Dave ‘the Cockle Man’ tells me he has two main things on his wishlist: he’s on the search for wife number three and he’d really like to be given the Freedom of the City of Nottingham.
I think he maybe joking about the first wish; he’s not joking about the second. And why not? After more than 50 years of selling his wares from a basket around the pubs and clubs of Nottingham, and reportedly being the last remaining Cockle Man in the country, doesn’t he deserve that accolade?
Over the years I’ve been visiting Nottingham as a tourist, I’ve seen Dave a couple of times in the city centre. Now I’m a resident, Phill thought it would be a good idea for me to meet a real Nottingham legend and have a chat with him. I agreed, so last Friday, early evening, I lay in wait for him outside The Bell in the city centre and then lured him over by offering to buy him a pint.
What a charming, cheerful soul he is.
52 years he has been selling seafood around the town. He even has a five-star hygiene rating from the council for his famous white basket. I asked him how far he reckons he has walked and he laughs at me.
“Oh thousands and thousands of miles,” he says. “I broke my hip a while ago, but I’m back and I’m still walking.”
I ask him about his early memories and he tells me about helping on his grandfather’s farm when he was a child. “I calved my first cow when I was seven,” he says. “That was helping my grandfather. I calved a cow by myself when I was nine.” He also pulled his first pint in Nottingham, under the watchful eye of his father.
But for more than five decades he’s been famous as the city’s Cockle Man and at one point had a team of people working for him.
He’s seen lots of changes (obviously) over the years. Licensed premises have come and gone, the city has got busier and there’s a lot more traffic. “Oh it’s changed a lot,” Dave tells me. “People were a lot friendlier back then and lots of pubs have closed over the years.”
Maybe that’s just a nostalgic reminiscence because as we sit chatting, there is no shortage of people yelling ‘Hi Dave’ in his direction and asking how he is. He’s not short of friends. A barmaid comes to collect glasses from the tables outside where we are sitting and tells him off for smoking.
“You told me you were quitting,” she admonishes him. “You have to think about your health Dave. What would we do without you?” He replies with a cheeky innuendo and then turns and winks at me. “There’s still life in the old dog yet,” he grins.
He’s fond of talking about comedian Johnny Vegas who he met when he was performing in one of the city pubs on the comedy circuit and befriended. He’s ended up on stage with him a couple of times. He’s proud of this association and he likes Johnny Vegas – a lot. Dave was also looking forward to visiting the Harvey Hadden sports village the following day where he was going to be treated like a VIP.
“I’m going to be wheeled around in a wheelchair tomorrow,” he said. “I used to walk around but I’m going to be wheeled tomorrow.
“It’s an honour,” he adds.
He then shows me something else he’s very proud of – his tea towels. He’s selling them to raise money for Rainbows the children’s hospice. They’re £7. “Some people have said that’s expensive,” he said. “But it’s all for Rainbows.”
Our chat is drawing to a close, I can sense he’s itching to get on (in fact he was heading off to buy some new trousers for his big day the following day). There are a few winks and cheeky comments to some of the female clientele before he leaves his famous white basket with the bar staff at The Bell and heads across Market Square in search of new clothes. I wish him luck in his search for wife number three and he grins again.
As Dave leaves, the guy on the next table turns and says: “He’s amazing. Been selling those cockles for years. Did you know he was mugged not so long ago? Not a very smart thing to do. No one picks on our Dave, I think the mugger came to regret his actions. Dave’s a local hero and a legend.”
And I have to agree, he is.