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Seaside Rock - Classic confection
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Everything you ever wanted to know about seaside rock

Sandra Lawrence tells all about the classic confection  

It smacks as much of British Summertime as donkey rides, pack-a-macs and terrifying landladies in pink fluffy slippers. Its garish neon hues can brighten the gloomiest of overcast skies and the grainy black and white pictures inside its crunchy cellophane wrappings are comfortingly homely. Seaside Rock can inspire “Carry On”-style giggles (think George Formby) and terror (try Graham Greene and his prescient youth nightmare “Brighton Rock,” not to mention the odd trip to the dentist…)  

 

What actually is it?

A form of “pulled sugar.” The recipe is not much different from a classic boiled sweet in content – just sugar and glucose. But after it has cooled slightly, the mixture is repeatedly worked until it becomes aerated and takes on a white, cloudy appearance. Because of the way it is made, the most obvious shape it takes is a long rope, which is cut to form the classic “stick of rock.”

Where does it come from?

The first sugar canes were exactly that – little strips of raw sugar cane cut straight from the field and given to children to suck. The Americans make something very similar – barber’s pole-style candy canes – which are best known as Christmas decorations. When sugar first came to Britain, it was very expensive, but by the 19th century it had become plentiful. Rock as a “pulled sweet” was first peddled at fairgrounds and is still known as “Fair Rock.” It is cut into small colourful squares and still breaks many a milk tooth…

How did it become associated with the seaside?

A day at the seaside was the closest that most 19th and early 20th century factory workers would get to a holiday, and they desired a cheap and cheerful gift to bring home as a souvenir. Legendary Victorian figure Dynamite Dick (rumoured variously to have come from Morecombe or Blackpool) borrowed the idea of Fair Rock and added a flourish of his own – lettering. This ensured rock’s association with individual resorts.

Has it ever been “classy?”

Not really. “All seaside towns catered for the masses of working people,” says Stephen Docwra, whose grandfather founded “Docwra’s Rock Shop” in Great Yarmouth in 1896. “With the cheap railways, people came down from the collieries, steelworks and factories, and they just wanted to have fun,” explains Docwra, whose shop still boils up 150 tonnes of sugar a year in front of the hundreds of people who come to watch it being made on the premises. “It’s never been sophisticated.”  

When was rock’s heyday?

The 1950s and 60s were THE boom time for seaside rock. A period when holiday camps were at their zenith, before foreign package holidays had kicked in, rock was an acceptable – and expected – present. Even today, “Bring us back a stick of rock” is a familiar office phrase, and Fridays and Sundays are still Docwra’s busiest days – just before people go home. Rock has stayed at pocket-money prices – still costing around 25p a stick.  

Any famous fans?

Most of the “end of the pier” performers had rock with their names through the centre in their day. 1950s heartthrob Eddie Calvert (of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” fame) had a golden trumpet design. More recently Sandi Toksvig, Michael Barrymore and Matthew Kelly have all been immortalised in sugar. We can only pray that Judith Chalmer’s version, emblazoned with “Wish You Were Here”, didn’t get confused with the batch destined to advertise the work of HM Prison Service…

Is it popular abroad?

Seaside rock is a peculiarly British phenomenon. You’ll find it in places that British people frequent – Benidorm, Gibraltar, etc.- but look closely at the label and you’ll see that it’s all been made here. “The Americans still do candy canes,” says Docwra, “but they never cottoned on to putting letters through it.”

 

So how do the letters get into it, then?

Firstly, a batch of sugar is boiled in a large copper pan to 295F and poured onto a giant cooled table. Any colour is added at this point. By far the most popular is the classic pink – though the depth of hue depends on the area – in the East, it’s traditionally a bright fluorescent rose, in the West it is much darker – almost crimson. Flavour is also added – in most cases, mint. When it is cool enough, it is placed on a pulling machine which churns it around until it assumes a satiny sheen.

Now it’s ready for the lettering. Each letter is formed by a sort of “cut and paste” process using white and pink sugar mass. This is fiddly – and, sadly, impossible to describe accurately without complicated diagrams.   At this point the rock is a huge, floppy cylinder weighing about 40kg. It is then rolled into shape, cased in more pink sugar and pulled again by special “batch rollers” which gradually make it thinner. The final rolling is still done by hand, before it is cut and wrapped in cellophane (with a photographic “view” inserted), all done by deft fingers which have, in most cases, been doing it for over 40 years.

Is it still popular today?

Yes, but in a different form. Seaside Rock has gained a new market – corporate advertising. “It is the ideal giveaway for companies,” says Stephen Docwra, “as it has the name all the way through, and it comes with a label “view” inside.” IcelandAir, MacDonald’s, The Lottery, Daf and the BBC are all clients. Another growth area is in wedding favours – a bride and groom will have their names put through rock instead of presenting guests with the more bog-standard sugared almonds.

Is it only available in sticks?

No – rock has always been formed into different shapes. Ever-popular are replicas of “Full English Breakfast,” and, for some strange reason, babies’ dummies. More recently, Stephen Docwra has been forced to expand. “We now make ladies’ legs and…well, this line was brought in due to popular demand,” he blushes, waving at a range of “big knockers” and “willy on a stick” novelties.

Nothing new about that though.   The seaside has long been a traditional place for the British nudge-nudge wink-wink.

Docwra’s Rock Shop is at 13, Regent Rd, Great Yarmouth. Tel. (01493) 844 676

It is open every day and rock-making takes place Monday to Friday.

A version of this article first appeared in the Times

 

 


 

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