I would like to pass on my memories of working at the Mansfield Outdoor Leisure Centre, located on Chesterfield Road South.
I started working as a ‘Saturday Lad’ in 1984 at the shop which comprised of a large warehouse-type unit housing the camping department and an attached building which was a garden centre/pet store with an aquatics department in the upstairs section. It was situated next to the Booker cash and carry warehouse behind Evinsons Ford dealer and backed onto the car park for the Council owned Leisure Centre. The shop, warehouse, car dealer and warehouse were all demolished and the site now sits in the middle of the Tesco car park.
The business was owned by three brothers: Brian, Colin & John Mills.
My main role on Saturdays was to help out in the Garden/Pet side. The manager at the time was Harold Cowpe, a mine of information on anything garden/horticultural-related. I understand outside of work he was busy growing and showing Chrysanthemums and I seem to remember him being in one of the tabloids after winning some well-known flower show. Anyway, what this chap didn’t know about plants and gardening wasn’t worth knowing about.
The garden centre part of the shop sold all the usual stuff for gardens: tools, lawn mowers, various chemical sprays (some of which are now banned), packets of seeds, compost, etc. It also sold loose fertiliser; Growmore, Fish-Blood-&-Bone, Bonemeal, lawn sand, dried Blood all came in 25kg bags and could be purchases over the counter in those amounts, but we also had a section at the back of the shop which housed ‘hoppers’ were bags of the fertiliser were emptied and weighed up into 1 and ½ stone bags. My first task on the Saturday afternoon that I started working was bagging up fertiliser. I was mid-spring so the shop was very busy with people buying for their gardens and as fast as I was bagging up, they were disappearing off the shelves to be sold. In the run up to bonfire night, we got a lot of kids coming in asking for a couple of pounds of potash, Mr. Cowpe would be on the case asking what they wanted it for with the usual excuse that their Dad or Grandad had sent them down to get some for their allotment. Mr. Cowpe would then send them on their way empty-handed saying that potash isn’t needed in the autumn and to get the adult to come in if they really needed it. The real reason was that the potash would have been used for home-made fireworks, illegal and somewhat dangerous.
During my 2+ years there I dealt with the seasonal items coming into the shop, fruit trees and canes (various varieties of apple, pear, cherry, current, raspberry, gooseberry), these came into the shop in large bundles, I then had to separate place the saplings into compost-filled plastic bags and mark on a label with the variety. We also had large hessian sacks of seed potatoes, a confusing mix of earlies, mid-earlies and lates with names such Maris-Piper, King Edward, Charlotte, Desiree and not forgetting whether they were reds or whites. Some good for salads, others more suited for ‘chipping’ or roasting or boiling. All needed bagging up into smaller plastic nets of 1 or ½ stone.
Next came onion and shallot sets, again bought in bulk and then bagged up ready for the allotment holder or those who had a garden veggie plot. The smells particularly from the fruit trees and onions were amazing although I wasn’t so fond of the aromas coming from the odd bad potato, usually found as I put a finger through when bagging up.
On the pet side we sold more or less what can be found pet sections of large garden centres today. We also sold loose pet food, wild bird seed, peanuts (at the time a good source of a snack for me!), domestic bird seed, chicken meal, dog mix (kibble), dried dog food and dog biscuit treats, all sold by the pound, half or full stone in weight. Also, not forgetting doggy chocolate buttons, again sold loose by the pound or ounce.
I didn’t really have much to do in the camping side other than having to help unload the large articulated trailers full of Gas canisters (at the time they were the main dealer in Mansfield for Calor Gas) and then start to load the empty bottles ready for return at the next delivery. Loading and deliveries were usually done by Robin Clark.
One major event that sticks in my memory was the Saturday afternoon a fire broke out down the side of the building. Some gas canisters used to be brought down from the main storage area in the yard at the back of the building to save endless treks back and forth for customers wanting gas refills. I remember seeing a couple of the owners rushing out with fire extinguisher to put out a fire that had started amongst the canisters. The extinguishers were useless and very quickly the fire spread. I was sent down to the main road to guide the fire brigade in. One of the tenders arrived and the fireman (as they were called those days) got out just as one of the gas canisters launched itself several feet into the air. A few choice swear words followed by, “we’re going to need some more units!” launched off a major incident. Luckily the garden and aquatics centre weren’t affected, but the camping side and office suffered a good deal of fire and smoke damage. The aftermath of the fire was unbelievable, metal gas canisters sitting peeled open like a banana.
I ended up taking a full-time job for 6 moths after leaving school before leaving to work for a bank in Mansfield. The work was dirty and hard, but for the three years I worked there, I must say I enjoyed every minute and have loads of funny stories from my time there. I’m an IT manager now working in South Yorkshire for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, a far cry from the start of my working life a shop assistant.
It would be wonderful to see any pictures of the store or hear from staff who used to work there.