The tinkle of "Greensleeves" was once a familiar sound in every residential street. But for many, that quintessential sound of summer is a fading memory as the traditional ice-cream van has declined to the point where only an estimated 500 are still operating, down from 20,000 in the 1950s.
Now, there are signs it could be poised for revival, albeit in a slightly different guise. Once inseparably associated with the 99 flake, the modern vendor has diversified into more upmarket flavours – and not just of ice-cream.
The fashion designer Henry Holland has transformed a former ice-cream van, now called Mr Quiffy in a reference to his hairstyle, into his new flagship store in which he intends to tour Britain. Instead of cones and lollies he will sell House of Holland clothes including shorts, T-shirts and accessories, with prices ranging from £15 to £150. "It's a lower price point than usual," says Holland. "After all, we're asking people to buy from the back of a van."
Vans have also found a new lease of life supplying more upmarket offerings. The trend for posh street food has now spread from festivals to private functions, and artisan ice-cream vans can be hired for weddings and parties.
The Portsmouth-based Kiss My Cake company offers a vintage van, Bluebelle, at £450 for the day. That gets you enough ice-cream for 100 people in eight flavours, plus free champagne or Sambuca sorbet, sauces, sprinkles, flakes and luxury waffle cones. Then there's Daisy, a van covering the Home Counties, offering luxury ice-creams and sorbets, gourmet popcorn, and retro ice lollies and sweets.
"There has been a shift, with some vendors appealing to a more discerning clientele," says a spokesman for the Nationwide Caterers Association. "A lot of farmers, for example, have diversified into making really wonderful high-quality ice-creams."
The decline of the traditional ice-cream van has been blamed on rising costs and increased anxiety among consumers about high sugar and fat contents. "Licence fees to pitch an ice-cream van are quite high – some councils charge up to £3,000," says Steve Berrill of the Ice Cream Alliance. "Fuel costs, commodities and the price of ingredients have gone up too. A lot of our members have been absorbing these costs."
Ice-cream vendors enjoyed a rare boost last month, when the Government said it would relax rules that limit a jingle to just four seconds. As of September, they can be played for up to 12 seconds. It's the first change to the "Code of Practice on Noise from Ice-Cream Van Chimes" since 1982, and was hotly resisted by the Noise Abatement Society.
Ice-cream vans will still be banned from playing their chimes after 7pm, or within 50m of schools, hospitals and places of worship. They will also have to keep the chimes lower than 80 decibels and cannot sound them more than once every two hours in the same street. They are also banned from playing when a rival vehicle is trading – a nod, perhaps, to Glasgow's brutal 1980s ice-cream wars, when rival gangs clashed over pitches, as the vans were a front to sell drugs.
Already, the trend for artisan vans is sparking a minor backlash. Emma Thomas plans to launch Screaming and Creaming in the autumn, a horror-themed ice-cream van. "It's a deliberate antidote to all those twee ones with bunting and names like Lola," she says. "Our cones will be red and the sauces will be served in syringes. And we'll play heavy metal instead of 'Greensleeves'."
It launches this Halloween, and ice-creams will be priced at about £1.50. "I want people to have an affordable experience", Ms Thomas says.
But is it the cost that's the problem? Or are ice-cream vans just irredeemably retro? "We've got no evidence to suggest they're out of fashion," Mr Berrill counters. "The ice-cream van is a wonderful part of British culture that a lot of us have grown up with. The sound of those chimes always brings back joyous memories of the seaside, and signals there's a treat on the way."Reuse content