The sweet smell of success

Kevin Hilborne of Hilbornes sweet shop in Southsea and, right, a jar of Buchanan's Rich Liquorice Toffees. Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (123072-14)

Kevin Hilborne of Hilbornes sweet shop in Southsea and, right, a jar of Buchanan's Rich Liquorice Toffees. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (123072-14)

Kevin Porter

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An inviting spectrum of candy pinks, lemons, blues and greens lines the shelves tantalising the senses and tempting children of all ages.

The sweet jars stand in rainbow rows, holding as many childhood memories as they do bon bons, toffees and sherbert pips.

Bottles of sweets at Hilbornes sweet shop in Southsea. 'Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (123072-19)

Bottles of sweets at Hilbornes sweet shop in Southsea. 'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (123072-19)

The oldest generations might fondly recall trotting off to the corner shop for their quarters of sweet treats when they spot the humbugs and mint creams.

And children of the ’80s will have memories sparked by that tooth-punishing but tasty classic the cola cube.

Then there is the display of penny sweets near the counter, a reminder of going into a shop with 10p and coming out with a little bag or riches, having held up queues of adults while debating the relative merits of a shrimp and a fried egg.

All this nostalgia is the main reason for the recent rise of the traditional sweet shop, say Kevin Warne and Kim Hilborne standing in front of the rows of sugary treasures in their Southsea sweet store.

The couple opened their Albert Road shop Hilbornes about nine months ago and say that since then there’s been a boom in the world of classic confectionery.

‘I think it’s part of that whole nostalgia thing, people love anything retro,’ says Kevin. ‘We have customers saying: ‘My God, this takes me right back to my childhood. One guy asked for aniseed balls because he hadn’t had them since he was a boy.’

Retro sweets in jars, displayed in metric for legal purposes but measured out in quarters the good old-fashioned way, certainly seem to be enjoying a revival. Once largely consigned to history as the supermarkets took hold, the dedicated sweet shop is the one of the few independent businesses making a steady return to our high streets.

Kevin and Kim opened Hilbornes because they wanted to set up a business in memory of Kim’s dad John, who died after a long illness in December.

But as parents of three children, they also realised there was a gap in the market.

‘I used to get them from school on Friday and if they wanted a treat it would be a trip to Tesco for chocolate or packets of sweets. What they wanted was more variety and the chance to have a selection,’ says Kim.

Since recent times we’ve been plunged into the dark days of the pick ‘n’ mix – trowelling jellies. chews and toffees from a huge display into a large paper bag, heading to the counter for an electronic weigh-in (the candy not the customer) and realising you’ve spent a fiver.

‘I remember the days when you could find 10p on the floor and go in and get a few sweets. I think it’s much better for kids to have just a few treats and it’s nice for everyone to be able to have a little luxury,’ says Kim.

At 80p a quarter, most people can afford a bag of sweets even in these recession-hit times.

Starting a business is never easy and the couple say they are unlikely to become millionaires, but they haven’t regretted it for a second.

‘I live, sleep and eat sweets – well so to speak, I don’t actually eat that many,’ says Kevin. ‘It’s really fascinating finding all these things. If people ask us for something we will endeavour to get it and researching and getting hold of them is a lot of fun.

‘When we first went to the wholesaler I was like a kid in a sweet shop.’

The shop stocks classics like pineapple cubes, bon bons, pear drops, sherbert lemons and Liquorice Satins, as well as overseas favourites like the popular American Reese’s peanut butter products.

And Kim and Kevin always look for the most traditional versions. ‘These midget gems are the original kind,’ says Kevin, proudly holding up the jar of multicoloured jellies. ‘The black ones are liquorice not blackcurrant like the newer versions.’

He is proud to stock Gray’s original teacakes – very sweet marzipan-based bites unlike the coconut toasted teacakes familiar to most generations.

‘We have this 92-year-old lady who comes in every Saturday for fruit jellies. She was really impressed when she saw those. She said she hadn’t seen them for 45 years,’ says Kevin.

Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, he has fond memories of Crawford’s Candles Rainbow Crystals and doesn’t stock similar products.

‘You really can’t beat this stuff. I’ve tried other sherberts and you can’t match these.’

Of course many of these sugary classics never went away and neither did the dedicated sweet shop entirely.

Gilberts in Southsea has been around since 1906 and current owner Brian Gilbert says little has changed, even though he started work in the shop in 1948 when confectionery was still rationed.

‘People have always wanted these things, business has always been steady over the years,’ says Brian.

It’s just that there are suddenly a lot more shops around conjuring memories of different eras. Although some things have had to change.

Remember feeling very sophisticated while drawing deeply on a candy cigarette or a liquorice pipe? The products are now simply chocolate and liquorice sticks with the striking resemblance to 
tobacco products removed, along with any danger of encouraging a new generation of puffers.

But the sweet shop is a real return to decades gone past.

‘High street shops are closing, a lot of the places around here have gone. It’s great for people to have somewhere they can visit locally and chat to the owner,’ says Kevin.

‘I love it, I go out in Portsmouth and people recognise me because of the shop. It’s really nice.’

SWEET TRUTHS

1. Until the 19th century sugar was a luxury and few people could afford it.

2. Tudor royals and aristocrats ate preserved fruit, gingerbread, sugared almonds and jelly.

3. Sweets first produced in the 19th century included peanut brittle and Liquorice Allsorts.

4. In Britain sweets and chocolate were rationed from 1942 to 1953.

5. The first lollipops were sold in about 1908.

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