Cold Nights and Coffee bars

The Regent

The swinging sixties remained a future phenomenon, the Arndale Centre was yet to invade the developer’s drawing board, and Poole High Street noisily bustled about its way as it had done for centuries. At the top of the town just into Longfleet, the gently decaying Regent Cinema still attracted regular crowds with a double bill diet of Hollywood movies and corny black & white crime shorts. Hants & Dorset’s green double deckers plied their way in and out of the Kingland Crescent Bus Station where thirsty passengers refreshed themselves with a sixpenny carton of ice cold milk from the new fangled milk machine (See the movie Billy Liar for the very one!)

Just across the road near the shiny new Wimpy Bar, the warning bell at the railway gates constantly rang out from the roadside signal box. From here almost every other minute it seemed, a burly signalman would be winding the massive iron wheel that closed the gates on the groaning throng. Looking along the High Street from this vantage point revealed a scene that had hardly changed in over 100 years, literally an ancient view ofPoole’s busy shopping artery, its hard working community of small shopkeepers blissfully unaware of the developer’s beady eye.

This was Poole town in the early 1960’s. By today’s standards, a dark satanic place, seemingly always cold and rainy and much like those portrayed in the new wave ‘kitchen sink’ films showing at the Regent. But this was my town, and for me it exuded vibrancy and soul, and perhaps a little danger too. So much so, that for a young kid fresh out of school with a new job on the Quay, the High Street and its emerging new world attractions was about to become my own private adult learning centre.

In a much later London life, I was fascinated by the occasional coffee bar survivors from the late 50’s and early 60’s, and at least two of these in the West End survived in their original décor right up to the turn of the century. As the new born pop scene gingerly began to dip its toe in the water, so the coffee bars sprang up to service the new demographic called teenagers. Venues like the 2i’s Coffee Bar in Soho’s Old  Compton Street set the tone for a nationwide bandwagon of look-alikes, and Poole was certainly no exception.

The Town’s first player was The Zebra Bar just adjacent to the George Hotel, (where the Towngate Roundabout is now). The Zebra was the very image of new wave milk bar chic, boasting the latest décor of trendy Formica tables and acres of chrome trim. Though it survived for many years, its teen appeal was short lived, becoming victim to the town’s principle youth magnet, the sometimes notorious Ship Café (site of Waterstone’s in Falklands Square). Two other coffee bars jostled for High Street popularity, and these, Pepy’s opposite the Kingland Crescent Bus Station (now WHSmith), and Greco’s on the junction with the Quay (now Corker’s), were to make up the trio of Poole’s colourful coffee bar night life.

Apart from the frothy coffee, these three venues had the single most powerful ingredient for success – a jukebox – and that attracted teenagers like bees to honey. Early rock was raw and tuneful, and nothing at that time could beat the heady moment of walking into The Ship on a cold winter’s night to the sound of a Roy Orbison record and the sweaty steam of a Gaggia coffee machine. This was the very soundtrack of Poole’s early sixties youth, and one which invariably accompanied the first awkward flush of teenage love. The Ship’s glittering glass and chrome Bel-Ami juke box pounded out the hits night after night, and unlike the lesser models in Pepy’s and Greco’s, was always set to maximum volume. With its fabulous wrap round window, the Bel-Ami was the classic American rock machine, and apart from dodgy late night transmissions from distant Radio Luxembourg, this was the sole source of keeping up with the latest hits.

The Ansty Arms

The Ship was easily the top attraction, and for its more dangerous regulars, it was conveniently situated right opposite the notorious Ansty Arms pub (Falkland’s Square again). The Ansty became a pre-fuelling pit stop for a few hard-nut likely lads who liked to put on a star performance when they finally landed in The Ship. Indeed, the 1/9d’s in the Regent Cinema were witness to many a fracas that had begun life a few doors away in Poole’s favourite caff!

So for me, arriving at the old bus station in full James Dean kit, The Ship was my first early evening destination. But after an hour or so, the call of the caff crawl would descend upon us, and together with a couple of mates I’d wander round to Pepy’s with an eye on Greco’s for the next stop. Pepy’s was a vast place, more inclined to be the venue of the burnt cheese toastie or well-done egg & chips. Nevertheless, it seemed to attract gaggles of girls – bouffant haired and mohair coated, they preened and postured as we tried our best to look disinterested. The jukebox here was a shadow of those in the other two caffs, an early wall-mounted chrome shoebox of an affair, but one that still delivered those delicious hits that stirred our hearts into chasing the mohair coats down the high street to Greco’s.  

The pristine little corner café that was Greco’s was the friendliest of the three contenders, and the kindly exotic Greek family who ran it was straight out of central casting. Here the welcome was always warm and genuine and nothing was too much trouble. By the time the gang had reached Greco’s, nervous sexual tension had subsided and the girls had usually joined the boys for a dangerous hour of one frothy coffee each and a sixpenny round of jukebox feeding! Pretty harmless stuff, but occasionally an outcast from the Ansty might roll in with double trouble on their mind. The effect of drink was always an ugly backdrop to Poole’s early 60’s night life, and wandering back up the High Street for a final hour in The Ship, one invariably came across a drunken fracas outside the lively London Inn or some scary spillage from the nearby Lagland Street pubs.

Looking back, Poole’s High Street coffee bars embraced my early teens and delivered an educational and sometimes hairy learning curve. Often, alone on the last bus home on a rainy Saturday night, my young mind would idly wonder where it might all lead – could there be another world out there? I needn’t have worried. Old Poole would soon be flattened by the corporate coach & horses, and a new town would rise from the ashes. But the memory of those days remain in my heart, not of sadness but of old friends, first loves and a front seat at the rebirth of a wonderful town.

See the animated version of my Poole 1963 photograph at The Roslin Files Channelon YouTube: 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcbCidpEDTA

Roger Hopkins

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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About Poole High Street Project

Contact: Jenny Oliver - j.oliver48@btinternet.com
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