Sweet Cornwall

Nowhere can the changing face of Cornwall be seen more than in the county’s old fishing ports. Year-round tourism, fabulous holiday homes and celebrity eateries have transformed many towns beyond recognition. Richard Barbery goes in search of some sweet childhood memories.

When I was a child, I had a foot fetish. There, I’ve said it. It’s out in the open. At least I assume it was some kind of fetish because up until the age of four, when I lived in Fowey, every time I went shopping with my mother, I begged her to take me in to the local shoe shop to have my feet measured. I remember there was something quite calming about it all.

But that was a long time ago and fortunately the fetish didn’t last into my adulthood; and neither did the shoe shop, owned by Mr Warren, whose family had been in the town longer than anyone could remember. Although the premises are still there, albeit in a different guise, nestled in the slender street that runs alongside the harbour, these days there are few shops I recognize in the town that existed during my childhood 40 years ago.


Situated on Cornwall’ s more tranquil south coast, Fowey is a holiday brochure writer’s dream. The hyperbole written about its stunning location, ancient history and superb natural harbour is endless and walking through the town’s impossibly narrow streets, where buildings overhang and cast long shadows across your path, is not unlike flicking through the pages of a glossy coffee table magazine. It’s so terribly chic.


Whilst other towns in the county veer between the arty, cutesy picturesque and brash, Fowey has become not so much the refined grand dame of Cornwall, but rather the pouting supermodel - smouldering with stylish penthouse flats, cafes with tables and chairs spilling out on to the street and where anything but the best simply won’t do. The Fowey of my childhood has changed.


Walking along Fore Street where stores jostle for position on the main thoroughfare, I came across Middleton’s tobacconist and sweet shop, a seemingly familiar facade from the past. Pushing open the old door after so many years, I was hit by a sledgehammer of nostalgia. Hardly anything had changed behind the shop’s bay windows, an outdated relic, seemingly out of sorts with Fowey’s present-day loveliness. When I was a child, the shop had a display of pipes in the window through which you could see countless jars of boiled sweets and foil wrapped chocolate; the smell was sweetly pungent with loose tobacco adding spiciness…to a child of four, it was like a exotic bazaar.


Pam Middleton and her husband Mike have owned run the shop for over 20 years and fell in love with the town when they first visited back in the 1980s. Pam explains, “I don’t know why, but as soon as we drove down into the town and the streets became narrower and narrower, I just had this feeling that I had come home”.


Until that time ‘home’ had been in Brentford in Essex where Pam worked in a psychiatric hospital and Pete was a systems analyst and with a new baby, they decided that they wanted to bring up their child in Cornwall. “We had friends near Bodmin and knew the county vaguely and we had our hearts set on a small sub post office at Charlestown but we lost out at the final moment so we scoured the area looking for a suitable business to buy. One dark winter’s day we received details of a tiny sweet shop in Fowey so we gave up the secure jobs, the company car and we changed our lives completely”.


The shop has been selling confectionary since 1894 when a Mrs Adams signed a lease on the premises. In those days the shop was mainly a tobacconist, newsagent and lending library but over the years the merchandise has changed with the times – however the interior hasn’t.


Today the shelves look reassuringly unstylish, the counter is impractically high with Pam peering over the top like a sniper and there is barely room to swing a sugar mouse. “We wanted to retain a familiar, old-fashioned feel to the shop”, explains Pam, “…but trends have changed. When we first took over in 1987, we sold a lot of tobacco products but that side of the business has declined rapidly especially since the smoking ban last year. Back in the days when foreign sailors from Russia and eastern block countries came into Fowey on the china clay ships we would sell Mars Bars and Cadbury’s chocolate in bulk; the clothes shop down the road would sell dozens of blue jeans, all products that were unavailable in those countries then. Nowadays, we serve sailors of a different variety, those who own the elegant yachts in the harbour and their tastes are becoming more sophisticated; sales of organic and fair-trade products are increasing and local products like clotted cream fudge and chocolate made in the county are extremely popular. In the summer I’m chief fudge chopper, the window is piled high with plates of the stuff, customers come to us because we have a good reputation for quality products and these days Fowey is an all year round destination for visitors, so business is good”


Pam and Pete live over the narrow shop where stock is piled high to the ceiling,  “We take a week’s holiday after the main season but for the rest of year we are here and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, we love Fowey and although there are very few people who live in the town centre nowadays - a lot properties are holiday homes - there is a great sense of community amongst the shop owners here”.


After more than a century as a sweet shop, Middleton’s is one of those rare breeds – a business that has survived the vagaries of the fickle consumer. “We have had our share of lean times”, says Pam “But we’ll still be here in 20 years”. Although, the products on the shelves have changed – nowadays chilli flavoured chocolate, giant chocolate pasties, tins of sweet pilchards and chocolate covered gooseberries are temptingly on offer, I wonder if Mrs Adams, the original Victorian owner, ever thought that the shop she started 114 years ago would still be there?