How China is killing Blackpool rock: Only thirty people in the world know how to make it - now factories are shutting as cheap foreign imports flood the market. Is this the end?

Any mention of Blackpool will conjure up images of red-faced men with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads, children enjoying donkey rides on the beach and novelty shops selling ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats.

But if you’re a Lancashire lass like me, you’ll also link it with the sticks of rock you savoured as a child.

Whenever a friend or relative was heading to the beach, I’d put in a request for one of those brightly coloured tubes of hardened sugar with the words ‘Blackpool rock’ shot through the centre.

They were such a quintessential feature of the British seaside that the late, great singer and comedian George Formby even composed a special ditty in homage.

‘With my little stick of Blackpool Rock, along the promenade I stroll.

It may be sticky but I never complain, it’s nice to have a nibble at it now and again.’

But the sad truth is that fewer and fewer of us are nibbling at a confectionery product that is, let’s face it, hardly in tune with these health-conscious times.

Iram Ramzan with a one-off variety of rock, which she helped to make

Mail reporter Iram Ramzan with a one-off variety of Blackpool rock, which she helped to make

Blackpool in the 1950s, during the heyday of Britain's seaside resorts, when the town had more than 30 rock-making factories supplying shops all around the country

Blackpool in the 1950s, during the heyday of Britain's seaside resorts, when the town had more than 30 rock-making factories supplying shops all around the country

At one point Blackpool boasted no fewer than 30 rock-making factories, which made 99 per cent of the rock sold at Britain’s seaside towns. Now there are just nine, and that number looks set to diminish further as manufacturing costs spiral and cheap foreign substitutes flood the market.

‘Glucose has gone up 100 per cent. The price of cardboard, plastic – basically everything,’ says David Thorp, co-owner of Stanton and Novelty Confectioners.

His gas bill has tripled and the amount he spends on sugar is up £50,000 year-on-year. Couple that with competition from – who else? – China and you have a recipe for disaster.

Workers at Stanton and Novelty Confectioners in Blackpool kneading melted rock ingredients on a hot plate

Workers at Stanton and Novelty Confectioners in Blackpool kneading melted rock ingredients on a hot plate

Forming the outer layer of Blackpool rock before it is loaded into a stretching machine

Forming the outer layer of Blackpool rock before it is loaded into a stretching machine

In a desperate bid to preserve a national institution, David and the other remaining factory owners are lobbying their local MPs for Blackpool rock to be given protected status, like that given to Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies.

Chris Webb, the newly elected Labour MP for Blackpool South, has taken up their cause, telling the Commons that ‘these traditional skills will soon be lost without intervention’.

He’s not wrong. Mr Thorp has had to lay off seven people in the past year and now gets by with a staff of just 14.

‘I’ve never had to let anyone go before that. It was so hard,’ he says.

He can’t help but take it personally. After all, it’s a close-knit family business. His grandad, Bill, set up the factory in 1969 and it was then taken over by his son Geoff, now 65.

David, 33, joined the business seven years ago, giving up his job in recruitment in London. ‘I like doing something for myself. It’s also nostalgic,’ he says.

It certainly is. Rock was first sold at fairgrounds in Victorian England, when sugar was cheap and in abundance.

Some sources trace it to a man called ‘Dynamite’ Dick Taylor, from Morecambe, in Lancashire. Others credit Ben Bullock, an ex-miner from Burnley, who produced brightly coloured rock at his factory in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.

The first lettered stick was sold with the words ‘Whoa Emma’ – the title of a popular song at the time. Bullock sent another batch to Blackpool in about 1887, and it wasn’t long before rock was a seaside staple around the country. It even survived sugar rationing during the Second World War.

The smell of toffee is in the air when I visit Stanton and Novelty Confectioners. The factory makes rock in 50 quirky and delectable flavours, including candyfloss, strawberries and cream, bubble gum, fruit, cola, bakewell tart, orange and even tequila.

Iram helps with rolling out the long sticks of rock, getting it ready to be chopped up

Iram helps with rolling out the long sticks of rock, getting it ready to be chopped up

The finished item, wrapped and ready to be shipped to stores along the seafront

The finished item, wrapped and ready to be shipped to stores along the seafront

‘I don’t have a sweet tooth!’ David admits. ‘But I do like the coconut one that we do.’

Always on the lookout for new markets, he’s even experimented with savoury flavours, such as pizza and chicken tikka. Not surprisingly, perhaps, not all of then take off. ‘Hot chilli was awful! So was Cornish pasty.’

Aniseed is a rather pungent one. ‘My wife [Sophie] knows when I’ve been making that, because the smell sticks with you all day,’ David laughs.

I even spot a stick with ‘Ganja’ written on it. ‘Don’t worry - it’s just fruit flavoured,’ he assures me.

On the day I visit, they’ve been making a basic red and white striped mint number - the most popular flavour.

Rock is made from three ingredients: sugar, glucose and water, which are boiled together in copper pans to a temperature between 285F-300F (141-149C).

‘A couple of degrees lower or higher and it’s ruined,’ David tells me. ‘There’s a lot that can go wrong.’

David Thorp, the co-owner of Stanton and Novelty Confectioners in Blackpool and one of only a few people in the country who still know how to add the words that run through sticks of rock

David Thorp, the co-owner of Stanton and Novelty Confectioners in Blackpool and one of only a few people in the country who still know how to add the words that run through sticks of rock

The hot caramelised liquid is poured on to a large metal table and, as it starts to cool, the colouring and flavouring is added. Then it’s folded, pressed and kneaded.

Next stop is the ‘puller’ machine in which the golden concoction is stretched, spun around and aerated until it becomes lighter.

‘It’s therapeutic to watch it all and see it brightening,’ says David.

The slab is then placed on to a hot plate, around 122F (50C), to ensure it doesn’t get too cold, otherwise it won’t be easy to manipulate.

This batch will be shipped out and sold in various sites managed by English Heritage, including Stonehenge and Llandudno.

The most skilled workers in any rock factory are the people who add the letters to the rock.

Only 30 people have the knowledge and skills to do this, and three of them are at Stanton and Novelty: David, his dad Geoff, and one of their employees, Karl Ferguson.

Rock was first sold at fairgrounds in Victorian England, before becoming a seaside treat

Rock was first sold at fairgrounds in Victorian England, before becoming a seaside treat

‘I’ve been doing this it for 36 years,’ says 52-year-old Karl. ‘I could do it in my sleep! But it’s a dying trade now.’

The factory has made ten batches of rock today, an amount which yields between 10,000-15,000 sticks. When cooled completely, they’re wrapped in clear, recycled plastic covers, along with the right label, before they’re ready to be shipped off. Production finishes at around 5pm.

The Chinese make rock in the same way, according to David.

So apart from checking the label, how can ordinary customers tell the difference between British rock and the cheap imitation?

‘In the centre you see flecks of grey, which means they’ve thrown in scraps of sugar. Our rocks stay white throughout the middle.’

Anything else? ‘The taste! It doesn’t matter what flavour it is, Chinese rock tastes the same. It’s bland. You don’t get that flavour hit like with ours.’

Thorp believes rock factories will have to diversify and sell other products to survive. Stanton and Novelty also creates customised lollies, which are sold in various football clubs, museums such as the Natural History Museum and even theme parks like Drayton Manor. These are far less complicated, as they’re made in one small machine, producing 12 flavours.

Sill, David remains hopeful. And it’s important, he says, to keep rock-making alive in Britain.

‘This is an inherently British product, made by a small number of British manufacturers. It would be a shame to see it all go.’ Indeed it would.

To view the petition visit petition.parliament.uk/petitions/661314

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