The Norfolk of 30 years ago was a wild and blustery place. The A.11 a single lane traffic jam of lorries grinding their way up to the container port at Lowestoft past wide open fields.
Just as well, so difficult was it to get to that I was able to buy a riverside cottage for £40,000. Literally every penny I had in the world, the proceeds of the sale of my house in London plus some savings. I had an ageing MGB sports car, and a few sticks of furniture. All I needed to do now was find a source of food money.
An ad in the local paper required a petrol pump attendant. ‘That’ll do’ I said. Indeed it did. Every day I drove through the forest in the foggy dawn between my house and the local town. Following a sugar beet lorry one day, a regular feature on these roads. The lorry hit a pot hole, sugar Beet flew up in the air from the overladen vehicle, and one, just one, landed neatly on the bonnet catch of my car. The bonnet folded up smashing the windscreen, the rear view mirror landed in my lap, and that was me – blindsided. I could do nothing but slam on the brakes. It was a long walk back home. Only third party insurance, no money to repair the car, I pondered my future.
How to earn money? In a small village with no work?
When I bought the house, it came with an ailing rowing boat in a rickety boat house; many an American from the nearby airbase had called over the garden wall to enquire if I would rent it to them. It was hardly a living, but perhaps the means to a tin of baked beans every day? A sign went up on the bridge. ‘Boat Hire’. By the end of the week I had earned £10. Pretty good ‘baked bean’ money as it happens, but wouldn’t cover the council tax as well!
You couldn’t do that today.
A boat hire licence is required for the use of a vessel in the course of a business carried on the sea or rivers, for the purpose of letting it for hire or reward or carrying 12 or fewer passengers for pleasure, recreational, educational or sporting purposes.
That would have been me on the dole! The application fees alone would have crippled me, never mind the public liability insurance.
Still, £10 wasn’t much of an income. Perhaps I could vacate my bedroom and do Bed and Breakfast? Another sign went up on the bridge. B & B. The nearby airbase of Mildenhall announced that they would be happy to hire as many bedrooms as I could provide at £70 a week. That was more like it. The first room paid for the furniture for the second room, the second for the third room – I was sleeping in an alcove at the back of the kitchen…
You couldn’t do that today.
Under Regulation (EC) No 852/2004 Article 6(2), food business operators must register each establishment under their control with the local environmental health department. This includes all bed and breakfast and guest house businesses. Previously, it was only necessary to register if there were more than three bedrooms for guests, but this has changed under the new EC regulations and now all bed and breakfast and guest houses have to register.
For guests, a ratio of one bathroom/shower room plus WC per six people should be provided as a minimum, subject to each bedroom having its own wash hand basin.
That would have been me on the dole, the cost of those wash hand basins alone would have scuppered that idea.
Still, I couldn’t rely on the airbase keeping up that flow of business, (although, happily for me, they did, and eventually all the rooms had en-suite bathrooms!) A friend had recently ‘liberated’ four dozen commercial quality cups and saucers from the outhouse of a derelict public house – why didn’t I open my front room as a Tea Rooms? No reason at all, apart from the fact that I had never made a cake in my life! My friend knew several ladies who made cakes for the W.I. – they could make them. An old McVities shop display cabinet was pressed into service, and a dozen cakes made in farmhouse kitchens all over the county lined up inside. The call went out throughout the village for spare tables and chairs, and soon a motley collection was lined up in my sitting room. Lace tablecloths were donated, silver sugar tongs sat in mismatched bowls of sugar lumps – and yet another sign went up on the bridge. ‘Tea Rooms’. We had 80 customers on the first day. It would have been 84, but four large airmen had sat round the dinning room table in my next door neighbour’s house for three-quarters of an hour waiting to be served, and were a bit miffed when she finally came in from the garden and told them they were in the wrong house. She took to locking her front door after that, for the first time in her life.
You couldn’t do that today.
- Facilities for disabled people must be provided in new or altered premises.
- Separate toilets and wash basins should be provided for each sex and for disabled persons.
- Keep cream cakes in refrigerated displays at or below 8°
It took a week for the last of those ‘cute’ little sugar tongs to go on the missing list, a fortnight for me to get fed up washing the lace table cloths every night – and less than a month for the last of my cake bakers to keel over with exhaustion. I had to learn how to make cakes myself. An entire dustbin’s worth of floppy, skinny, chocolate cakes later, someone let me into a little secret. Don’t use those thin sandwich cake tins – cake tins twice the depth, twice the cake mixture and you end up with towering slabs of very impressive chocolate cake. I learnt another trick too, born of all that cake baking in the early hours. Serve up a full fried breakfast at 5.30am, specifically including such British delicacies as black pudding, liver sausage, and kidneys, (do not forget the kidneys!) and after three days, your average US airman will shyly come to the kitchen door in the evening and – ‘Argggh, um, er, Ma’am, there’s um, arggh, no need to make us breakfast before we go on 6am duty, we’ll um, argggh, get breakfast in our canteen’. Works every time and well worth the investment in kidneys. Leaves you free to concentrate on dawn cake making…
Hard to believe now, but Tea Rooms had died out in those days. My fledgling business was a novelty. One that the local Tourist Board were happy to feature on their front cover; the local TV station sent a reporter down river in a rowing boat in a 20 minute feature on the establishment. Business rocketed – anything up to 500 customers a day when the sun shone, 800 on a bank holiday. I was cooking round the clock, and needed help – but the minute kitchen couldn’t accommodate more than one other adult. The solution was half sized adults. I managed to fit three in, all aged 14.
I worked them like demons; after school, at week-ends, every holiday. They cut grass, emptied rowing boats of rainwater, served at tables – which had grown to some 30 odd under the apple trees, and a conservatory built onto the outside of the house; they learned to cook, and washed up, endlessly washed up – there was no space in the kitchen for a dishwasher, nor for the storage of dirty dishes waiting for the dishwasher to be refilled. I tripped over them, cursed them royally when they were tardy, and paid them well – in excess of a £100 a week in tips and wages. One put himself through university on the strength of his savings from that work, another bought the sports car she had always dreamed of, the third went on to start up his own cafe. I am still in touch with them.
You couldn’t do that today.
During school holidays 13 to 14 year olds may work a maximum of 25 hours per week. This includes:
- a maximum of five hours on weekdays and Saturdays
- a maximum of two hours on Sunday
- CRB Disclosure: Currently persons who employ or propose to employ a person in a ‘regulated position’ are eligible to obtain an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau Disclosure.
Angela was a young single Mother in a neighbouring village. She made jams and marmalade, she told me. Could she put some for sale by my cash register? They were another roaring success. She had had the idea of putting a circle of brightly coloured tissue paper tied up with some dried flowers on top of each jar. Colourful and enticing, they were the perfect gift for the legions of Londoners who were starting to make their way up the new M.11 to their friends on the Norfolk coast. Soon she was collecting and sterilising empty jars from every household in the village, buying her strawberries wholesale from the growers and boiling vast vats of marmalade every day. She was saving to buy a ticket back to her parents farm in New Zealand, there she and her young daughter could be self-sufficient. In two years, she made enough money to fulfil her dream and we all went to the airport to see them off.
She couldn’t do that today.
- EU regulations stipulate that you cannot use previously used containers to sell jam.
- The Food Standards Agency said the rules had been introduced because there was a risk of chemicals leaching out of old containers and contaminating food.
- The agency said it was up to local authority environmental health officers to enforce the regulations, and penalties can reach a maximum of a £5,000 fine, six months’ imprisonment, or both.
By my reckoning, counting myself, that is five individuals who have all become self-sufficient, self-supporting, through work that would be outlawed today. Five individuals for whom other profitable employment was not available.
- I would have had to resort to unemployment benefit.
- John would not have been able to go to university – today he is managing director for a firm of sports centres.
- Sandy would never had afforded the car which gave her access to the local town and a future as an insurance broker.
- Jimmy would not have had the ‘apprenticeship’ in running a cafe to have started his own business.
- Angela would still have been living on benefit support for single Mothers in the UK.
We may have made the world a ‘safer’ place – but is it really fair to castigate young people for lounging on sofas when it has become so damn difficult to get a foothold in life? We didn’t poison anyone, we didn’t drown anyone, thousands and thousands of people enjoyed their day out. True, something ‘bad’ could have happened to any one of them – but then something ‘bad’ would definitely have happened to five of us in obviating that risk…we’d have been dependent on the State.
Addendum: I thought I’d Google the tea-rooms to see if it was still in business, and was amazed to find an actual picture of Ms Raccoon serving tea on the river bank to a group of cyclists in 1988. Now that was a real 1988 hair style!!!