Make Mine a 99

By Leanne Cloudsdale


My dad used to say that when Mr. Whippy’s chimes were sounding, it meant he’d sold out of ice cream. I reckon this counts as child cruelty. Thankfully, my mum was partial to a Cornetto, which meant a 2-ball Screwball was on the cards for me whenever we heard the distant sound of Greensleeves. Locked into our collective psyche, there are few sights (and sounds) that can rouse us the way an ice cream van can. Instant childhood flashback. Scabby knees, ghosted
bikes, Block 1-2-3. The prize of a double scooper from your local softie seller was the gold at the end of the rainbow.

Slathered with slogans and cartoon characters – some we recognise, some we don’t, these modified vehicles are basically a form of moving folk art. The only constant is a Mind That Child! emblazoned above every rear bumper. Probably not worth thinking about the number of near misses many an ice-cream seller has seen, when a hot and sweaty seven year old leaps into the road seconds after securing a loaded cornet (with sprinkles). A guilt-free time machine for
people of all ages, the sight of one is enough to lift even the heaviest moods.

The gelato history scriptures reckon some New Yorker called Thomas Carvellos was the frosted trailblazer back in 1929. A truck breakdown on a delivery run left him with melting cargo and a sense of panic. Instead of giving up, the quick thinking-Yank started flogging his wares to passers-by and the mobile ice cream van was born. Obvs over here in the U.K. we’d been eating the stuff for centuries already (albeit at home). Seems Charles II and his crew were tucking in at Windsor Castle banquets as early as 1672. Freezers didn’t exist back then (surprise, surprise) so this delicacy was enjoyed by the so-called elite and consumed pretty swiftly.

Hygiene-freaks will be horrified to hear about how ice cream was initially served to the public back in ye olden times. The ‘penny lick’ was a small cone shaped glass containing a licks-worth that was handed over to willing victims. Unsurprisingly, anti-bac or sterilisation weren’t high on
the agenda for the Victorians, who preferred a quick wipe with a lice-laded cloth or a swill out in pissy water before handing the glass health hazard to the next poor sod. They were banned by parliament in 1898.

Mr Whippy cleaned things up when he stormed onto the scene in 1958. Founded by Dominic Facchino in Birmingham, who’d been travelling in the US and seen a few Mister Softees doing the rounds. He headed back to Blighty and kicked things off with six vans – which soon grew to 150. Seems the Brits fancied a chilled pudding after their meat and two veg. It was bought out by Walls in 1996 (and they still own it today).

Hot tarmac and icy treats are what make summer. Feast, Fab, Funny Feet or a Calippo, there are few treats that give you a headrush that beats a bottle of Poppers. Innocent alchemy, there’s no wonder we all get so bloody excited every time we hear that tinny melody wafting down the street. There are rules (of course). Anything louder than 80db and you’re in shit with the council. If Greensleeves goes on longer than 12 seconds, people have the right to complain. To prevent postcode turf wars, there’s even a Clint Eastwood-esque plot twist: chimes should never be played in sight of another ice cream van (whether moving or stationary) – or it’ll be choc-ices drawn at ten paces.

Their cult status was captured by Darlington-born photographer Luke Stephenson, who took it upon himself to document 99 x 99s back in 2013. A 3,500 mile-long odyssey of the U.K. coastline, he captured the subtle regional differences of the iconic 99 ice cream in 99 locations across the country. Sauce, nuts, sherbet, he said ‘yes’ to the lot, rain or shine – all in the name of anthropological research.

So much more than just a scoop of blended cream, air and sugar, for some folk, it’s the only time they see their neighbours! Community service, if you will. Dashing out in your slippers (or whatever’s handy) is a truly timeless British experience. A ritual as old as the hills, Tammy Wynette says it best when she sang on The KLF’s ‘Justified and Ancient’, “They’re justified and they’re ancient and they drive an ice cream van.”