Station Cafe has been a well known landmark in Pontycymer for many years and has featured in films such as “ Very Annie Mary” and television programmes such as “Fallen Hero” and “Framed” as it was a typical Italian Cafe which had not altered much over the 75 years it had been run by members of the Assirati family.
Giuseppe Assirati and his wife Teresa were from Bardi which is about 50 km southwest of Parma in Italy. Giuseppe had worked in West Wales before World War 1 but had returned to Italy and enlisted in the Italian Army when war broke out. After the war ended he borrowed enough money to return to Wales and he rented a sweet shop that was near where the Vetz Club is today. The shop was later owned by the Greenslade Family but is now a residential property. Giuseppe’s wife Teresa and his son Giacomo joined him in Wales in 1927 while his daughter Gina arrived in Pontycymer later, having stayed to help on her grandparents’ farm in Italy. A second daughter Maria was born later.
In 1932 Giuseppe decided to buy the cafe on Pontycymer Square from the Cavacutti family who had previously owned the cafe. The cafe was bigger then than it is now as the family had made a side entrance so that they could get to the living quarters without walking through the shop. The Assirati family had to work hard, opening sometimes before 6am and closing at around midnight to cater for the miners working their shifts in the local pits. They would scrub the cafe clean every day because of the coal dust left by the miners as there were no pithead baths in those days. They would sells twists of tobacco to the miners for them to chew in work. They would also sell Domino cigarettes in packets of 4 or even sell them singly. Cold drinks were popular in the cafe over the years, with teas, Oxo, cordials, and in later years coffee became much more popular. Giacomo, who was known as Jack in the valley bought a Gaggia cappuccino machine when this happened. Palethorpes Pork Pies with jelly were popular there, along with Dan Hanson Steak and Kidney Pies. The family also made their own ice cream from milk that they bought from local farmers in their early days in the café, but later bought their ice cream ready-made. Jack was a keen gardener and he used to sell eggs laid by his own hens, and in the summer tomatoes, kidney beans and sometimes other vegetables that he grew in his garden behind the cafe. Jack recollected a story about serving a gentleman with a pie and chips dinner who had asked him for tomato sauce. Jack told him it would cost an extra penny. The man said that was fine so he was given the sauce bottle from which he squeezed every last drop on to his plate so that it was completely covered in the sauce. Jack did not say anything and charged him the penny, but put the sauce on customers’ plates for them in future until he had sachets.
The Second World War was a particularly hard time for the family because Mussolini the Italian leader entered the war on the side of Hitler. This resulted in Italian families being classed as enemy aliens. Giuseppe, like other Italian males in the area, were taken by the police and sent to the Isle of Man where they were interred. The Italian women left behind were not allowed to go within 25 miles of the coast in case they would try to signal enemy boats or try to smuggle enemy spies into Britain, so Teresa went to live and work with a family who lived in Aberdare. Gina went to work in a miners’ canteen in the Pontypridd area leaving Jack and his youngest sister in Pontycymer. Jack was in the sixth form in the Garw Grammar School where Mr. Dan Harry was the headmaster but he was made to leave to do war work, which he did on Braichycymer Farm, working for William Tudor and his family which he remembered with great fondness. This made Jack’s love of the countryside stronger and he was a keen supporter of the hunt for the remainder of his life; at one time he had ridden in a hunt point to point race. Jack Morris, who had the shop next door as well as running a local taxi service, was very helpful to Jack and Maria at this time. Both of Jack’s parents returned home before the end of the war and continued to run the cafe. Jack always said the people of the Garw were always kind to his family and there was no hostility towards them at all.
Station Cafe often opened on a Sunday as the Italians had a broader outlook on life than the British but they were fined for opening for doing this. Jack remembered fines of seven shillings and sixpence being imposed but reckoned they made more than that by opening on a Sunday. Many of the miners would go to the cafe where they would discuss the work and politics of the coal industry and Jack became very knowledgeable about the local mines. Giuseppe died in 1956 and Maria died in the 1960s.
Teresa, who many people still remember sitting on a box with a cushion on top of it behind the counter in the cafe died in 1987. The family had also bought the Savoy in Porthcawl on the front near the Pier Hotel. Gina often worked regularly in the Savoy and later married and settled with her family in Porthcawl.
Jack worked very hard, as he would go to Porthcawl after closing the Station Cafe and helped in the Savoy. The cafe in Pontycymer also required plenty of work, as a tributary of the River Garw, the Nant Gelli Wern, flows underneath Station Cafe and the walls had to be treated and painted regularly to stop the damp rising from the stream. During the late fifties Jack bought a jukebox which was the first one in the Garw Valley. It was very expensive but it soon paid for itself as crowds of teenagers came there to play the latest rock and roll hits by Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker and many more artists although Jack and his staff would not always appreciate the music and would be glad of an excuse to have a short break from the noise. It cost three old pence to play a record or five for a shilling which would be 5 pence today. In the sixties it rose to sixpence old pence for one or a shilling for three records, to some people’s dismay! Jack also had a pinball machine where you forced a spring-loaded plunger to send a ball bearing around the machine and you had to use flippers to keep the ball in play to hit the bumpers on the machine to get the highest score you could. This was very popular with the boys.
At the end of 2007 Jack was 83 and suffering from arthritis so he decided to retire and the last Italian Cafe in the Garw Valley closed, though Jack carried on living in Station Cafe until he sadly passed away.
Hopefully this is not the end of the story as Creation have bought Station Cafe and they hope to renovate the building and reopen it as an Italian Cafe again so those red tables and wooden chairs that many of us in the Garw remember with fondness may well be used again.
by Ian Black