We’re at your service, sir!

PUBLISHED: 10:08 31 July 2015 | UPDATED: 10:08 31 July 2015

HIGH TEA: summer visitors enjoying a meal at the Brittwell Guest House on Nelson Road Central in Great Yarmouth in 1952.

MAIN HIGH TEA: summer visitors enjoying a meal at the Brittwell Guest House on Nelson Road Central in Great Yarmouth in 1952.


It is nothing more than a niggling irritation, I admit, and would probably pass unnoticed by other guests, but for me it can mar a holiday or short break when we are in our busy hotel dining room for a self-service meal.

WE'VE LOVED OUR STAY! Guests wave farewell to landlady Mrs Hall at the door of her Brittwell Guest House.WE'VE LOVED OUR STAY! Guests wave farewell to landlady Mrs Hall at the door of her Brittwell Guest House.

Each time a visit to the servery is necessary, one or other of us has to remain at the table while the other goes for the next course, then vice versa, thus preventing the scenario of the two of us returning to our table to find it has been occupied – albeit innocently - by someone else during our brief absence.

Confrontations, and protests that we were there first, are best avoided so we meekly seek a spare table elsewhere, plates of food in hand, hoping the gravy will not congeal or the ice-cream melt if we have to do a circular tour of the restaurant before we can find a vacant table and fetch more cutlery.

But during a recent week on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, we found that the scenario had been averted by the most simple of solutions...once we had sussed it.

For on every one of the many tables lay a neat printed card, roughly the size of a playing card, issued by the hotel group. One one side was printed “Libre,” with translations into four other languages including English (“Vacant”). On the reverse was “Ocupada”, again with the quartet of translations, among them “Occupied” for the English-speaking guests.

WORTH THE LONG JOURNEY...holidaymakers arriving at Yarmouth coach station in summer 1962.
Pictures: MERCURY LIBRARYWORTH THE LONG JOURNEY...holidaymakers arriving at Yarmouth coach station in summer 1962. Pictures: MERCURY LIBRARY

So you sat at a table only if the card indicated “Libre”, avoiding “Ocupada” whose diners were probably at the servery. Staff relaying the table, or guests who had finished their meal, reversed the card as a ready indication to the next diner that the table was free and available.

It might well be that it is an age-old practice in the hospitality business, but we had never experienced it hitherto. If anyone in the Great Yarmouth Mercury circulation area is in a similar style of catering and has not heard of this simplest of solutions, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Personally, I prefer self-service in hotels because I am what my late mother – and Mrs Peggotty – call “a fussy eater” and I can pick and choose what to put on my plate without interrogating busy waiters and waitresses, whose attitude is sometimes found wanting, about the detail of menu.

“I know what I like, and don’t like what I don’t know” probably sums up my approach.

Self-service was a post-war import from the United States and revolutionised not only the catering industry but also retail marketing. It was a money-saving innovation, reducing the number of waiters and counter assistants on the pay-roll. Customers soon took to it.

The first businesses in Yarmouth to embrace self-service, as far as I can recall from my youth, was not a hotel but were Frank’s Snacks at the Southtown foot of the Haven Bridge, a very Americanised undertaking perhaps in the late 1940s or early 1950s, and Arnolds (Debenhams from 1972) where much of the retail basement was converted a swish but short-lived new eaterie.

Ah, those were the days, when the postwar good cheer factor was abundant, and Yarmouth and Gorleston, energetically promoted as “The resorts that have everything”, began to attract record numbers of trippers and staying visitors.

The presence of show business stars in our theatres for long summer seasons was magnetic to potential holidaymakers eager to see live performances by entertainers they knew only from radio broadcasts and gramophone records...and perhaps the fledgling television sets that very few of us had in our homes at the time.

“House Full” signs were regularly displayed, to the disappointment of would-be audiences and the delights of the borough council, theatre owners and impresarios. “No vacancies” signs had the same effect on visitors who arrived “on spec” without booking accommodation in advance, although hotels, guest houses and “B&Bs” (bed-and-breakfast) establishments were well satisfied.

Scores of packed coaches arrived almost in convoy on summer Saturdays, discharging passengers on Church and Brewery Plains before we had a dedicated charabanc park in 1961 on former Yarmouth Beach Station land after the entire Midland and Great Northern Railway network was axed in 1959. Trains pulled into our two or three termini, bringing holidaymakers full of expectation of a memorable stay here.

In the Seventies and Eighties, when Peggotty’s Hut was near Gorleston cliffs, neighbours doing B&B suggested that we should give it a go, but as we had no spare bedroom, we declined. We also turned down “on spec” visitors at the door, including

one foolish family with children late on August Bank Holiday Saturday night who had arrived in the resort without booking anywhere in advance.

Eventually we decided to give it a try if our neighbours had any overspill. Somehow we managed to free up the front bedroom, and our first guests arrived, two women from the Midlands in a car. A worried Mrs Peggotty only cat-napped all night, rehearsing preparing their breakfast...

At least we did not need an “Ocupada/Libre” card on our dining table...

After breakfast, they went for a stroll on the sea-front, but one fell over near the yacht pond and badly hurt her leg, ending their visit. Neither could remember where they were staying, but fortuitously one of the first people they asked happened to be Mrs Peggotty’s aunt.

The principal problem was that the injured woman was the car driver, her companion being unable to drive.

When they returned to Peggotty’s Hut, they assumed that one of our responsibilities as their short-lived hosts was to drive them home to Nottingham in their car, and were peeved when I refused to do so. The facts that I had to be at work, and somehow had to find my way back home from the Midlands, cut no ice with them.

The problem was resolved when a nephew summoned from Nottingham drove them home in their car. I doubt if they ever gave Yarmouth and Gorleston another try.

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