Servini’s Aberdare

Servinis Cafe

I do remember being in the centre of a mining town and looking at the two giant glass windows that fronted the cafe.

Servini is an unusual name and being eighteen on the edge of manhood is an unforgettable time. The combination of the two provided me with a permanent souvenir, a hard-wired marker in my life as my wings became strong enough to try flying on my own. Eighteen is young and I was carefree. Girls, and music had great importance, and I loved games especially rugby. I had reached the first XV, at fly half, to boot.

For some reason, which I have never understood, Aberdare Grammar School, from Wales visited us in November 1964. We were not only to play Aberdare, but also had to host our opposite number. Thus, I first met the dark haired Aberdare flyhalf, Gabriel Servini.

Until then rugby, and cricket had been played on mornings or afternoons according to the rules of the game overseen by teachers acting as umpires or referees for defined periods of time, after which everyone went home. No more contact with the opposition occurred, but this was different, now my opposite number came home to meet my parents and experience something completely new. It was new experience for me and my parents too.

I do not remember the score or the game, played on a muddy November pitch at our ground named Fishponds, perhaps the name explains the mud. Gabriel came home with me afterwards.  I had to sleep on the floor and let Gabriel have my bed. And next day he was gone, back to Aberdare.

Bec & Aberdare Fishponds…played on a muddy November pitch…

Like all British sports matches, a return was to be played on their ground. So in March 1965, our coach and eighteen or so eager boys accompanied by one or two sports masters, who did so much for us in those days, giving up most Saturday mornings to referee 1st, 2nd, U15, U14, U13, and occasionally U12 games against local schools, departed from Bec School, London.

I don’t remember much about Gabriel. He was a similar size to me, but faster off the mark, as I feared his outside break probably more than he worried about mine. He was a polite lad, but then that was not uncommon. Most grammar school boys, and girls too, in those days were courteous and had consideration for others (as well as Latin, art, and a foreign language) instilled into them. Children, who had passed their school exams and had been chosen for a more elitist educational path, wore blazers, caps, ties with house colours, and short hair. They respected authority, by and large, and acted like little gentlemen or gentlewomen.

In March, the London County Council was in its death throes. All I had ever known about it was school toilet paper with “London County Council” and “Now wash you hands” printed on every sheet. I would be eighteen in one month and the end of my school days beckoned. As someone who had never been outside London (barring day trips to the south coast and three or four, week-long vacations in holiday camps within eighty miles of London) in life, the journey to distant Wales would be a momentous event. We would stay there, too.

In the sixties, things were different, so different – no motorways, no space travel, no mobile phones, and Britain struggled economically lagging France and Germany in their cosy Common Market. Travelling further than I had ever travelled before was like going a transatlantic trip. I had a small bag of clothes with my rugby kit, a packet of sandwiches made by my mother, who fussed about whether I wanted ham or cheese, and a bottle of pop. It was a long slow journey – there was no M4 or Severn bridge in those days – via Oxford, Cheltenham, Ross on Wye, Heads of the Valleys and down to Aberdare. Finally, we came to Cardiff Street, in the centre of town, and I saw Servini’s cafe, Gabriel’s home, for the first time.

I do remember being in the centre of a Welsh mining town and looking at the two giant glass windows that fronted the cafe.

All Italians, especially cafe owners, love to feed their guests and so with plenty of bacon, fried eggs and toast in my belly, I left the next morning on our coach to play Mountain Ash grammar school a few miles down the road. It would be the warm up for the return match the following day. Mountain Ash played in dark grey, almost black jerseys, but not all black (thankfully) colours. Rugby on a gaunt hillside, without the comfort of protective houses, as in London, was not a pleasant affair. I have no idea of the score. Neither do I recall the result of the next day’s match against Aberdare, playing in black vests with a thick golden band around the middle. It would have been another good match, most were.

Bec & Aberdare

…Rugby on a gaunt hillside, without the comfort of protective houses…

(Gabriel is front row 3rd from right, on his haunches)

Back at Gabriel’s, I had Servini’s meals to look forward to. For dessert, I was served the most delicious apple tart I had ever tasted. Intrigued, I asked it’s secret. Mrs Servini told me that she added lemon juice to the apples to balance the sugar. Wonderful! It was secret I revealed to my mother, no bad cook herself, when I returned, and when Phil Dean came to tea one afternoon soon after, he declared my mother’s apple pie to be the best he had ever tasted! Thank you, Mrs Servini!

I did see Gabriel once more by chance at the Battersea College of Technology, a Victorian building of pointed gables and red bricks offset by white window surrounds in Battersea Park Road, a few years later when he was studying civil engineering at Bristol University. Those moments would have remained frozen in my memory, but for the other day, 12 February 2020, when the BBC Wales political reporter Nick Servini, Gabriel’s nephew, featured a short presentation on Italian cafes still working in Wales after the post war influx of people from Italy. Of course, Servini’s cafe was there, (tea 80p) and when he showed the old picture, I was compelled to set down this story.

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