I explore how the once-familiar sight and sound of the ice-cream van has changed since its heyday in the Sixties, and what sellers are doing to protect this very British of institutions

It wasn’t Santa’s sleigh bells that had the children of Bersted, Bognor Regis, rushing out of their houses in unbridled delight on Christmas day 2003 – it was the chimes of the ice-cream van.

Wrapped in scarves and woolly hats, the children enjoyed cones and lollies in conditions close to the temperature of their ices, while the jingle of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic played.

This unseasonal excitement was all thanks to former nurse Katy Alston, who swapped her ward round for the ice-cream round 14 years ago, when her husband bought her a shocking pink vintage ice-cream van as a Christmas present – triggering a career-change that would see her become Bognor’s ‘Mrs Whippy’ and crowned Britain’s best ice-cream seller.

“I thought my husband was crackers when he turned up with the van – and said ‘here you go, this is your present’!” recalls Katy. “But once I saw the faces of the children as we practiced using the whippy machine and began handing out free ice creams, I knew it was the job for me! Ice-cream is universal; it breaks down all barriers of age, gender and nationality and is a food that brings back memories and brings people together like no other.”

But when was the last time you saw or heard an ice-cream van in your street? From towns once populated with chimes and cones – 25,000 in the 1970s  – there’s now only an estimated 500 doing street rounds. As rare a sighting as Santa himself, Katy and her fellow ‘mobilers’ are finding new ways to keep alive this peculiar British tradition that has touched the lives of every child on a hot summer’s day.

Hard chimes

Since the early days of the Victorian ‘penny lick’, children have grabbed for their spare change and rushed onto the street for a scoop of dairy confection.

While horse drawn carts, ‘stop-me-and-buy-one’ handcarts and the invention of the cone followed, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the instantly recognizable coach-built ice-cream vans appeared. Complete with colourful, hand painted signage and unmistakable chimes, they remain so iconic that manufacturers such as Whitby Morrison continue to export them to countries around the world.

Powerfully distinctive and an incomparable symbol of British summer, they boomed in the 1960s with the advent of the soft-serve ‘whippy’ ice cream and mechanized vending machines – which crucially brought customers a kind of ice-cream they couldn’t buy in the shops – but a combination of freezer aisle discounting, congestion charges, emission limits, soaring insurance and licensing costs and health-fuelled ‘exclusion zones’ outside schools, has caused a meltdown.

“You have to be a bit of a petrol head to own one too,” says Katy, one of only a handful of female sellers. “There’s lots of mechanical challenges, plus your constantly driving and working long hours (often over lunchtime and tea time) and there’s no hiding in an ice-cream van!”

Katy also suffered bullying when she first went into business. “I’d worked in A&E on Friday and Saturday nights without a problem, but when I first did my rounds in Chichester, it was like the Bronx. One day a seller barricaded me into a street, and it took a row of children demanding he ‘Leave Mrs Whippy Alone’ for him to move on. Now though, I’m so glad I stuck it out.”

Indeed, voted top mobiler by the Ice Cream Alliance this year, the official trade body for the UK’s £1 billion ice-cream industry, Katy sells up to 1,000 ice-creams a day from her Pinks Vintage Ice Cream van through March to November (given some sunshine) and plans to expand her fleet. Even daughter Georgia, 23, has hopped on board, taking on the title of ‘Little Miss Whippy’!

Jingle all the way

Clearly a good deal of the ice-cream van’s charms lies in its chimes. From Greensleaves to O Sole Mio, the tingling, tinny jingles have always been a classic sound of summer.

“The early vans would have had bells on top to announce their presence,” says 27-year-old Abergavenny seller Chris Copner, who let his childhood love of ice-cream get out of control when he brought and renovated the ice-cream van of his childhood and now has, unofficially at least, the UK’s largest collection of ice-cream memorabilia. On the brink of getting it verified by The Guinness Book of Records, he hopes to open an ice-cream museum in the town.  

“Later these were replaced with clockwork music box tunes,” he continues. “But today, with digital technology, you can get everything from Jingle Bells to Match of the Day, with a single van accessing up to 40 tunes.”

Katy likes to stick to her Teddy Bear’s Picnic. “A few years ago we got a new van and decided to update the chime but nobody came out to buy from us,” she says. “We realized how important it was to our identity!”

Over the years, however, under the wonderfully named “Code of Practice on Noise from Ice-Cream Van Chimes”, the jingles have become strictly regulated, with vans advised not to play them in sight of another van (brought in to stop rivals practicing the art of ‘stereo-chiming’) or sound them within 50 metres of a hospital, school or church, or after 7pm.

It wasn’t until last year that the Government relaxed rules for operators on their length and frequency, allowing vans to play chimes for up to 12 seconds at a time, as opposed to four, and every two minutes while driving – for the first time in 31 years.

Diversify or die

Accountant by day and a Mr Softee at weekends, Chris Copner’s collection of miniature ice-cream vans, lolly wrappers and vintage signage, which he began collecting at just five-years-old, has outgrown his two-bedroom end-terrace house, spilling into grandparents’ and parents’ house – and, while weekend selling from his lovingly restored 1970s Ford Transit remains something of a hobby, he’s all too aware of the challenges faced by today’s sellers.

“Street trader licences can be very expensive,” says Chris. “And council red tape can make it almost impossible to get one in certain areas.”

Katy believes a failure to evolve has been the biggest problem for the industry. “I wouldn’t ever want to lose my round but to survive you have to diversify, so we also do weddings and events too.”

Fifty-year-old John Bonar, who started selling ice cream from a barrow in Hyde Park when he was just 11 years old, working for his grandmother’s ice cream business – now heads up Piccadilly Whip, an Essex-based ice cream company with a 20-van fleet – and he supplements his rounds with celebrity events and fixed kiosks at London Bridge, Westminster Bridge and the Tower of London. He’s also created an ‘Ice-cream Express’ service, which delivers ice-cream directly to offices, when companies want to reward staff.

“Unless the sun is shining, it’s hard to earn a living on the street and it’s at shows and events where the money is made. People can take a picnic but they can’t keep ice cream frozen all day,” he says.

He’s not the only one with unique ideas. Daisy, a vintage ice-cream van covering the Home Counties, offers ice-creams from small producers, that might not otherwise have a market, as well as gourmet popcorn, retro sweets and, in the colder months, luxury hot chocolates. Others are bringing back the ‘milk float’ idea, selling bread, milk and groceries street-side in an effort to diversify.

A month-long stunt by O2, which saw a Surrey-based fleet of ice-cream vans use a new app, which allowed fans to track the fleet and ‘schedule in’ an ice cream, showed how modern technology could bring the industry kicking and ice-screaming into the 21st century.

“But so many sellers are still reluctant to use social media,” says Katy, who uses Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote her business. “We see it as the ideal platform to share our business with a huge audience.”

Ice-cream of the crop

For the former nurse, who swapped stints in intensive care and work as a night sister for the ice-cream van, the industry has brought new life to her and her community.

“I’d often do 12-hour shifts and wouldn’t see the light of day from one day to the next,” says Katy. “Now I’m outdoors and surrounded by people every day.

“For me that’s what ice cream vans are all about – bringing communities together. It’s so easy to come out of your house, get into a car and go to work. And if you shop online, you may never see anyone in your street at all. But I’ve seen many neighbours come face to face and chat at the van window, often for the first time, and we also go into schools, working to integrate pupils from other cultures into the community. It’s amazing how people come together over a whippy ice cream!

“Buying from an ice-cream van is a uniquely British experience and I’m as proud as punch to be flagging the flag for Britain while doing it.”

First published in Great British Food magazine