People Profile – A Celebration of Baking – Simon Cornwell, Baker

I was born in Guildford in 1973, at Mount Alvernia hospital. My parents lived in Wonersh at the time, and live in the same house to this day. I went to Wonersh and Shamley Green First school and then to Glebelands school. When I attended First school we used to get a bus each Friday morning to go swimming at Cranleigh swimming pool. Those are my first memories of Cranleigh and it started my love for swimming as well. Though my father’s parents lived in Cranleigh and started the Hibbs bakery business, they died when I was young.

I went to Glebelands school and was good at sports and obviously enjoyed the cooking side because my Dad showed me how to cook and I was already doing a little bit of baking at home. I was possibly the only boy in the Domestic Science class at the time.

Throughout my time at Glebelands, I always wanted to be a Prefect and said as much to my Mum. She encouraged me with, ’You never know’. It seemed quite something to aim for as they only had 14 prefects at the time.

The old Hibbs Bakery and Tearooms (left) in the 1930s

The day arrived when the school announced the prefects and head, deputy heads when my year was at the top of the school. My mother was doing some paperwork in the office at home that day when I arrived home. Each person appointed was given a badge. I walked into the office to see her and put a prefect’s badge in front of her and she was delighted. Then I took a second badge out of my pocket – the Head Boy’s badge as well. For a moment she couldn’t take it in. She looked at it and turned to me and said ‘Well who have you borrowed that from then?’ Then after a split second she thought ‘No one’s going to lend him that to pull a prank on me.’ Finally, she congratulated me! It was a real honour to be chosen. John Baker, Mr Baker was Headmaster at the time. I felt good that day. Even now we’re still involved with the school and when I go back a couple of the teachers say ‘This guy used to be Head Boy’ which is good. It also helps pupils to see that you don’t have to fly away from the village and go to London, you can thrive here in Cranleigh.

From the early days of school swimming classes I fostered a love of swimming. I didn’t compete in swimming competitions but achieved all my swimming medals and badges and eventually got my lifeguarding badge as well.

Me in my Glebelands uniform

My first job was as a lifeguard at Cranleigh Swimming pool. As I started working at the swimming pool, one of my mum’s friends came back from swimming one day and told my mum, ‘Oh there’s this really dishy lifeguard that’s started at the swimming pool.’ My mum enquired ‘Oh right who’s that?’ She couldn’t recall the lifeguard’s name but Mum worked out it was me, working a shift when her friend was swimming and her friend was really embarrassed when she realised.

I was 16 when I started to work there and stayed for a couple of years. Cranleigh swimming pool was a relatively new pool and there was also the Lido in Guildford. The council had just changed the Lido’s staff payrolls, in protest all the lifeguards at the Lido went on strike. A memo came round to all other swimming pools asking for lifeguards to work at the Lido. I took the opportunity to work there and ended up staying for 10 years.

At the time I left school, aged 16 I told my dad I wanted to be a swimming instructor. He was in agreement with the idea though he had just separated from working with his brother who owned the bakery in Cranleigh and wanted to set up another bakery of his own in Farnham. He said ‘Why don’t you train as a baker at Weybridge Technical college and still do your lifeguarding part-time?’ I thought it was a good idea, because I enjoyed going to his shop and working with him. Our family have always been quite close – we’ve got a good sense of humour and get on really well.

Me with my brother and sister

He persuaded me to go to college, where I did a 2-year full time Bakery course, learning everything from bread-making to pies, pasties to pastry-work, then later specialising in wedding cakes and sugars.

Just as I came out of college after 2 years, one of the bakers left our business leaving my dad short-handed. Immediately he asked ‘Could you come and give us a hand?’ He could have had this planned all along, I don’t know but I agreed and started work at his bakery. He’d had a highly successful bakery in Farnham for a long time. From Farnham he went to Dorking, but he always had a love for Cranleigh and looked for an opportunity there. His brother’s business in Cranleigh was known as Hibbs which my grandparents took over from the Hibbs family, probably back in the 1940’s.

I still have people come into the shop now that knew my grandparents. I had a lady in a while ago who brought me a photograph of her wedding day. She had her wedding reception upstairs in the Hibbs building and there was the wedding cake that my parents had made. In the photograph she handed me, my grandma is stood in the background, waiting to cut the cake. This lady had come to order her Diamond wedding cake from us. It’s so lovely to experience the history first-hand that filters through what we do. The old Hibbs building (now Barnado’s charity shop) is still such a beautiful shop. Looking through the curved windows, you can still imagine the bakery shop as it was. There were the stairs at the back of the shop floor that took you to the upstairs café area. We always went to the coffee shop for a drink and cake when we were little, to see nanny. It was so warm and friendly and the standards of catering in those days were so high, sometimes the modern set ups aren’t as good.

One of my prize winning cups

As I completed my bakery course and started work with my dad, he made the decision to open another shop. The shop across the road from Hibbs became available which is the same shop we’re in today. Before us it was ‘Fresh Food City’, a mini supermarket type store. My dad suggested I run the Dorking shop. This had a two bedroom flat above it. So I was 18 when I moved out of home into the flat above and helped run the business with dad. It was great fun.

At that time, we were obviously a lot younger – I was 18, dad was 50 and we were probably working about 14 hours a day. We sometimes started at 2am if there was a rush on, especially over a weekend. This meant we’d get up at 1am, be in the shop by 2am, do all the baking and serve in the shop right up until the end of the day. In our family-type business, customers like the familiarity of our staff, but they like to see myself and dad there too. Even now when he’s 76 he pops into the shop and everyone loves that. People can see it’s still the traditional family business that its always been, that’s moved with the times. Even my mum, when the businesses were starting, she would do the paper work for the shop, while bringing me up, with my older brother and younger sister. Once we started to grow up, she returned to her life working with children. She worked at Cranleigh Infant school which was her love. Even now when mum is in the shop one of her pupils will come in and it all just adds to the history of our family in the village.

Sport was always a big part of my life

It took me four months to pluck up the courage to talk to her in a pub, looking at her from a distance. I was just very shy then though people probably wouldn’t believe that now. We finally started speaking because one of my friends was fed up with me trawling round the pubs trying to find her in whatever pub she was in, just so I could smile at her. One night she walked past and my friend grabbed her and said ‘Would you two just talk to each other’ and that was it, we started talking.

I owned a Triumph Spitfire at the time, it was knackered and unreliable but I suggested we go out for a drink. We decided to go the Wotton Hatch pub near Abinger Hammer, but as I left to pick her up, I couldn’t get the car started. I rang her on her home phone as we didn’t have mobile phones then, and her dad picked up the phone. He called her to the phone and I had to admit I couldn’t get my car started and asked her to drive. She was happy to pick me up and we went out for our first drink together. But my father-in-law never forgot that occasion and brought it up in his wedding speech, ‘What kind of a guy expects his girl to drive on their first date? And she even ended up marrying him!’ It can’t have affected her too badly as we’re still together and have two lovely boys, one is now 17 and the other is 14.

I made our wedding cake; my wife never had an option on the cake, it was all my choice. I just did it to showcase our skills and demonstrate what we could do. We did a lot of traditional sugar work on it, that sort of thing. We’ve been married 20 years now and are still celebrating!

My unreliable Triumph Spitfire on a trip to Windsor Castle

My father and I ran the two shops for about 10 years, me in Dorking and him based in Cranleigh. It was hard work. I was very young to be in charge of a shop, even with my dad on the end of a phone. Our focus was always the Cranleigh shop. It wasn’t that we didn’t like our shop in Dorking, our hearts we’re just always drawn back to Cranleigh, where we’d grown up in the village.

I remember when Cranleigh had a half-day trading on Wednesdays, when all the shops closed at 2pm. It was the law in those days – I wish it was still that way now, it was the only time we had time off. That all stopped in 1990’s after I left school and started training. I remember our Dorking shop would shut at 2pm, and I would come over to Cranleigh and work with my father for the rest of the day.

With the two shops, we were working so many hours we eventually sold the Dorking business and concentrated on Cranleigh, which freed us up immensely. That was 30 years ago now. With both of us in the Cranleigh shop we could specialise in wedding cakes and put more time into that style of product.

Dad showing us how it’s done

Nowadays we still run a traditional night shift. I have two night bakers that come in early and work through the night producing the bread for the following day. Nothing is frozen, it’s all freshly prepared. I think that’s where we shine in this day and age. Everyone who walks into our shop knows the products are fresh and ready to go from when we open at 6am.

What I really love is going into the shop when the bakers have gone home and it’s just me. I set up the shop and see what everyone’s produced, it just looks fantastic. I get a real buzz when I look and realise ‘everything has been made by hand’. There’s nothing substituted, we still practice the traditional methods, use the same recipes that my grandparents used all those years ago. We haven’t changed anything. The flours have changed a little but that’s the millers who’ve changed those, there’s nothing we can do about that.

The family’s love of bakery products has certainly rubbed off on me. I particularly love making macaroon biscuits. When I was at college there was a company called Wrenshaws who ran a competition throughout the colleges in the country. The competition was to produce a macaroon and a congressed tart. If you achieved the best in the class, they took you to a regional competition to showcase your skill.

Luckily enough I won that competition in college one year. Whenever I bake our macaroons, I always pull my dad’s leg because he was a runner up. I always say ‘Oh I think these are competition-winning macaroons dad.’ Even now when dad’s not around I still think of that. It never leaves you and I think that’s a bit of the passion that’s been given to us.

My father always said to me, ‘Don’t try to compete against the supermarkets, because you’ll always lose. They’ve got too big a franchise. Find something they can’t make and produce that.’ So that’s what we’ve done all our lives, produce fresh bread every day. Yes, when you go into the supermarket there’s warm bread on the shelves but it’s come out of a freezer. They’ve got a 20-year-old lad, pushing a button, taking it out of the freezer, unwrapping it, baking and putting it on the shelves. Our shop also has that ‘over the counter banter’ you get from a place like this. I’ve got people who come into the shop that I went to school with. I know them, that’s what the village is all about and what drives us.

My eldest son Curtis, has been coming into the shop during Lockdown to help out. He’s actually at Guildford Technical College, doing an engineering course, at the moment. He’s toying with the idea of going into the Navy as an engineer. I don’t want him to have the pressure of the bakery shop as 4th generation. I’m not saying I’m not going to be here but in 20 years’ time, who knows. If he has another string to his bow to do something else, then in 10 years’ time after he’s been in the Navy or whatever he’s going to do, if he wants to come into the trade he can. It’s the same situation with my youngest son. Hopefully they will find their own way. If they want to come into the family trade it would be lovely to have them. We’ll have a ‘Macaroon off’!

It’s 6am and we’re ready to roll out the loaves

Obviously, I was extremely worried when Lockdown happened earlier this year. No one knew what was going to happen, how the high street would survive, it was very worrying. We furloughed a lot of our staff because we weren’t sure what was happening with the trade. But actually, the village shops came into their own. We don’t have a very big delivery round but the ones we had were very busy because no one was coming out of the local villages. We would go out to the them, to Dunsfold and Wonersh and so forth. What we were losing on certain things, the village deliveries picked up. My parents would have loved to have come over to the shop every day and helped but we kept them out of the way for safety’s sake because they were in an older age bracket and we were worried. What my mum and dad did in Wonersh where they live, was to set up a WhatsApp group.

They asked anyone in the group to let them know if they wanted some bread. We delivered it to their house from my shop and they’d drop it round to their ‘WhatsApp customers’, leaving it on the doorstep. They would pay for the products and even now my dad’s popping over on a Friday morning, collecting bread for various people who are still shielding or worried. There remains a lot of people who are scared.

I took some bread to a man in Gaston Gate this morning, and who hasn’t been out since Lockdown and he’s still worried about it. He’s in his 80’s. He rang the butchers ordered some meat and I dropped it off with the bread. It’s all part of the network of working and sticking together. It’s the same with the fish shop, they were doing deliveries and I would drop bread up to them and they’d deliver it for me.

My Dad Tom, is always trying to help others

The future at the moment is so unknown. The High Street is in desperate need of people to shop here and support it. Amazon have got it made, haven’t they? You sit at home at 7 o’clock in the evening and your order is on your doorstep by 8 o’clock the following day. But to me that’s not what the High Street is about. When the first Lockdown ended in the summer and we were allowed to walk around again, I saw people I hadn’t seen for a long time, coming back into the village shops. Even if it’s not my shop they’re going into, it’s going to be the butchers, the fish shop or the sweetie shop. Or any of the village shops that are family businesses like Manns or One Forty. Everyone knows Mrs Jones or Mrs Smith or whoever and sometimes that’s the only point of contact that these folks have, when they walk up the High Street to pop and get a loaf of bread or some fish. And that’s a real Celebration when that happens, especially in these COVID times.

For more information contact: Simon Cornwell

01483 277199

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