October 31 2005

They said it was sinking and not worth saving and in cash terms they were probably right, but when the bulldozers set to work on the Royal Brine Baths they pulled down more than a swimming pool.
Stafford’s favourite sweet shop went with it, not to mention the town’s last chewing gum machine.
Miss Welton’s was a staging post on our way home after a swim. Hair half dry and smelling of chlorine, we trooped into her tiny emporium carrying towels and bathers and spent ten minutes or more dripping on the counter while we agonised over two ounces of Murray Mints, a packet of chocolate nuts and raisins or a sherbet dab.
Often the attraction of those jar-lined shelves was too much and we’d hand over our bus fare in exchange for a mixed bag and stuff ourselves sick on the walk home.
There was an alternative. If we opted to get off at an earlier stop we could use the penny or two saved to chance our arm on the chewing gum machine outside the shop.
Some of us had a good chance of winning because we understood the odds.
The machine offered an extra packet of Beechnut every fourth sale and those of us in the know hung back looking nonchalent until we saw our chance.
The secret was in observing the position of the arrow, hardly visible, on the machine’s big chrome knob. When it pointed to three o’clock we knew we’d hit the jackpot. Then, feverishly, we’d shove our penny in the slot and grab the spoils.
It was greed, pure and simple, and the unbounded joy of beating that machine.
The gum wasn’t anything special. It certainly didn’t taste as good as Wrigley’s, but theirs cost a penny a packet more.
The shop was an institution. There was barely enough space inside to swing a satchel and it was never a threat to Woolworth’s pick and mix, but for several sweet-toothed generations it was a honeypot and Miss Welton, tall, elegant and silver-haired, was the queen bee.
She and her assistant, Marjorie, were hospitable and efficient, but we knew better than to try it on with either of them.
Sometimes we were forced to give the shop and the machine a miss because we’d blown our spending money on a mug of Bovril and a packet of cheese biscuits in the baths café, a decision we regretted later when we passed Miss Welton’s open door and caught the cozy smell of aniseed and tobacco.
The brine baths opened in 1892 shortly after workmen searching for a town water supply discovered an extensive salt bed under Stafford Common. The royal title was bestowed three years later following a visit by the Duchess of Teck (Queen Vic was obviously busy that day).
The entire block was demolished in 1977 and Miss Welton and Marjorie retired. Three other shops disappeared at the same time: a barber’s, a men’s outfitters and the district office of The Evening Sentinel. In exchange, we’ve got the civic offices, several more shops, a pub and a bank with with a cash machine.
It doesn’t do Beechnut.

 

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