How Father Christmas, Balloons and a Helicopter came to Puttenham

This article follows an interview with Mike Atkin and not only covers the life of an enthusiastic contributor to the community of Puttenham but also describes the way in which his father’s move into this area during wartime was the start of a well-known and successful local business.

Though I am still searching for someone who lived in Puttenham during wartime, my interview with Mike Atkin did not disappoint in other ways. He moved to Puttenham in 1976 after living in Tring since his birth in 1939. In the intervening 37 years, his father Charles founded the firm of Atkins Bakers and Mike and his brother William combined with their father to expand and develop the business during the post war period.

It was good to meet Mike and his daughter Elaine at Astrope house, their home since the move from Tring. He described how his father moved from his bakers shop in Golders Green just before the war, anticipating that life and business in a country area was likely to be more amenable for him and his family during wartime, rather than risk staying in London.

Charles Atkin was a keen cyclist and often used to cycle with friends from London to Tring on Sunday mornings. While there one morning he saw that, on Western Road, there was a bakery for sale and he took on a 25 year lease, fixed at £2 per week. However the reality was more challenging than anticipated. Despite developing a delivery service to surrounding villages with several vans, government regulations and the rationing of food products meant that, having been a wealthy man before the war, Charles was on the verge of bankruptcy by the end of it.

Mike joined the business after finishing his education with a bakery course at Watford College, as did his brother. By this time, the financial problems of the wartime period were behind them and the combined efforts of the three partners achieved significant growth during the post war period. By the time that Mike moved to Puttenham in 1976, there were six shops, two in Tring, one in Chesham, two in Aylesbury and one in Wendover. Most of these were franchises; Mike joked that they introduced franchise operations before McDonalds thought of the idea. There was also a successful function room – the Crystal Rooms on Tring High Street – which hosted over 2000 weddings under their ownership.

Charles Atkin retired at the age of 60 and the brothers ran the business together with William specialising in confectionery and Mike dealing with bread products and business development. Success and growth continued with over 50 employees, 75,000 units sold in a normal week, as well as 50,000 hot cross buns every Easter. Then came the decision to retire in 2003. The bakery had already been closed in 2000 and the shops were sold, rented or transferred to the franchisees. Only the shop in Western Road continues to trade under the Atkins name to this day.

I then managed to turn the conversation round to Mike’s life in Puttenham after his move there in 1976. He had married Jill Fulks – a local girl with a love of horses – and they decided that a move to the country would be good for their family life. Mike admits that his main reservation was the commute from Puttenham to Tring, having been used to walking to work ever since he started in the business. He and his wife decided very early that there would be good and friendly relations with everyone in the village; ‘there is no point in falling out with others in such a small and closed community’ was his firm view.

Mike was rather modest about his impact on the Puttenham community and it was Elaine who told me how her mother and father were well known for the ‘legendary’ parties that they used to host for their many friends in the village. These included bagpipes to greet the new year and a group called the ‘Jolly Jazzers’ made up of musicians over 60. The Atkins were also active in joining in the many village activities, particularly the gymkhanas and the equally legendary harvest suppers.

However Mike’s ‘piece de resistance’ was undoubtedly on Christmas mornings. While living in Tring he and a friend had the idea of touring the town on a horse and cart, dressed as Father Christmas, complete with presents, balloons and decorations. When he moved to Puttenham, he continued the tradition there, starting at 6am and not finishing until lunchtime. One year he inflated the balloons with helium but never did so again after the horse – named Queenie – kept bolting every time a balloon burst! This ritual became so popular and so much a tradition of the Christmas period that children would be waiting at their parents’ bedroom windows, waving as Father Christmas passed by. ‘It was great’ was Mike’s comment on the memory.

This was not the only story featuring balloons. The Atkins hot air balloon was also a feature of life in Puttenham, rides being offered as prizes for various village activities. It was owned by Mike’s friend Harry Mead from Wilstone, for whom ballooning was a lifelong hobby, and used by Atkins as a promotional vehicle for the business.

Another memorable tradition celebrated at the time was Beaujolais day, when the year’s new wine was released in France each November. Richard Gibbs – a good friend of Mike who also used to be involved in horse activities with Jill – used to treat everyone who had been involved in Gymkhanas and other functions to a meal at the Bell, Aston Clinton. One year Mike decided to repay his kindness and surprise him on the day, by arranging for a helicopter to land on his lawn and take him to the Bell in style.

I asked about other characters in Puttenham life during his early time there. It was interesting that, as with previous interviews, the two strongest memories were of people who didn’t even live in the village. First was Joan Newman, ‘saviour of Puttenham Church’ according to Mike, who would cycle from Hartwell to lead her fund raising and social activities. And Tom Chapman who was also a leading light in Church activities – and in any social situation – even though he lived in Long Marston. In all my interviews in all three villages, Tom has been fondly remembered.

Mike Atkin was very modest and low key, both about his role in growing the family business and his contribution to the communities of Tring and Puttenham. Though age and health problems mean that he ‘cannot get about much any longer’, he left me with no doubt that he had been a man of action. When I asked him what was the secret of success during his life, his typical answer was ‘lots of hard work’.

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