Memories Of Little Downham’s ‘Lofts’ Shop

When one recollects childhood memories, invariably there are many that standout. For me – growing up in Little Downham – these included my first day at Feofee’s primary school, the tragic death of Susan Cockerton (Susan and my Auntie Steph used to babysit me) in April, 1968, the ‘giant hydrogen-filled balloon’ that drifted over our primary school in August, 1970, making houses out of straw bales in the field bordering on our house (sorry Mr. Parsons!), fishing down the ‘Hurst’ and a little shop forever frozen in time. That shop was ‘Lofts’.

Image: Mrs. Hillen

‘Lofts’ closed sometime in the late 80s. It was a childhood memory that had not – physically – changed since my earliest visits on the way to primary school in the late 60s. Truth is, it probably hadn’t changed that much from the day it opened in the early 1900s!

Loft’s was a small dark foreboding place lost in the modern world; an amalgam of Royston Vasey’s ‘local’ shop in The League Of Gentlemen and Arkwright’s store in Open All Hours. But to a child in the late 60s and early 70s that lived east of St. Leonard’s Church it was first stop (we were to lazy to walk to ‘Barlows’ or ‘Proctors’) on the way to school or the ‘field’ (playing field), you see, the shop had a lot of sweets, in the big front window and the jars on the back wall, it also had Corona fizzy and Lyon’s ice lollies. What more could a kid wish for?

Loft’s was an amalgam of Royston Vasey’s local shop in The League Of Gentlemen and Arkwright’s store in Open All Hours.

The main gateway to a kid’s nirvana was through two giant sliding glass doors (they were always shut); you would tell Mrs. Hillen you wanted some sweets and ceremoniously she would open the sliding doors. As a 7 year old with ‘thrupenny bit’ in hand I would ask what I could get for my money and then reach into the big shopfront window and choose with the watchful eye of Mrs. Hillen ever vigilant.

The store was from an long-forgotten age that allowed locals to run a ‘tab’ for groceries as long as you paid up on payday. Sure there was the occasional damp packet of crisps or biscuits and the chocolate in the front window did melt on a hot day but overall I had fond memories.

The shop was handed down to Mrs. Hillen (maiden name Lofts) from her Father, Ben Lofts, a man who I have very little memory of.

The shop served me and my friends very well during our primary school life and the long summer holidays of the early 70s when we spent most of the time either fishing at the ‘Hurst’ or playing tennis, football and cricket up the ‘field’.

Popular treats back then were a ‘¼’ of loose sherbet, pineapple chunks or pear drops.

Popular treats back then were a ‘¼’ of loose sherbet, pineapple chunks or pear drops. When playing tennis down the ‘field’ a bottle of corona cherryade done the trick, making sure to return the bottle the 10p deposit. Ice lollies were popular also: Zoom, Fab (a girl’s lollie, but tasted great) and the big ice popsicles. You could walk down the street with a sweet cigarette in your mouth imitating the adults and laughing when some old geezer thought you had a real ‘fag’ in your mouth.

The store was never over-busy as new shops such as ‘Barlows’ and ‘Proctors’ at the other end of the village had arrived as housing in the village grew. But it did have a loyal following of older ‘true’ locals and served the children well who walked to school from Lawn Lane and Ely Road.

I took the following photographs in the late 80s, it was something I had wanted to do for years but hadn’t the courage to ask.

These could possibly be the only photos that exist of the shop’s interior. I hope I am wrong as I would really like to see earlier shots of Ben Lofts. If anyone has any that I can scan please get in touch.

Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham

(above) Loft’s around 1920.

Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham

(above) Mrs. Hillen.

Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham

(above) The gateway to nirvana.

Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham
Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham
Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham
Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham
Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham
Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham

(above) I’ll have a ‘¼’ of sherbet please.

Image: Loft's Shop, Little Downham

(above) The ice cream refrigerator.

Image: Loft's Shop Today, Little Downham

(above) Lofts is now a residential property called Lofts Cottage.

93 replies
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  1. Michael Fenn
    Michael Fenn says:

    For all of those who are interested in the recent history of Little Downham and Pymoor there are some great photos at In the Pymoor archive on page 3 there is a photo of Ben Lofts “Bowling for a Pig”, and in the Little Downham archive on page 1 there is a picture of Little Downham Infants School in 1925 which includes Eva Lofts.

    Nice to hear from you Fid. Maybe someone should start an archive for Little Downham Swifts. Does anyone know much about the history of the club? When did it start? I’ve seen a photo from the 1920s (?) with my Uncle Ernie (Saberton). The Swifts were a great part of my life when I was a kid. I started going in the 50s when my Uncle Keith (Fenn) was playing. I don’t remember much from that time, I remember John Casbon was in goal and the man who kept the Red White and Blue played (I think). Later I remember old men watching on the touchline who were said to be “stars from the past”. One man made us kids laugh because he stood watching with his bicycle and used to swing it in the air when the game got exciting. I believe his name was Elias. I think the era when you Fid and Roger Saberton, Brian Cox, Mick Dewsbury and the Pearsons etc played must have been one of the best ones in the club’s history.

  2. Fid Hall
    Fid Hall says:

    Hi Mick

    Good to see you remember the old Downham Swifts , I take my dog for a walk down North Fen every day and I go past where your cottage used to stand wondered where you were let me know a little about your life.

    Cheers Fid

  3. Michael Fenn
    Michael Fenn says:

    Is the guy between Mike and Geoff – Roy Pearson? I see his brothers Tony and Bobby are there. I knew him quite well and played in the Reserves with him so I ought to recognize him. Could it be a very young Roy???

  4. Michael Fenn
    Michael Fenn says:

    Your photo brought back a lot of memories. I was probably playing in the reserves at this time, by the time I got into the first team Joe Howlett had finished. I recognize everyone apart from the chap between Mike and Geoff Starling. It was a good team with some decent players, Roger Saberton was a bit of a star and known around the villages as a great goalscorer. Fid Hall was a good player too. Several would have played at a higher level if they had taken it more seriously, in those days you didn’t train much, you just turned up and played. I began my career with the Swifts when I was very young and not really good enough even to play for the Reserves but I knew they were often short of players so I turned up with my boots and waited for Sam Murfitt to say “Have you got your boots boy”
    I haven’t got a scanner but if I can fix a way of copying my photo I will do it and send you a copy.
    Mike Fenn

  5. Robert Newell
    Robert Newell says:

    I believe I have the same photo. The swifts played in the final of some important cup because it was played at Wembley and my dad was given his medal by the Queen mother. How did my dad get the nickname “Gandy”? He would never say. There were several from the free Polish airforce at the RAF hospital during the war. Some stayed was Bomber Belewski one of them.

  6. Michael Fenn
    Michael Fenn says:

    I have a picture of Little Downham Swifts from around 1950 with Wally Gilbert and Gandy Newell sitting side by side!
    I see that a J. Snell left a comment here, not by any chance a near relative to Bomber Belewski?

  7. Robert Newell
    Robert Newell says:

    As I remember it I burnt my hand the morning after bonfire night – thinking that the pile had cooled. But knowing me it could have happened twice. The bonfires we had to contend with this summer were 250,000 hectares and burning on three sides.
    I prefer the ones at Townsend.

  8. Robert Newell
    Robert Newell says:

    I remember Wally – The cricketer was my brother Peter who batted for 2 days and retired not out – I think that was when they won the Kirkland Cup. I live in British Columbia now on top of a mountain a far cry from the Fens. But its still good to come back to your roots – I was in Little Downham or is it Downham in the Isle now, in October

  9. j.snell
    j.snell says:

    robert newell can you remember when you burnt your hand on bonfire night many years ago when you came down to townsend remember the bonfire on the green

  10. Stephen(Wally)Gilbert
    Stephen(Wally)Gilbert says:

    My father – Wally Gilbert – used to play in the same team as your father. He seems to remember that you played cricket for Little downham if he is thinking of the right person
    Stephen Gilbert

  11. Robert Newell
    Robert Newell says:

    I have often talked about Ben Lofts shop but couldn’t remember what it looked like until now. Thank you. My brother and I used the ration books that hung around after the war to buy sweets from the shop. My dad played for Downham Swifts and Mr. Lofts was a great supporter of the team as I remember.

  12. Carol Kybett
    Carol Kybett says:

    Came across this site by chance and it has brought make so many memories. I was in the infants school in 1958 and too remember the long walks.

    We were very lucky to have our own village bobby but I think I am right in saying he died from a heart attack
    None of us who could ever forget the Lofts shop, the visiting fair and the church fetes.

    I too remember the sunday school in the cosy kitchen in the rectory and I went on to be the sunday school teacher. Do you remember the stamp books we collected for attendance and following the annual christmas party we were given books.What about the outings to the seaside, most I went on were with the methodist church in 2nd Drove.

    I left in 1970 to start a career in nursing and came back to marry in 1975 and live now in the south of England. I come back several times a year but reconize very few people

    Why not publish before and after photos?

    Why not use this site to find out what we have all be doing since those days.

  13. Mel Pearson
    Mel Pearson says:

    Can’t believe you managed to take these pictures, well done. I moved away a while ago, but I remember going in there on the way home from school. Thankyou.

  14. Stephen (Wally) Gilbert
    Stephen (Wally) Gilbert says:

    I dont remember a Jo but I was at school with Andrew Crane and there was also a Caroline Rudderham and Vanesssa Kalex (who is contactable on Friends Reunited). I also can remember the joys of the medicals!

    I was very good friends with both Linda and Tyrone Butcher who were tragically killed on the Seven Sisters corner – opposite side of the same corner where Susan Cockerton lost her life. I was also good friends with Stephanie and would certainly like to make contact again.

    You refer to garden fetes on the Rectory lawn, can you also remember Little Downham Feast when a small fair used to be set up each year in the small field to the right of the drive that leads up to Lawn Farm? There is a relatively new dwelling now in that small field.

    Stephen Gilbert

  15. Jo
    Jo says:

    Keep the memories coming, anyone know what happened to Carolyn I think she lived at Lawns Cresent. There was also a Caroline and Vanessa, Stephen and Andrew. I remember the school nurse visits and having medicals in the freezing cold back room at the school.

  16. Nick Atkinson
    Nick Atkinson says:

    What memories this brings back. I lived in Bury Green and had to pass “Lofts” every day, twice! on my way to school.

    I usually stooped and bought a “Bubbly” or two, or if i was really flush a quarter of pineapple cubes.

    I always remember that there were displays in other windows that never changed, and the fact that some days it would take Nora (i think that was her name), a good two or three minutes to appear behind the counter once you had entered the shop.

  17. Stephen (Wally) Gilbert
    Stephen (Wally) Gilbert says:

    Brings back happy memories to me as well – the unique smell of the shop and the nicotine stained moustache.

    Have lost contact with a lot of the “old” village people that I used to know and go about with as a youngster but would like to make contact again.Recently spent a day with Michael Fenn and have had contact with Christine Crane now in Menorca.

    Have a photo that we had taken on a youth club trip to Yarmouth – in it is Keith Scott and Gillian Cooper , Lynn Jarrod and I forget his name but I still beleive he works for Crown garage in Soham (I believe we knew him as Josh and would it be Reynolds??) and me with Stephanie Bedingfield. We are all being photographed with small monkeys!!

    Would be interested to know how and where Stephanie is these days.

    Stephen Gilbert (Formerly of Park Lane)

  18. Michael Fenn
    Michael Fenn says:

    I have also been living abroad for many years (Sweden) so I get quite nostalgic when I read about Little Downham. I get back from time to time and this last summer Stephen (Wally) Gilbert, an old friend from school days, very kindly gave me a guided tour of the village and brought me up to date with local gossip. Met Audrey Smith (my old infants’ school teacher) in School Lane.

    I also remember going from the church service every Sunday morning to the rectory with Canon Atkinson’s wife. I also remember something called the Coral League run by Mrs Parr and Mrs Stow in a hut in the rectory grounds.

    As far as Ben Loft’s shop is concerned I still have pictures of football teams from around 1958 that were free with bubble gum I bought there. I also remember ice poles for some reason. Mr Loft’s had a strange turn of phrase when you paid him, something like “I’s thanking you”.

    Finally interesting to see that an old friend from that time (50s and 60s) Geoff Suddell has also posted some memories here. Hope you’re well Geoff!

    Michael Fenn

    PS Remember the Bedingfield’s well. Stephanie was one or two years below me at school and I played with Mike in the Swifts

  19. Baden Gooch
    Baden Gooch says:

    I have still got the old sign which was outside the shop ( B Lofts General Store)- David Hillen let me have it after the shop closed

  20. Jo
    Jo says:

    I remember Stephanie, small world isn’t It. Would love to see some pictures of the school days posted if any one can help? Remember as a child going into the vicarage parlour during Sunday Service and then coming back for the blessing. It was such a huge place, is it now a private home? What about those fetes in the gardens great fun but having to dance for everyone was awful.

    Is there anywhere that does B/B in the village it would be nice to come back for a visit. I have been away for over fourty years apart from when I came back
    to get married, have been living for some time abroad.

  21. Jo
    Jo says:

    I have many memories of Susan Cockerton. She was killed on that notorious bend, ‘Seven Sisters’. It was a sad time then as two more lost their lives at the same spot shortly after. I think I am right in saying it was Linda and Tyrone Wesley who were cousins and from Pymoor. Would love to come to a reunion if ones arranged. I remember some names, Catherine, Vanessa, Sally, Caroline, Patricia – but no good with surnames.

  22. Geoff Suddell
    Geoff Suddell says:

    I lived in Lawn Lane and passed it every day and called in most days for sweets. There used to be a seat on the right as you walked in and some of the older people would just sit and pass the time of day. Have always remembered it.

  23. Stephen Tuck
    Stephen Tuck says:

    In the late 80’s when Mrs Hillen went on holiday she asked my sister to look after the place. Normally she only had about 10 people in per day.I think she was very bored.

  24. Emma Beeney (Ambrose)
    Emma Beeney (Ambrose) says:

    My dad bought the shop from Mrs Hillen when she retired in the early 1990’s and converted it to Lofts cottage which he named after Ben Lofts. My mum lives there now and the old Victorian ovens in the kitchen are still there intact. Mrs Hillen died in the late 1990’s if I remember rightly as my mum used to check up on her each day as she had no nearby relatives.

  25. Julie Rogerson ( Missin)
    Julie Rogerson ( Missin) says:

    Hi Karl , Love reading about Little Downham, I lived next to that school in Eagles Lane that is now allotments and Mum and Dad still live in the Bungalow, I know they have photos of the School and when it was used as a youth club, there was a big picture of Susan Cockerton that hung on the wall. Mrs Pate and Audrey Smith were the teachers. Leave it with me, I’m on the case to dig out the snaps!! Julie

  26. Jo
    Jo says:

    Has there ever been any reunions , I started school in 1954 would love to meet up some time, we could arrange a weekend. Anyone got any ideas?

  27. Clare Andrews
    Clare Andrews says:

    Wow I love the pictures.

    Two anecdotes about the great Lofty’s as we called it:

    It must have been early nineties it shut, my best friend Emma moved to the village in summer 1991 and it was still open then. I remember this as her mum bought some washing powder there and there was a competition or save the voucher thing on it and she was going to do it but it had expired in mid 1980’s hehe.

    Also once I bought a packet of ‘lovehearts’ sweets in there, on opening they were completely soft. Mum took them back and she swapped for a packet that were perfectly fine. hehe. I must admit from then on we nicknamed it ‘mouldy’s’ but in an affectionate was as we did not stop going there!

  28. Karl Bedingfield
    Karl Bedingfield says:

    Ah, that was before my generation. I had forgotten the youth club in Eagles Lane (now allotments) was in fact a school!

    I went to Feoffees school from 1968-1974 and do remember being a mischievous child playing in the derelict infants school (now the Village Hall). It was very ghostly and still had remnants of it’s past life – old desks and blackboards in place.

    Thanks for clearing that up Duffy.

    If anyone has any photos of any of these schools please get in touch as I would love to publish some.

  29. Duffy
    Duffy says:

    I was also one of those many infants that took that long walk. The infants school was an old chapel type school down Eagles Lane which after it was used as a school it was a Youth club. There was little heating and not much light. Outside toilets (and I really do mean “outside”) for the boys.

    At Dinner-time we all had to walk up to the juniors, which is now the village hall.It reminds me of a scene from “Oliver”. We had to sit on lines of wooden benches in the main hall, with the teachers up on the stage including Mr Ives, who I think was the Headmaster.

    This all happened before the new Feoffees school was built, now even that has been knocked down and a new one built on the same spot. Nothing stays the same!

  30. Karl Bedingfield
    Karl Bedingfield says:

    How many of you remember the school and the long walk a lunch time from the infants to the juniors?

    Are we talking about the same school? Feoffee School in Little Downham was quite small.

  31. Jo
    Jo says:

    I to have many memories, I was married in St Leonards in March 1975, there were a few of us married that year. I haven’t been back for many years but how many of you remember the school and the long walk a lunch time from the infants to the juniors. Oh god who can forget those dinners especially the puds. Those were the good old days.

  32. Duffy
    Duffy says:

    Well done Karl for your memories which matches mine. But forgotten, until I read your account. You done well to get those photos. And there was a wooden seat on the right,and yes it did seem a long walk from Lawns Crescent when your only 8 or 9, to collect your torch batteries which she used to keep loose in a box and test with a small bulb connected to what looked like a small pair of flat dividers.

  33. Andrew Hunt
    Andrew Hunt says:

    I used to cycle from Black Bank Road for pear drops and remember the smell of the shop like it was yesterday even though it was 1980! Great photo’s Karl, a real piece of history.

  34. M Hobbs
    M Hobbs says:

    Seeing these photographs brought back many happy memories.

    The shop is also just how I remember it as well; not shown is what I believe (please will someone correct if I am wrong) was a wooden bench. On this bench were buckets containing seeds like peas being sold in half a pint measures etc.

    I can also remember seeing Mrs. Hillen on her bike delivering things.

    Also Mr. Moxon who would deliver paraffin in an oil drum which was attached to a hand cart.

    One fond memory I have; this being helping him push this hand cart up Ely Road, past what was at that time Mr. Green’s Farm.

    One very vivid memory I have of Mr. Lofts amongst many was; watching him grafting mistletoe on to what I believe was an apple tree in his garden.

    Quite an apt memory to have; at this time of writing as it is nearly Xmas.

  35. Michael Fenn
    Michael Fenn says:

    I was a regular at Ben Lofts. I often visited my Aunt Laura at Lawn’s Farm. From there a visit to the shop involved a high speed dash through the churchyard – pretty scary for a little lad on a dark winter’s night. I also remember Mr Loft’s coming to the big football matches in the village (eg Little Downham v Littleport) selling sweets from a tray which hung around his neck.

  36. Paula Bennett (nee Stearman)
    Paula Bennett (nee Stearman) says:

    Your photos brought back wonderful memories of sliding back those giant glass doors to buy a packet of golden nugget chewing gum. Its just as I remember it, well done!

  37. Karl Bedingfield
    Karl Bedingfield says:

    How did you get away with taking photos inside Lofts?

    Well I had been going to that shop since my first day of primary school and she knew me pretty well. I just asked her one day, although initially she didn’t want to feature in any of the shots.

    I’m glad you like the pictures, I think they may be the only ones available.

  38. Teresa Walker (nee Morse)
    Teresa Walker (nee Morse) says:

    How did you get away with taking photos inside Lofts?

    I must say it brought back so many memories, not only of when I was growing up in the village, but of taking my own small children there too.

    Mrs Hillen was certainly a formidable character, not saying a lot, but that look!

    Always in the same flowery overall too.

    We used to stand outside the shop to catch the bus to Wisbech College every week, I’m sure she hated that.

  39. Sharon (nee Woodbridge)
    Sharon (nee Woodbridge) says:

    Brilliant pictures and just how I remember it. She was such a scary woman. Gone are the days when you could get sweets for half a penny.

  40. Ian Rose
    Ian Rose says:

    Unbelievable!! You have photo’s from inside Lofts shop.

    I remember once diving in there as me and my mate had just stuck the V sign up at a passing driver – can’t think why, just being big I suppose. We naively thought we were safe in there but he found us and we got a bit of a roasting from him. Plus we ended up having to buy something. The shopkeeper was a just like a female Arkwright!! She used to come round to our house as Dad worked for the Inland Revenue at the time. She was always trying to work out how to dodge the tax man!!

    That shop window was fab. I once asked her if I could buy the dead wasp that was on display.

  41. Emma Beney
    Emma Beney says:

    There were always dead earwigs in the loose box of jelly babies behind the guarded window but I still spent my 2p there every day after school!

  42. Tina Simpson
    Tina Simpson says:

    I spent everyday after school in Lofts shop, it was a great place to buy sweets and I have never come across anywhere quite like it.
    The pictures are just as I remember it, well done for an excellent piece of writing.

  43. Nikki
    Nikki says:

    Some great pictures. I too remember the early small shop days. My Grandad used to own the shop opposite St. Mary’s Church in Ely. I remember it like yesterday, thing was it was 30 years ago… doesn’t time fly.

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