Dolly Varden cafe and Bert's Gone Mad

Numerous correspondents have written in with snippets of information about the Dolly Varden Cafe and the Berts Gone Mad including

Brian: I remember well the Dolly Varden and Berts Gone Mad from the mid sixties. I was a mechanic for earthmoving equipment based in Windsor and whenever I had to go Bagshot way it was always breakfast in one or the other. I remember well "two scotch pegs on two holy ghost" or "double scotches, bacon, sausage and tomato and a bit of sexton blake to follow with a cup of rosie lee". Those were the days. [8002.108]

Bill : I remember the Dolley Varden which in those days was a transport cafe open 24 hours a day. It was certainly there in the 30's, and run by Mr Bowler. I remember buying steak & kidney pies there at 3 old pence, and packets of Smiths Crisps with a little blue packet of salt enclosed, for 2 old pence. The Kings Arms (in it's old position) had a bowling green behind it and I have a photograph of my grandfather, William Perry, playing bowls there in the 1920's. [8052.508]

Barry H : During the fifties and early sixties my father would, during my school holidays, take me on his trips as a travelling rep. One of his favourite stops was Dolly Vardens. I am sure that they used to do a steak and kidney pudding which was served in individual aluminium bowls, ambrosia. [Oct 10]

Dave L : I remember Bert's, stayed there over night two or three nights a week in the 60's and 70's...Happy Days. [Feb 11]

Ken Edmonds: We were talking about pre-motorway routes to the West Country and something just appeared in my mind. All I could remember to start with was Dolly but the wonders of the internet helped the ailing memory. I thought Ascot so that's not bad considering I was around 10 years old. Exciting memories of being got up in the early hours to head for Cornwall or Devon on holiday with the first stop at Dolly Varden's. I have a feeling it might have been the last stop on the way home too. As a kid I only have a vague memory of the cafe itself but for the name to stick for 50+ years it obviously mattered! I do remember being disappointed in years we weren't heading south west on holiday so Dolly Varden's wasn't en route. Thanks for the memories and background information.  [Jun 13]

This authoritative history has been provided by the Dolly Varden's last owner, John Jones.

The Bagshot by-pass opened in the early 1920's and a young man, George Bowler, accompanied by 12-year-old Bunny Bennett, drove a horse and cart from London and parked on the grass verge of the bypass where the Indian restaurant is now located. The cart was a mobile tea and sandwich shop.

George did a thriving trade and pretty soon he purchased a strip of land and built a shack, which later became the Dolly Varden Cafe. The name derived from the fashionable hat that was very popular at the time, worn by music hall singer Dolly Varden. The style of the hat resembled a bowler hat with ribbons attached; hence, the name of the café. (It has nothing to do with the fish of the same name). The business continued to prosper so an addition was made to the café. The floor at the time of the addition was laid from a composite of marble chips and smoothed out by immigrant Italian marble workers. Later a house was built on the side of the café.

The café became very well known and served many famous people who dropped in for an early morning breakfast after spending a night "on the town" in London. The café has been mentioned in several travel books and was even mentioned in a novel.

In 1965 it was sold to John Mildenhall, who also owned cafés in Camberley and London. John was an entrepreneur who bought and sold cafes. His manager and long time friend was Frederick Jones. Fred would manage the cafes and build up their customer base, and then John would sell the business for a profit. The two of them had started doing this in 1957.

When they took over the Dolly Varden all the cooking was done on a grill range fired by paraffin that was in glass containers with a cotton wick - that was changed for a long, stainless steel electric hot plate that had six heating rings. The water heater behind the counter was an old, coal fired, contraption that had to be lit every morning before opening (except during the period when they were open 24 hours). This was eventually changed for a more up to date gas fired model. The café opened at 6:00 a.m. and closed at about 4:00 pm.

The main menu consisted of breakfast foods, including the world famous bubble and squeak. There are only two people living today, who know what the secret recipe is for the Dolly Varden bubble and squeak.

Around 1967 Fred Jones bought the café from John Mildenhall and he and his wife Gwen ran the business for about 4 years when it was sold to their son, John, who had been working there with his father for about a year. John had been living in Sunnyside, a house on Church Lane, but moved into the house at the café site and used Sunnyside as a bed and breakfast for the truckers who stopped at the café. John made many improvements to the inside of the café, including adding false ceilings with hidden lights and an inverted pyramid, made from wood planks, in the main entrance room. He expanded the menu and offered gourmet meals to the truck drivers. They also catered for private parties and weddings. The café was recognised in the Michelin Red Book Food Guide and got three stars for the food. John also applied for a drinking license and retained a Q.C. to fight his case against all the local publicans who objected to this. John won, and the Dolly Varden became the only truck stop in the whole of England to have a drinking license.

During all this time Bunny Bennett had been working non-stop at the café. In all the 53 years that he worked there he only had about ten days off with sickness, and a one week holiday each year. He worked every day doing the same thing in a four feet area behind the counter: he moved two feet to the left and then two feet to the right all day. He also became famous for remembering the names and the appetites of most of his regular customers. As soon as he saw their truck pull into the parking area, he would call out their order and it would be ready for them just minutes after they had walked through the door. He had many tales about the famous and infamous people who used the café. One customer, a young lad of about 19 would order 24 eggs and eat them all in one sitting, to the astonishment of everyone who saw the feat. Bunny retired in about 1976, and went to live in Cornwall.

Around 1976 John bought "Bert's Gone Mad" the restaurant across the road which had been the rival to the Dolly Varden for many years. Bert and John had been friends for a while and Bert sold his interest in his café with the proviso that he could live in the house that was at the back of the restaurant, for the rest of his life. The three properties became known as the Dolly Varden Transportels.

After he bought Bert's Café, John ripped out all the fittings and the beds, and remodelled and modernised it. There were no longer the old army blankets on the beds, but down quilts and quality sheets. The truckers had five-star sleeping and eating for the same price as at regular truck stops. Business boomed.

Around 1979 the Dolly was sold to a Turkish Cypriot and reopened as "The Sultans Pleasure". John emigrated to America where he now works as an entertainer. Later the "Bert's Gone Mad" was sold and it became Jacks fish and chip shop

.The location of the former Dolly Varden can be seen here

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