Pontycymmer is a small town in the Garw valley, South Wales. It was where my Mother was brought up and my father lived further up the valley in Blaengarw. This cafe was central to many peoples lives over the past 80 years. It has recently closed and with it the last Italian cafe in the valley. I enclose the following newspaper article which covered the closing of the cafe:
THE last Italian cafe in a Welsh mining valley has just closed.
Jack Assirati was only a baby when his parents opened a cafe in Pontycymer in the Garw Valley, north of Bridgend. Now, aged 83, he has decided to call it a day and hang up his apron. He still lives at the Station Cafe at Ffaldau Square. The red formica-topped tables and wooden chairs are in place and the Gaggia cappuccino machine stands on the counter – used by Mr Assirati to make coffee for his many visitors.
The interior of the shop was immortalised in the film Very Annie Mary, featuring actors Ioan Gruffudd and Matthew Rhys, who were shown serving behind the counter.
Mr Assirati’s father Giuseppe first came to the valley in 1926 to take over a shop a little distance away in Oxford Street. “He had come to Wales from Bardi before the First World War and worked for the Moruzzis in Burry Port,” said Mr Assirati. “But when Italy entered the war on the side of the allies, he went home and enlisted. “He worked on a mule train in the Dolomites delivering supplies. They were fighting the Germans and Austrians.”
He decided to return to Wales after the war and left his wife Theresa behind in Italy while he got the business under way. “He borrowed £50 and was able to rent an old sweet shop,” Mr Assirati recalled. “But he could not have picked a worse time. The miners’ strike was under way and the whole of South Wales was on stop. Nobody had any money at all. He used to let the miners come into the cafe to play cards and dominoes. Nobody had a penny to buy anything, but once the strike was over and they were back in work, they supported him.”
Jack and his mother followed him to Pontycymer in 1927. His older sister Gina, who now lives in Porthcawl, was left in Bardi on the family farm with her grandparents but she joined the family later.
“It was pretty tough for my parents at the beginning,” said Mr Assirati. “My mother would open the shop in time for the miners going down the pit at 6am. They would buy one cigarette to smoke on their way or a screw of tobacco twist which they could chew underground. In those days, there were more than 1,000 men just in the Ffaldau Colliery and there were four or five other pits in the valley as well. The Garw revolved around coal,” he said. “Pontycymer was a thriving place.”
In 1932, the Station Cafe became vacant and the family moved to the shop where they have remained ever since. “It was a better location, near to the railway station and the pit,” he said. “In those days, people did not drink coffee and nobody would pay for a cup of tea which they could have at home. So we used to sell cups of Oxo or hot peppermint, blackcurrant and raspberry cordial.
“We used to make the ice cream during the summer buying milk from the local farms. Every farmer in those days was also a milkman and if they had milk over, they would sell it to the Italian cafes before it could go off as nobody had any fridges.”
Mr Assirati recalls the ice cream being made in big 10 gallon churns. It was kept in insulated boxes in a cold room at the back. “People had never had ice cream in South Wales until the Italians arrived,” he said. “We used to sell halfpenny cornets.”
Mr Assirati said the family worked a long day.
“After the colliers had gone to work, my mother would have to scrub out the entire shop because of the coal dust that they had carried in with them.
“My father would then take over and he would stay open until late at night. There was nowhere else for people to go and they would come in to have a warm and a hot drink.”
The Italian cafes – of which there were six in the valley at that time – also opened on Sundays, in defiance of the Sunday trading laws.
“We used to pay a weekly fine of 7s 6d (37½p) but it was worth it,” he said. “Sundays were dead and people used to pop in after going to the club to meet friends.”
But the war changed everything. “When Mussolini entered the war on Germany’s side in 1941, it was devastating for us,” he said. “I was a Garw boy but I was ordered to leave the sixth form at Garw Grammar School because I was born in Italy. I had to do war work. My parents were regarded as enemy aliens. The police came and took my father and he was sent to the Isle of Man.”
It was decreed that Jack’s mother had to move more than 25 miles from the coast – in case she signalled to enemy shipping – and she went to stay with family in Aberdare.
Gina went to work in a miners’ canteen in Pontypridd leaving Jack and younger sister Maria, who was 14, to fend for themselves in Pontycymer.
“But we encountered no hostility,” he said. “Everybody was very friendly. We were both part of the valley. “I managed to get a job at Braichycymer Farm with Mr Tudor because he knew me. He kept Welsh cobs and I was mad on horses.”
Mrs Assirati returned home before the war ended because of illness and her husband was also released from internment on health grounds. “We then had to start building up the business from scratch,” he said. “Everything was rationed but our old suppliers were very helpful and they allowed us to have enough stuff to get the business going again. Even so, we could only open for a few hours a day as we had very little stock.”
Things started to look up in the 1950s which became the age of the milk bar. “We had the first juke box in the valley,” Jack said. “We used to have all the kids in the cafe listening to the latest hits. There would be Bill Haley, Elvis, Cliff – it was great.” The juke box cost £1,000 – a fortune in those days. “It was a big gamble but I decided to go for it,” he said. “My father had died in 1956 and I was running the business. People used to pay 3d for a single record or one shilling for five.”
The family had a year to pay for the juke box but it paid for itself in six months.
“People would be there night and day,” he said. “Kids would mitch school to come into the cafe and the head would gather them up. But it used to do my head in sometimes – I just had to get out for some peace and quiet.”
The cafe became popular with pupils from the nearby grammar school who would call in for chips.
Mr Assirati’s mother died in 1987, aged 91. He had run the business on his own since then. “But I have arthritis and at the age of 83, I thought it was time to call it a day,” he said.
“But people are forever popping in.
“I have had no time to miss it.
“This cafe was the last one of its kind in the valley. It’s the end of an era.”
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