The Buntingford Story
By Carlo Zambonini
The story of Buntingford since 1963 is the story of the Sainsbury’s depot to the South of the town. The town had been affected by the Beechingisation of the railway station and line from St Margarets that year. The previous owners were the MOD under REME. One of the stalwarts was Allan Gray from Royston, who is still alive, who served when it was transferred over to the supermarket chain as a depot which served shops from North London to County Durham and over to Halesowen in the West Midlands. It was thought to be feeding between 30-40% of the English Midlands at its height.
No bypass in the early days
The early problems were with lorries that went up the Hight Street of Buntingford at 3 o’clock in the morning to serve shops in Doncaster and Washington in County Durham, until the by-pass was put in in the early eighties.
Most of the employees came from Royston and a large proportion came from Buntingford and surrounding villages. In 1967 former employees of the Black Friars Stanford Street Depot, London, were moved to Buntingford by a company housing scheme. They were based on the Vicarage Road/Honey Lane estate – some lived on the Monks Walk estate as well.
From 67 there was this mixture of local Herts people and London overflow people which was bound by a different trade union regime in those days. A feeling of team spirit developed despite an initial reservations between locals and incomers. There were disputes with the company but basically it was considered a steady form of employment and not unlucrative. They had systems of work in those days which were much better.
As was traditional with working for a family grocery business, which it was until the mid-eighties when it became a plc, employees were expected to have a range of skills – flexibility was a premium.
I worked there on and off in the 70s mainly to get myself through university, and when I felt teaching in 1998 until 2010. I left Buntingford in 2003 to go to the new depot in Waltham Abbey and the company made the decision not to develop Buntingford and the depot is currently available for sale or lease. A few of the local veterans of Buntingford regard it as a waste of resources having it standing there mothballed.
At one stage in the perishable food warehouse of the depot, it had comartments of frozen food at -18 degrees Celcius. We were only allowed to work in there for 30 minutes at a time and then had a five minute tea break. Eventually the chiller fans were condemned and the chiller house was only used for under +5 degrees Celcius (cheese, eggs, fats etc.)
Another recollection I have is the business of arriving at 10pm on a Sunday night to start the working week – before the days of 24/7 – and our first task was to tie lengths of string to roll pallets. Nowadays they have straps which are quicker and easier to use.
Order assembly, which is putting boxes on roll pallets, was a task I was never highly skilled at. Nevertheless I had to do it more frequently than I care to mention!