Shutters close on the Hole in the Wall
A slice of Britain: The only oatcake shop left in Stoke faces demolition, bringing more than a century of tradition – in the name of regeneration – to an end
Sunday 25 March 2012
Shouts of "Hiya, duck!" and "Do you want brown sauce with that?" float through the window, along with the smell of sizzling sausages and bacon. The mood at the Hole in the Wall in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent is upbeat, and the banter comes as thick and fast as its servings of steaming oatcakes.
So you would never guess that yesterday was one of the saddest days in the history of the 115-year-old establishment, said to be the last traditional oatcake shop in Britain. From today, the shop has closed for good.
Beneath the banter, the pain caused by the closure – the result of "regeneration" – is clear. Brenda Capewell, 59, who has worked at the shop for nine years, has a smile for everyone who comes by, but the tears come quickly when her thoughts turn to the next day. "I feel upset now," she says as she wells up. "I love it here. The customers are great. And everyone who works here is fantastic. We have a joke and a laugh and there's never a dull moment."
She sets off Sue Fowler, who has run the shop with her husband Glenn and son Rob for 30 years. "I just can't think about it," she says, wiping tears from her face. Another order comes in and breaks the sombre atmosphere. "Two dozen oatcakes and one with red sauce please," a voice calls out – and it's back to the grill.
Customers begin queuing before 6am for their chance to get hold of the shop's last ever oatcakes. By 11am more than 100 people are waiting patiently in the sunshine. As the day progresses the snaking line barely shrinks. The Fowlers say it was like this all last week, and on Friday alone they produced more than 4,000 oatcakes to try to meet demand.
It hasn't been all work: there have also been plenty of presents, cards and flowers. One former Hanley boy, Paul Bamford, 61, catches the 7am train from his home in Hastings to get his final fix of the Fowlers' handmade oatcakes. Placing his order of one filled with double bacon and cheese and four dozen to take away, he says: "It's criminal that it's closing. This is part of our heritage. I've been coming here for more than 10 years and it's the interaction that people like, being able to talk to people and see the things being made."
George Ormston, 79, says he has been coming to the shop since he was a boy and his father and grandfather had come before him. "It hasn't changed at all. My dad used to bring me every weekend," he says.
The Hole in the Wall is an ordinary red-brick, end-of-terrace house. But it has become famous for keeping to an age-old tradition, selling from its front window the pancake-style oatcakes, which are synonymous with North Staffordshire – and not to be confused with the Scottish biscuits that share the same name. With its aerated, floppy texture, the Staffordshire snack is more akin to a French galette and is served filled with bacon, sausage or cheese – or all three.
When the Hole in Wall opened more than a century ago, the potteries, collieries and steelworks of Stoke-on-Trent were still thriving. Many of these businesses have since died, and with the closing down of the Fowlers' shop there is a fear that oatcake sellers will go the same way.
This weekend's closure marks the end of a four-year battle to save the shop from demolition as part of a £2.3bn regeneration scheme. Developers have already seen off most of the shop's long-standing neighbours on Waterloo Street. The Fowlers were offered a move to newer premises, but say the higher costs would have pushed them into debt. "At our time of life we didn't want that," says Glenn, "so we just took the money they offered and decided to call it a day."
Employee Lee Caroll, 50, is angry that his livelihood and a historic Stoke institution will go at the same time. "I've just lost my house because of regeneration and now I've lost my job because of it."
Glenn faces the end with resignation. Amid the orders and the emotion he is stoic, philosophical: "We're just trying to get through the day."
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