Between 1959 and 1962 the Oak Leaf Coffee Bar became the most popular meeting place for local teenagers. It left such a lasting impression on many of them that annual reunions of ‘Oakleafers’ are still being held today, the most recent being in November 2016 at The Saltdean Tavern.
In this article Chris Wrapson tells The Saltdean Zone why the Oak Leaf was so important to him and his friends at the time, and why they all remember it with such affection.
Chris Wrapson on his 500cc BSA Gold Star motorbike outside the Oak Leaf circa 1960-61
Amid great praise, in the Spring of 1959, the Oak Leaf Coffee Bar on Saltdean seafront opened its doors for the first time. The Saltdean Community Association would have been most grateful to the owners, Mr and Mrs Martin Martin, for providing a safe indoor and lively meeting place for the young people of Saltdean, thus fulfilling a social need missing for so long in that era. During the first few months the place was packed out with so many youngsters jostling to gain admission.
Above left the Oak Leaf building back in its heyday as a coffee bar and on the right today as an estate agents with the Saltdean Lido seen in the background
The immediate neighbours were not happy to say the least. Letters of complaint were received mostly about the excessively loud juke box music and the noisy motorcycles with their riders who would constantly come and go on summer evenings. One complaining neighbour described the Oak Leaf as being ‘one loud cacophony of noise’.
“I remember my mum and dad telling me that the Oak Leaf was a very tough place (all that black leather and motorbikes) and I’d be much safer at the youth club! Got to love your folks, haven’t you!” Oakleafer Tom Neill
The local police constable with his motor scooter was always close at hand in case of trouble. However, in time things settled down and apart from the odd broken window or minor skirmish when someone attempted to chat up another chap’s girlfriend, there was indeed very little trouble.
The assembled Oakleafers above are gathered by the low wall (still there) adjacent to the Ladies toilet on the upper promenade down by Saltdean Beach. This photo was taken before the the steep roadway-path was constructed leading down to the Undercliff Walk just about where the dog walking ladies are. The seat which looks like it’s on top of the hill is also still there.
The Martins and Beach Boys & Girls
Mr Martin gave the impression of being a laid-back character, with a very dry sense of humour. He would, however, exclude anyone for rudeness or bad behaviour and was therefore respected for this. Some of the girls affectionately looked on Mrs Martin as an Agony Aunt and to some she was even like a second Mum. Mr and Mrs Martin always made an effort to get to know everyone by their Christian names.
1960-62: Growth and a name change
By 1960, the Oak Leaf had become an established and popular meeting place – almost like a second home for many of the local teenagers from Saltdean and Rottingdean. Throughout 1960 and 1961 it continued to grow rapidly, attracting teenagers from Telscombe Cliffs, Peacehaven, Woodingdean and Ovingdean plus, inevitably, the motorbike lads from Brighton. Needless to say, the odd fight broke out from time to time and more complaints were received concerning the noise.
Therefore, during 1961, a decision was made by Mr Martin to turn the Oak Leaf into a club, naming it ‘The Saltdean Dungeon’. Members were known as convicts (Mr Martin’s dry sense of humour) and issued with a numbered membership card – I wonder who was Convict No 1?
Local builder David Rose was employed to create a ghoulish cellar-like atmosphere, with black ceilings, stone-like walls, subdued lighting, paintings of goblins, skeletons and all sorts of other scary things – including a large witch suspended from the ceiling on her broomstick. In those days the name ‘Dungeon’ would be viewed as very cool. However, it never really caught on and when asked you would always say I’m going down ‘The Oak Leaf”.
Above: David Rose as you may remember him in recent times as the much-loved lollipop man working near Saltdean Primary School
Where boy meets girl
The Oak Leaf was very much a place where boy met girl and Friday/Saturday evenings were spent drinking frothy coffee or Pepsi-Cola although the occasional soiree in the Spanish Lady pub wasn’t unheard of – if you could get served!
We would jive around the jukebox to records sung by Bobby Vee, Roy Orbison, Joe Brown, Helen Shapiro, Cliff and his Shadows and, of course, good old Elvis.
Looking back now there are so many happy memories of those very special salad days spent at the Oak Leaf and it’s pleasing to know that several of those teenage romances that began life there later on blossomed – into long and happy marriages.
By the spring of 1962 many of the original Oak Leaf regulars had settled down into careers or apprenticeships etc., also passing their driving tests and becoming proud owners of motor cars.
The bright lights of Brighton and beyond beckoned. Rumour was circulating at that time concerning the future of the Oak Leaf. With attendances falling, Mr and Mrs Martin could see the writing on the wall; maybe for them it was time to move on.
This they did, taking over the running of a public house in Seaford. It should be stated they both contributed more than their fair share in the interest of the youth in Saltdean.
Closure – and a reincarnation
Sadly the Oak Leaf closed its doors in September 1962. Fittingly, the last record ever played on the jukebox was Frank Ifield’s smash hit of that year called ‘I Remember You’.
A year later, a group of original Oakleafers, together with some members of the Youth Club, formed the Saltdean 18-30 Club affiliated to the Community Association. Meetings were held in the refurbished Community Centre next to the Lido.
In the summer, car rallies, barn dances and outdoor activities were organised while in the winter months there would be Saturday-night dances, all with live music with different themes. Who remembers a band called The Scorpions formed in 1964 by a few Oak Leaf lads? The Scorps, as they became known, would perform at the Saturday-night gigs.
Above: this newspaper clipping from December 1965 reads: ‘Icy winds on Saturday did not stop one cheeky couple turning up at St Nicholas Hall, Saltdean for a fancy dress dance organised by Saltdean’s 18- 30 Club, undressed as Adam & Eve.
As usual the members of the club showed originality and enterprise in their outfits. Most of them turned out as the warmest characters they could think up and all were taken aback when the nearly naked couple on the right of our picture walked into the hall. But their daring did not earn them the prizes for the best fancy dress. The Arab (John Clark of Oaklands Avenue) peering over the top won the prize for the best dressed-up man and the curly-haired lovely third from the left (Caroline Bolton, of Rodmell Avenue) was adjudged the best dressed girl in her Elizabethan crinoline dress. But surprisingly the warmest couple at the dance – WERE the Adam and Eve. Said ‘Adam’: “dancing keeps us warm as toast.” They were also the only couple who did not sit out a number.’
The 18-30 Club was good fun and ran until 1966. However, it could never re-create those brilliant Oak Leaf years and it would be two decades before Oakleafers would gather in any number again.
The Oakleaf Story – Part 2
Coming Soon to The Saltdean Zone
Footnote: Saltdeaner Chris Wrapson, the author of this article, is the tireless organiser of a number of successful Oakleafer reunions, and the contact point for all the old friends from the past. He can be contacted on 01273 306776 or firstname.lastname@example.org
PS from Chris: Grateful thanks to my good friend and fellow Oakleafer Douglas d’Enno for his willing assistance in helping me create ‘The Oak Leaf Story.’