This article appeared in the Strawberry Line Times in 2013. I’ve updated it slightly. Harry Mottram
The other day I met a man who drives to a certain fish bar in Winscombe every Saturday from Bristol for fish and chips because he said the particular shop was the best in the west. This was after he visited a shop in Sandford to buy cider but before a walk around the reservoir in Cheddar. He said the mission was the highlight of his week.
The gent makes a valid point – once you’ve found a fish bar you trust – visiting it is habit forming – and for many a routine that cannot be broken.
The smell of fish and chips evokes both winter evenings and summer at the seaside. It’s the ultimate comfort food. And it may surprise you to know that it’s also one of the healthiest meals you can eat – assuming you stay active in between helpings and take a walk like our man does around the reservoir or along the Strawberry Line.
If you compare the average take-away with the average portion of cod and chips you’ll be consuming fewer calories than its competitors. Fish and chips are around 750 calories a portion while pizzas hit four figures with ease, Indian and Chinese meals consisting of three or four dishes give you much of your daily calorie in one take at more than 1,200 calories while a cheeseburger and chips easily have more calories than cod and chips.
Fish and chips have been a favourite on the nation’s menu since the mid-19th century when battered fish and fried sliced potatoes became universally popular at the height of the industrial revolution. And one of the reasons was that fish could be transported swiftly by train. In the early 1860s the first fish and chip shops in the modern sense began to open across the country and by the end of the century had given rise to fish restaurants and the now familiar chippy. The low price, tasty combination of battered white fish and salted chips plus a high fat content from the lard used to fry the meal ensured a nutritional and filling meal for people on a low income. By 1910 there were 25,000 chippies across the country with the first ones opening in the Strawberry Line District in the Edwardian era.
By the 1920s chippies were to be found in Clevedon catering for the day trippers, and in Cheddar for those exploring the Gorge and caves – taking the train from Yatton or Wells. Colin Force from Yatton can remember going to the Curzon Cinema in Clevedon and popping out for a bag of chips costing a few coppers in the intermission in the early 1950s with the manager holding up the second feature until everyone were back in their seats. After the war Mr Hawkings opened a chippy in Yatton (close to where the Cooperative store is today) where for 1/6d you could buy cod and chips. At around the same time in Clevedon there were two chippies – one owned by Mr Webb by the Triangle and another near the Plough Inn on the road to Tickenham – although by the 1960s prices were over two bob for fish and chips and rising.
Pearline Clarke who worked as a hello girl in Cheddar’s telephone exchange recalls how a van would visit the villages selling fish and chips on particular days including Wedmore, Draycott and Axbridge. In Cheddar the Thomas family opened a chippy by the White Hart just before the war although due to the rationing of lard the shop only opened on a Friday and Saturday until after hostilities ended. Just one penny purchased a small bag of chips.
Cheddar still has two fish bars along with a selection of alternative take-aways. One chippy used to be opposite Home Ground where the cinema was in the building now occupied by a building society. Nearby Axbridge had its own chippy for a time in the High Street during the late 1940s when through traffic gave shops plenty of passing trade. However, by the 1960s the town came to rely on the Friday visits of the chip van pulling up in the Square owned by a chap known as Jolly Joe – who introduced a new fast food to the Strawberry Line District: the burger. John Trask of Axbridge recalls the visits of the chip van continuing until the 1970s. He can remember customers looking at the town hall clock in anticipation of the arrival of their weekly supply of chips, while window cleaner Ron Moulton recalls the chip van pulling up in the railway yard in the 1950s to bring the villagers their weekly fix of fried fish.
Tuckers in Wells supplied hot fish dinners to the railway workers and factory hands of the city through the war and into the 1960s, while there are also fish and chip shops today in Winscombe, Churchill, Congresbury, Yatton and Clevedon with a new one in Banwell recently opened. There are not many business models from Victorian England that still hold their own in a world where there is so much choice. From Chinese and Indian restaurants to Kebab shops, fast food burger joints we’ve never had so much selection. And yet the fish and chip bar is still as popular today as when you got a cone of chips wrapped in newspaper for one penny.
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