Station Cafe, Pontycymmer

Posted by Philip (South Wales, United Kingdom) on 25 September 2010 in Documentary & Street and Portfolio.

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.”

Any tips or constructive criticism are welcome.

My photos can also be found on FLICKR.
I appreciate all your comments, thank you so much. I do read all the comments and will try to answer any questions you have.

Japanalia from Yokohama, Japan

Very interesting documentary article! nice of you to share it with us all! Hope the community in the village will find a way to preserve this building! To let it go to pieces would be a shame!

25 Sep 2010 5:24am

@Japanalia: The land has been bought by a local community charity. Not sure what their plans are though.

Phil David Alexander Morris from Saskatoon, Canada

A beautiful story along with a beautiful picture to commemorate the history.

25 Sep 2010 6:15am

CElliottUK from Reading, United Kingdom

The bit in the story about the juke box got me! I can imagine all those kids flocking there to listen to all that Skiffle/rock 'n roll music! Sad story of changing tastes and needs

25 Sep 2010 6:44am

Ronnie 2¢ from Atlantic Shores, United Kingdom

What a lovely story to go with the image . . adds so much to mere pixels.

25 Sep 2010 10:34am

Sunder from Chennai, India

A nice story to go with a wonderful picture...

25 Sep 2010 1:00pm

Bettina from Los Angeles, United States

Beautiful story and beautiful shot. I love the composition allowing the landscape on the left to bring context for the cafe.

25 Sep 2010 3:29pm

@Bettina: Thanks. There used to be buildings to the left of the Cafe. Not sure why they were demolished. The site has been empty for a few years now.

Lori from Michigan, United States

Thanks for sharing the story as well !

25 Sep 2010 6:10pm

Ted from South Wales, United Kingdom

such a compelling story and a poignant image.
Nice one Phil!

25 Sep 2010 6:48pm

@Ted: Thanks. I thought it was a nice story. I went in there about 6 years ago. It was like going back to the 50s. However, I had a nice coffee and the owner (Jack) was very friendly. He even remembered my Uncle who had died several years previously.

MARIANA from Waterloo, Canada

Great find . What a sweet cafe :) would love to see inside too!

25 Sep 2010 7:29pm

@MARIANA: Unfortunately, I have no photos of inside only my memories. However, it was used in a film Very Annie Mary.

Chris from United Kingdom

I was in there today an it was such an amazing experiance. It was like stepping back in time. I hope the new owners do something too preserve the history of this amazing building as there is nothing left in the valley that dates back too the interior of this old cafe

29 Oct 2010 9:54pm

Jennie Ross from United Kingdom

There used to be a pub next door - the Ffaldau Arms - but it was destroyed by fire a few years ago. The cafe used to be bigger but when Giac Assirati retired he made a seperate entrance to his living accomodation. I don't think the cafe has changed much since Giac's parents took it over in the 20's It is a shame that the building wasn't moved to the Welsh Folk Museum in St Fagans really. Giac was quite a character and my very dear friend of very many years who I still miss very much.

7 Jan 2011 10:32am

Pamela Williams from United Kingdom

what a lovely find, I enjoyed every word. I remember it from the 60's and 70's as a child, my mum was a Rowlands from prospect place where my auntie still lives in the family home and my father a Williams from upper Adare st, Bill Williams and June Rowlands , the station cafe , the square and pontycymmer will always have a special place in our lives. My uncle Dick was a well known man in the ffaulda known by all as Dido. My uncle Ian - jock from prospect place in his 80's now a scot in wales has all his life walked the valleys with his little dogs and can still be seen, as fit as ever walking the valleys . I hope the station cafe remains forever- it will in my memories

25 Feb 2011 10:36pm

jeff/mardy from United Kingdom

i remember jack very well, my father em mardy grew up with him ,i have fond memories of hot steamed pies from jacks cafe and a clip around the ear if you did not behave, i was talking to jack just before he passed away and it was nice to talk about what went on in and around the cafe .jacks cafe will always be rememberd by many peple in and around the garw as it is a big part of the valley.

10 Jan 2012 7:46pm

Steve from Creation Development Trust from United Kingdom

Hi all, just stumbled across this and the interest in comments. I am posting on behalf of the charity who now own this building. We hope to restore the building and create a heritage cafe. We have several funding avenues we are actively exploring and within the next few weeks will be launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the development - watch this space!!

21 Nov 2012 7:15pm

Steve from Creation Development Trust from United Kingdom

It will be sympathetically restored with guest b&b accomodation above so you can all come and stay! ;)

21 Nov 2012 7:16pm

Pam and Joyce from United Kingdom

July 2013 we returned on a memory visit and was so sad to see the station cafe looking in such a sorry state. With windows blacked out and lifeless we do hope this cafe is not left to get into ill repair and demolished for safety reasons as it would be such a loss.
we think it should be revived as a vintage cafe just the way it was! as i am sure it would bring in people of all ages and again provide a well needed service.
(maybe leave out the clip behind the ear though!)

12 Jul 2013 10:31am

John Watkins from United Kingdom

I used Jack's cafe up to 1965, when I was in Garw Grammar School. There was a private area in the back of the cafe, screened off, where teachers couldn't see us. If you wanted a fag, Jack would sell you one for 3d. If you wanted a steak and kidney pie, he'd put one in a paper bag on a plate and ram the espresso machine's steam spout into it to heat it up. A quick wipe and he'd make you a coffee. We were always welcome there.

23 Feb 2015 2:00pm

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