The Herbalist

In my home-town of Northwich there used to be a herbalist. 'R. Hornby Herbalist' was the name over the window. Even in 1963, "Pop" Hornby's was a time capsule. He sold all sorts of herbal remedies - arrowroot, liquorice root, powders, potions, tinctures, teas, dandelion coffee, senna pods, and much, much more. All stored in glass jars and sold by the ounce. Here was everything you needed to clear the blood, headache, constipation, diarrhoea, dyspepsia and toothache. The jars were kept on rows of brown varnished shelves which sat above more rows of drawers, labelled as they surely been since Pop was a child in the 1900's. In fact, Pop had grown up in this shop and inherited it from his father. It had always been Pop Hornby's.

As with many other buildings on this side of the street you had to climb three steps to go in the shop. Directly across the street you had to go down three steps to the tobacconist and newspaper shops, such was the nature of the mining subsidence in the town.

The shop itself was small and dark, half panelled with oak, and with green-painted, once embossed, Victorian wallpaper elsewhere. It was lit by a few dim electric bulbs of great antiquity which barely glowed amber, and which gave out more heat than light. The shop's front window was boarded up inside to shoulder height, and a narrow black Japanned shelf, just 12 inches wide and ran around the wall. Below a shelf on the side wall there was a bench with a table in front, and by the counter were several high stools which rocked comfortingly on the uneven board floor wherever you placed them. A few tables with cast iron legs and well-scrubbed wooden tops were placed at the front of the room and they too rocked - sufficiently for customers to spill their hot sarsaparilla or mint tea if their knees lost grip on a table leg.

The main bar-style counter was about four feet high and L-shaped, with a passage to the left which ran to the private back room. It was a dark mahogany with a fine patina of grime in places, and worn away in others. Mounted just behind the counter were a soda fountain and a water boiler, and on the right hand side various products like peppermint sweets, cough-candy and other 'treats' were displayed. Behind the counter there were shelves of bottles containing cordials: blackcurrant, raspberry, cola, Vimto, lemon, lime, dandelion and burdock and sarsaparilla. And below these were the small green drawers and boxes for the dry goods, all labelled as they must have been a hundred years earlier with fading gold-leaf lettering.

Pop Hornby's was not simply a place where you went to buy a remedy: it was where you went to take a remedy. This was a place of refreshment, as well as a place to find a cure or palliative for a winter cold; somewhere to warm-up on a cold day with a hot drink, or cool down in summer with a fizzy cream soda. There was no 'booze' in this drinking den.

On entering the shop, customers had to ring the bell on the counter to summon "Pop". He ran the shop on his own. Maybe there was a "Ma" Hornby, but if so, she never came through the half-glazed and curtained door that separated the shop from the 'back room'. He knew his regulars, and as soon as he opened the door he would break into a broad smile and ask "What will it be today?" or enquire whether yesterday's ailment was clearing up.

During the day there was a steady stream of elderly people collecting their cures and potions, and maybe having a quiet cup of herbal tea, not that there was a great choice of flavours: it was regular tea, herbal tea or, maybe, dandelion coffee. The real treat was the hot lemon, blackcurrant or slightly fizzy sarsaparilla. Nowhere else in town, let alone the whole county, had such delights.

Between 5 and 6 pm Pop Hornby's was a favourite haunt for those kids who disliked the rowdy espresso bar across the street with its non-stop Rock and Roll Wurlitzer jukebox pumping out Cliff Richard, Gene Vincent, The Everly Brothers and the Hollies. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles had yet to arrive.

"Pop's" required no qualification or explanation; everyone knew it. Almost everyone loved it. It survived for many generations, refreshing and curing many people, or at least making them feel better when they left. Then, some time in the 70's, Pop died. There was a long epitaph in the local paper and many concerns were voiced that the shop would cease to be. In fact, Pop's son took over for a few years, but times were changing. Old folk could buy branded medicines at the big pharmacy down the street – and even a wide selection of herbal remedies. But no hot or fizzy sarsaparilla, no ambience and no cheery "What will it be today?"