WRIGHT THINKING: The distant ringing of the ice cream van

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Another nail was knocked into my childhood memories when an interesting figure jumped out of the business news the other day.

Apparently, there are now only about 500 mobile ice cream vans left in this country, compared to over 250,000 as recently as the Seventies.

When I was growing up in the Fifties, it often sounded like there were that number of vans in Hartlepool alone.

Their over-loud chimes seemed to go on non-stop, especially on Sunday afternoons which always seemed to be a great time for sales around the streets.

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My dad told me that they only played their chimes when there was no ice cream left!

When I was a kid, it seemed that owning an ice cream van was almost a licence to print money and there were plenty of tales of dark deeds as competition became very fierce.

Of course, hardly anybody had a freezer at home in those days, and the idea of getting cold and creamy ice cream right outside your front door seemed like luxury indeed.

I wonder if you can add to my memories of the tunes which those mobile pleasure palaces played?

I remember The Happy Wanderer, Greensleeves and the William Tell Overture as an unlikely mix of top of the ice cream pops.

In fact, I only learned years later that it was really William Tell – you had to be very posh if you didn’t identify that strident ditty as the theme tune to The Lone Ranger.

Thinking back, those van drivers must have had ringing ears with that over-amplified music blaring out over their heads every few minutes.

It was often the case of going out of the front door with a few pence in hand to get your ice cream cornet – or, if money was flush, a splendid 99 with a lovely chocolate flake poking out of the top.

On a Sunday afternoon, I’d sometimes be sent out with a large dish for a family treat – and a set of instructions.

The first one was not to drop the dish and break it – on pain of death. It was often one of the better pottery bowls in the house – to show the net curtain twitching neighbours that you had one.

I also had early lessons in negotiation and haggling too.

I would ask the ice cream seller if buying a full bowl of ice cream would come with free wafers.

If the answer was in the negative, I was coached to turn round and tell him that I’d wait for the next van then as they would give free wafers.

“OK then, just this once son,” was the inevitable reply – and not just once.

I suppose it’s no surprise that thousands of ice cream vans have been lost to our streets; the cost of fuel to tour the town must usually be much more than a typical day’s profit.

Before everyone forgets, though, there’s probably a book to be written on the place of ice cream in the history of Hartlepool – and many towns like it – from the early ice cream sellers, often pulled by a horse or human driven on a bike, to the number of Italian families who came to England to make a good living from their expertise.

It might be easier to open the freezer door in your kitchen when the ice cream need strikes, but it will never be as much fun as waiting your turn in a queue in your street.