine-filled gutters meant we children could not play there for an hour or two.

When I used an old photograph of an anonymous wedding party as an illustration with my recent survey of 2007 names included in Mercury birth announcements, I suggested that probably none of those pictured had other than traditional names.

That proved correct, for Mildred, Dorothy, Horace, Gordon, Samuel and Edie were typical of the names of those in the picture. The guests included Miss Millicent Pollard, of Howard Street North, who celebrates her 87th birthday on Wednesday.

She identifies the wedding as that of Bernard Brice and Eva Seales at St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Yarmouth in 1946 and says the photograph was taken outside the Blue Anchor public house at the corner of the Market Place and The Conge, demolished in 1964 to make way for the present NatWest Bank.

Miss Pollard was one of the bridegroom's many cousins because his mother, Elsie, was among the 33 children fathered by the late Fred Beckett, who ran a local bakery - the theme of today's column.

Mr and Mrs Brice, both deceased, are survived by a son and daughter who live locally.