“West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentle slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Colour Out of Space
Northwest of Bury St Edmunds stands Tollgate Hill, its low slopes blanketed by the neat avenues of the Mildenhall and Howard council estates, now largely privately owned I suspect. Due north of Bury the River Lark meanders through watermeadow and across golf course before it passes an ancient prehistoric cursus. Alan Murdie has written of this area, where I lived as a toddler and again as a teen as one with a considerable haunted heritage in a recent Fortean Times article, and of course the Lark Valley was the site for the Battle of Fornham in 1173, a subject to which I often return.
Even before I moved to Bury we used to come here though, for off Mildenhall Road, backing on to the Lark and the remains of a long forgotten mural bridge is a supermarket. As a teen I rafted on the river, inexpertly dug by the medieval bridge – there is a midden there, filled with thousands of oyster shells, for oysters were the common food – the fish and chips if you like – of medieval life – and fell down the steep banks lined with nettles by the weir.
None of those things matter today – it is the supermarket that holds my attention. I rode there as I have now for forty years in the back of my parents car; mum had forgotten to buy milk, and despite having visited ASDA and Sainsburys, she wanted some things from the CoOp. It seems bizarre this place has a name — it should be The Nameless Supermarket, because it really is like something out of a weird tale. This had never struck me before, but as I clambered out in to the car park there may have been three other vehicles in the acres of cracked tarmac.
Now it is a Co Op; before I think a Safeways, a Gateways, perhaps a Somerfields? It may have once been a Keymarkets — the name changes, but the building endures. You always enter to a bright display of fresh flowers, the local papers and a range of magazines, and wander round the aisles filled to the brim with low cost and well laid out produce. Pop music blares out from the speakers, you quickly find your purchases and walk past cheerful and very helpful assistants, usually young, who seem to wait politely , hovering in case you express a need to locate macaroni or boot polish or a lawnmower.
Once or twice, you may round a corner and suddenly pause, face reddening slightly embarrassed by the sight of another customer. You both smile weakly, and nod, the way you might if you met your vicar in a sex shop — but really it is just surprise. I mean you know there must be other customers — the shop has been here forty odd years, and the levels of stock suggest they sell something — but I am always amazed to find one. There are about ten checkout counters, and the cigarette desk, and sometimes you see a little gaggle of shoppers chatting around that counter, their backs firmly turned to the empty acres of retail desert behind them.
This is the supermarket on the edge of forever – and if the staff are the earthbound wraiths of retail assistants too happy to leave their jobs in this world when they inadvisedly removed a can of beans from the bottom of a warehouse stack or were squished by a badly timed delivery of 16,000 oranges, well it would not surprised me. They all seem happy – if you approach one of the rows of empty checkouts with a trolley, they race past you to open up, and I have never known such a happy, courteous and benign group of shop assistants anywhere. Perhaps they are just moved to curiosity by the sight of a customer?
When we went there this weekend, Becky pointed out it would be easy to miss the turning – there isn’t even a sign. Mum swore this remains the cheapest (and best) supermarket in Bury, and I don’t doubt her. I like ASDA, and Sainsburys, but both have long been discovered by the general public who spoil the mystique of those (perfectly adequate) supermarkets by shopping there. Somehow, the Mildenhall Road supermarket stays in profit and open without crowds of customers? You’d never get service like this in Waitrose I tell you!
As I walked around the shop, I suddenly realised even the music was in a time warp – they were playing Suede, that seems modern to me but is probably older than many of the shop assistants. An air of unreality descended on me, and I began to wonder if this was some sort of Mystic Bazaar from outside of time and space, and the more I thought of it the more likely it seemed. It has always sold the most eccentric things, alongside the rows of perfectly good groceries. There is no logic to it – it seems to change, but specials appear and disappear. Here one day was a selection of wargames, and I bought Harpoon, a rather good naval wargame that even specialist games shops might have looked hard for – not a boardgame as such but a sophisticated set of modern naval warfare rules.
Back in those days H.P.Lovecraft was out of print in the UK – yet one day there appeared a display of maybe two dozen cheap paperbacks, mainly Dr Who titles, and among them was The Shadow Over Innsmouth and other Tales of Terror by Scholastic Book Services, and American publisher. This was 3 years before Grafton reissued the old Pan series of HPL, and here for fifty pence I found this book that was to shape my life in many ways,, juts a few hundred feet from home. Of course within a week or two there were no more boardgames, or books – but time and time again, odd things would appear on these supermarket shelves, and would be snatched and for a few coins borne home as treasures.
Is there something weird about the supermarket? Is it is a money laundering front for the Co Op Dairy’s secret numbers game? Do the aisles form non-Euclidean angles and at midnight open portals to other spaces and times? Does the manager just have an eye for interesting remaindered stock and a lovely well trained staff who enjoy working there? Tesco on the Fornham Road may have a poltergeist outbreak and a bomb scare, but it does not come close to this place. The Co Op Mildenhall Road Bury St Edmunds has endured while a rash of other supermarkets have gown up around the town, and I confidently expect that when I am as old as my father it will still be there, selling excellent fresh bread and cut flowers and with staff falling over themselves to assist.
I hope some of you will pop in, and let me know what you think. 🙂
CJ, Valentine’s Day 2016 x