As a child, growing up in a village meant having a nice variety of shops on the high street, there were very few things that could not be purchased within minutes of your home.
No choice between paper or plastic bags in those days, every home had several wicker baskets for shopping and several home made bags as well. One of the baskets was kept for vegetables as the potatoes would be dirty, these would go on the bottom of the basket with other veggies piled on top. The other basket would be for groceries which, in those days, were weighed out into plain blue paper bags. In the front of each bag was a little cellophane window so you could tell if it was rice, sugar or whatever other dry goods you bought.
There was always a big ironmongers shop in each town which had all sorts of pots, pans and other goods hanging off hooks from the ceiling. Shelves filled with candles, gas mantles, cans of paint and various other necessities, lined the walls and there would also be dozens of small drawers containing different size nails and screws. Paraffin was sold in your own refillable can and, as most houses had a paraffin heater, this would be a weekly necessity in winter. Fireplaces were usually only lit in the kitchen or living room so the rest of the house would be really chilly and the extra heater made for a little extra warmth. However they were also the cause of many house fires if neglected.
The ‘big’ shop was usually done on Fridays and because there was such a huge amount of groceries in large families, quite often the baskets and bags were put in an old pram. Prams, or the big English version of a baby carriage were wonderful for pushing all the groceries home in and many homes had one long after the children were past needing it. Anyone getting rid of an old pram would find any local boy willing to take it. It would have the body taken from it and the wheels would be converted into a go-cart.
In addition to the local shops we had a large variety of street vendors who would come round with a horse and cart. Milk was delivered daily of course, fish was brought round on Tuesdays and Fridays and would usually have a line up of housewives lined up for their fresh fish. A greengrocer would come once a week and coal delivery was also weekly. In addition to food vendors we had services. Every few weeks a guy with a wet stone would come round and sharpen knives and scissors, another cart would collect old clothing and, in exchange you got dishes or cups. This vendor called out “pots for rags” and he was a popular man as would have fancy dishes from the “big” houses. My grandma had a collection of beautiful plates and dishes with various patterns on and meals were exciting as you got your favourite plate. I remember a plate with a hunting scene which was one of my favourites. The fox looked like he was laughing at the red coated men on horseback. I also enjoyed a dish that had Miss Muffett looking aghast at a giant spider. Cups also were beautifully decorated and made a lovely change from gran’s usual blue and white ringed mugs.
One of the side benefits of horses in the street was the pile of manure he would deposit in the road, there was always a race to see who could get the load onto a shovel first and use it to fertilize the backyard rhubarb or rose bush. Gone are the days of street vendors and today there would probably be a by-law forbidding horses to foul the street. Handling of fish from the back of an open cart would make today’s health inspectors swoon but the fish was always cooked the same day and none of us seemed to suffer from the lack of refrigeration, after all we had none in our homes either.
How times change, when was the last time you saw a piece of fish not wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam? Does it taste better, not really, is it fresher, probably not but it has been packed according to hygene laws and flavour does not seem to be one of the requirements. Anyone seen pushing an old pram down the street is probably homeless and wishing for a warm home and a meal of any kind.
It is funny what memories we have of our childhood, things that flash into our mind now and again as we recall the differences in our lives today. Life is different but not necessarily better.