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01/10/22 Ilkley – General pix around Ilkley and Burley in Whatfedale to ilustrate article ‘ My dad was a shopkeeper.
The Curly Hill blues

The Curly Hill blues

01/10/22 Ilkley – General pix around Ilkley and Burley in Whatfedale to ilustrate article ‘ My dad was a shopkeeper.

Liz Moseley’s parents were true Thatcherites and hard-working with it. But shopkeeping and social climbing didn’t mix

My dad was a shopkeeper. With the demeanour of Albert Arkwright, Basil Fawlty and Edmund Blackadder rolled into one, he ran The Corner Shop in Burley in Wharfedale, a village just outside Ilkley in West Yorkshire, for nearly 20 years.

Nestled in a valley on the banks of the River Wharfe, Ilkley is a moneyed town; self-satisfied and insular. Flanked by glorious Yorkshire moors, the spa town is famous for its lido and Bettys tea room. Sturdy, masculine, Yorkshire stone houses, which get bigger the higher you climb up the moor roads, observe the comings and goings in the town below.

Ilkley is a Tory stronghold and a great day out. Families come from Leeds and Bradford to rampage on the moors, pick bilberries and picnic in the wind. Whenever I go back, I clamber up the Cow and Calf Rocks and spot landmarks across the valley. My dad knows what every single building is and can’t help but tell tales of the municipal, commercial and domestic scandals that happened in each one. There’s a spectacularly incongruous, gleaming white, art deco house perched halfway up, which was once the scene of a murder. I was in my 20s before I discovered that it wasn’t a real murder – just a location for an episode of A Touch of Frost.

In Ilkley, one of the addresses everyone wants is Curly Hill. From the town centre, a long, wide road between the rugby club and the park leads straight to the prestigious “sunny side” of the valley. Curly Hill, as the name suggests, curls upward and eastward in the distance. You can walk down it but only the hardiest cyclists attempt the other way. There’s a point, around where the ice cream van stops at the bridge in summer, where the road up the hill ahead looks almost vertical. The incline softens as you get closer, steepens suddenly on the bend by the bluebell woods, before evening out at the very top, where the houses peter out and the moors stretch away, taking your breath with them.

Liz, Mum and Dad on A level results day, 1993

My parents met, so the story goes, when my dad did a cartwheel in a cabbage patch at a Young Conservatives event in Ilkley. It’s no surprise that I grew up in a staunchly Thatcherite house, run on Christian morality, hard work and common sense. Politics was ever present and, to the extent that I understood anything, I knew that politics was mainly to do with winning. As children, we were encouraged to cheer for the blue election posters and boo for the red ones. We delivered leaflets. I even canvassed as a child, knocking on the doors of strangers’ houses asking if I “could count on their vote” because I had been promised my very own rosette made of royal blue satin ribbon. Maggie herself kissed me on the 1979 election tour.

Until I was ten my dad led the buying and merchandising team at a big clothing company. He travelled a lot, smoking and eating with mill and factory owners in Italy and Hong Kong. My mum taught at the local primary school, but on weekends wore taffeta ball gowns, drank Dubonnet and smelt of Chanel No 5, which Dad brought back from duty free. Once a year, they’d don their glad rags and go with a gang of friends to the Snow Ball, a glittering charity bash in the grand old Craiglands Hotel on the edge of Ilkley Moor. One year, Dad famously won a magnum of Moët by skimming a pound coin across the dancefloor and hitting the bottle dead on. They served avocado prawn cocktail and coq au vin at rowdy dinner parties. I was allowed to stay up in my pyjamas to serve pre-dinner drinks and nibbles. From my bed upstairs, I would listen to them talking late into the night. There was always gossip – arguments and affairs, men who’d lost their money and their wives who’d lost the plot. Still, everybody in my parents’ gang seemed certain that they were doing all the right things to secure a better future.

Mum and Dad’s wedding day, Burley in Wharfedale, 1969

Although we lived in a very ordinary two-and-a-half-bedroom pebble-dashed semi, in the early 1980s my brother and I would have playdates in those sprawling houses up the moorside, with their giant, sloping gardens. They had the best toys: Speak & Spell and Bigtrak, but always with working batteries, and the much-yearned-for Barbie DreamHouse. There were multiple BMXs. One had a ride-on electric quad bike!

Everything changed in the mid-80s when the high street, until then populated by largely family-owned businesses, was gobbled up by new aggressive trading groups. The new owners of the company Dad worked for gave him a choice: take the big job in London, or leave. He opted for the latter, investing a chunk of savings and his redundancy money in a small, local and recently established traditional tailoring business, selling suits through department store concessions. Helping Dad in actual Debenhams was impossibly exciting – sorting suits into size order, twizzling the little plastic sizing cubes on the hangers to face neatly forward. But the business didn’t last. 

‘And so it was that a chance encounter over a cheese savoury bap changed all our lives’

Pretty quickly, invitations to big house playdates dried up. A handful of close friends stuck by my parents but, without money, they found the Ilkley clique closed ranks. The loss of status must have hurt, but with our financial circumstances suddenly looking dire my parents didn’t have much time to dwell on it.

And so it was that a chance encounter over a cheese savoury bap changed all our lives. Mum popped out for a sandwich during her dinner break from teaching at the village primary school and was asked by the shop’s previous owner if she knew of anyone who might want to take over the running of the business. 

My dad, exhausted and emotionally bruised from the failure of the menswear company but a proud and stalwart entrepreneur at heart, set about rebuilding our future, and his pride. He took himself to the bank in Otley. The manager, aka the “spotty teenager” (later to suffer with terrible sciatica, which my mum said was divine retribution), was more than happy to lend my dad the money he needed to buy The Corner Shop business, and lease the premises. Vive la laissez-faire.

Our house was swiftly moved to my mum’s name and we swapped our beloved brown Saab for a little white Subaru minivan. The “pie wagon” soon became one of the family, doubling as my brother’s band’s tour bus, a sports equipment storage facility for Mum’s school and a countywide 24-hour taxi service for me. 

The Corner Shop in Burley in Wharfedale as it is today

The Corner Shop was right in the middle of Burley in Wharfedale. It was the longest continually trading shop in the village, established around 1870, and equal staggering distance between the Red Lion, the Queen’s Head and the White Horse, behind the jubilee fountain and next door to the greengrocer. It was the Wharfe Valley equivalent of Piccadilly Circus. When Dad bought the business it was taking £120 a day. He needed £300 per day just to service the debt to the bank. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a family (and a brilliant, endlessly supportive accountant) to run a shop. We had work to do.

We repainted the frontage in traditional Ye Olde Yorkshire livery: cream, green and gold. The Victorian wrought iron mouldings were reconditioned and the huge windows reglazed. The public part of the shop still had its original floor-to-ceiling shelving and sweeping 19th-century marble-top counter, which ran all the way down one side. Dad sourced vintage tea and fudge tins to style window displays and wrote a different Yorkshire witticism on the blackboard outside each day.

He had a good eye for stock, gradually building the range – locally made biscuits, handmade preserves, British cheeses. He sold ten types of Taylors coffee beans, which he’d weigh and grind in the huge red original grinding machine. He even got a licence to sell wine. Anything that didn’t sell we’d eat at home, which was brilliant when it was leftover cream buns and terrible when it was hundreds of boxes of slightly stale glacé fruits.

Bread came from various local bakeries but everything else was made by hand on the premises – apple pies, scones and the now legendary Burley Bun. The BB was a souped-up scone, made with wholemeal flour and brown sugar, laced with spices and candied peel. Truly, they were the most fun 35p could buy in 1990s suburban Yorkshire. 

Dad’s approach to the customer experience was unorthodox. Given the relentless workload and financial pressure he was under, it is understandable if not quite forgivable that he would flip between obsequiously polite to abrupt, off-hand and even downright rude without warning. He’d give particularly short shrift to the kids who’d stick their fingers through the foil wrappers on the Tunnock’s tea cakes and elderly customers who were small spenders but big chatters. To ingratiate himself with his favourite customers, Dad developed an extraordinary accent repertoire, welcoming smart ladies buying dinner party cheese with “air hair lair medem” then shouting “ey oop mert, what can ah get thee?” at the coal lorry man buying a beef paste sarnie and a can of Tango.

On 23 December every year, Dad would work through the night making 800 mince pies. Christmas Eve at The Corner Shop was pandemonium. We’d play Now That’s What I Call Christmas on a sticky CD player and give out mulled wine to the queue of people that snaked around the fountain. The tills would ring and ring until there was no food left at all (apart from all the glacé fruits, obviously) and, when the pubs shut at 4pm, a flurry of desperate, wild-eyed men would stagger in begging us for cranberry sauce. Dad would sell them raspberry jam as “the next best thing”. One year we accidentally sold all our own Christmas food to customers and had to do an emergency ring round of Chinese takeaways.

In the rooms above The Corner Shop, discreetly accessible via the ginnel behind the greengrocer, was Fountain Health and Beauty, which provided a range of therapeutic treatments, specialising in massage. Its clientele was rumoured to include a number of local celebrities. Both customers and staff worked up rapacious appetites up there, which Dad was more than happy to satisfy with pork pies and custard tarts.

Curly Hill, 1981 – a party at the home of family friends (Liz at the front on a bike)

We hit the £300 target for the first time in the autumn, following a promotional event for Beaujolais nouveau, which filled the shop with well-to-do villagers scoffing brie and flannelling about grape varieties and fruity bouquets. To celebrate, we all rode in the van to the newly opened McDonald’s drive-thru in Guiseley. Over Big Mac and fries, Dad announced that the bank had changed the terms of the loan and our new target was £400 a day. 

‘The BB was a souped-up scone…’

‘Truly, they were the most fun 35p could buy in 1990s suburban Yorkshire’

Mum would leave with Dad every morning at 6am and bake three dozen scones before heading to school for a day’s teaching. Dad would serve the breakfast rush before returning home mid-morning to check the post. At 2pm, after the lunchtime rush, he’d drive to the bank to pay in the takings in cash. If he missed a day, he’d exceed the overdraft limit and risk a fine. Financial doom felt that close, all the time. After school, Mum would go back to the shop for the last hour until closing, just to sit and chat with Dad. Looking back, I think they were most in love when things were hardest.

For nearly ten years, my parents built the business together. They were a good team. Mum and I both helped on Saturday mornings, although Mum was only half serving and the other half chatting. Dad grumped about in the back, muttering that “there’s never a bloody pen in this place”, and my brother, invariably hung over, would drop in mid-morning to help himself to a bacon buttie and a can of Cherry Coke. 

Mum developed a persistent cough in the spring of 1996. The doctors gave her an asthma inhaler, but by September she was struggling to breathe and unable to swallow. 

It was the shop phone number that she dialled from Leeds General Infirmary to tell Dad that the shadow on her lung was, as we’d feared, cancer. It was November. He hadn’t gone with her to the appointment because by then the shop was constantly heaving and getting reliable cover was nigh on impossible. The bank loan repayments were stubbornly unaffected by Mum’s illness, so the shop had to be open no matter what. 

My brother had a full-time job by then, but I was still at university so Dad needed me to come back, to help take Mum to and from hospital appointments. When someone has cancer, it’s amazing what can seem like good news. We were thrilled to learn she had secondary ovarian cancer as it was “more likely to respond to chemo than if it had started in her lungs”. 

That December, Mum came home for Christmas but couldn’t get out of bed. Dad worked through the night on 23 December as always, and Happy Xmas (War is Over) blared out to the queue around the fountain on Christmas Eve. 

By early March, Mum was moved to a Marie Curie hospice in an imposing stone building, high up on the moors over Ilkley. She died on 13 March 1997. 

On the morning of 19 March, Dad opened the shop as normal. That day – the day of Mum’s funeral – was the day the bank called my Dad to tell him they wanted to call in the loan. 

Ilkley’s ‘sturdy, masculine, stone houses’ up towards the town’s famous moor

Ours is not the archetypal story of northern families ruined by the 1980s recession. There were no picket lines, no riot shields, no heroic brass bands or hapless male strippers. The disintegration of my parents’ generation of Young Conservatives was quieter. Despite all their ambition and optimism, their materialism and their fervent trust in Thatcherite economics as the path to a brighter future – or at least a comfortable retirement – none of the couples on my parents’ table at the Snow Ball 1988 made it much beyond the end of the century. The strong stone walls of their grand Ilkley houses couldn’t keep cancer and heart disease, divorce and depression, alcoholism and bankruptcy at bay. 

Liz’s dad with his first car, in the early 1960s

In spite of everything, my dad is one of the lucky ones. A few years after Mum died, he sold the shop, and our house. On my brother’s suggestion, Dad set up a car cleaning business in the mid-noughties, which kept him in what he called “pocket money” for a decade. He’s been properly retired for a while now, but is always busy giving talks about the history of retail from Napoleonic times until the present day to the Rotary Club and the local Chamber of Trade, of which he is an honorary life member. He organises a big Christmas fundraiser where the great and the good of 2020s Ilkley society gather in their taffeta and tuxedos. It’s called the Holly Ball. 

He’s married again too, to one of the women I’d served pre-dinner gin and tonics to when I was little. They live in a big, stone house at the top of Curly Hill. 

Liz Moseley is an editor and partner at Tortoise.

This piece appeared in the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.

Photographs courtesy Liz Moseley, Steve Morgan for Tortoise Media