There are some places on earth that defy the senses. Others that pop right out of a fantasy. The twee town of Bournville in England fits snugly into both brackets, because believe it or not, its very existence is pivoted upon chocolate. It is where Bournville, the plain dark bar of chocolate that comes in a signature blood-red packaging, gets its name.
Bournville is home to Cadbury World, the factory where they churn out Cadbury Dairy Milk – for an entire generation, at one point in India, Cadbury was synonymous with chocolate. To think that there is an old-world town dedicated to it and a family called the Cadburys who gave us what we crave, stumped me when I learnt about it.
Feeling rather Gretel-ish, I could not wait to lay my eyes upon it. On a perfect summer’s day, I sat in a train from Northampton for the lovely, leafy town that is tucked away in the idyllic suburbs of South Birmingham. My companions were my in-laws who were quite chuffed at the thought, as only confirmed chocoholics would be.
The ticket checker took one look at our tickets and grinned at us, “You are off to Cadbury World, eh?” His expression approximated the word beatific as he noted wistfully that he had been thinking about making his chocolate pilgrimage for some time. When we reached Bournville, we found a postcard-perfect affair of a station, painted all over in the Cadbury purple. If there is a station that holds forth promises of Wonka-ville, and paradise therefore, it is this. Had a few Oompa Loompas leaped out to welcome us, I would not have been surprised.
It all goes back in time to 1824 when John Cadbury started a grocer’s shop on Bull Street in the bustling city of Birmingham. He began experimenting with cocoa and drinking chocolate, which he prepared using a pestle and mortar. The Quaker entrepreneur shied away from alcohol and promoted drinking chocolate instead for pleasure.
Soon, he partnered with his brother Benjamin to establish the company, the Cadbury Brothers of Birmingham. With the aim to expand, their sons bought sloping meadow land in the suburbs of Birmingham, by which ran a stream called “The Bourn”. The place got its name from this brook and the French word ‘ville’ since French chocolate was deemed fashionable at the time. It is where Richard and George Cadbury built their factory in 1879, and as forward-thinking philanthropists, started developing a model town for their workers.
Having espied the bulky brick personage of the factory behind the station, we made our way toward it. Plenty of purple signage made sure we did not deviate from our destination. On the 15-minute walk to the factory, we found chocolate references galore. If there’s a bold sign sticking out on a road painted with the words Bournville Lane, the Bournville Baths fall along the way. The Baths were built in 1910 for the employees of the Cadburys as a public washhouse to head straight to after a day at work. It had a large swimming pool, a spectator gallery, dressing cubicles and private washing baths, steam baths and a laundry. It catered to the times when people did not have bathrooms in their houses and instead resorted to filling up tin baths with hot water while placing them by the fireplace.
The path to the factory is dotted with beautiful step-gabled houses, harking back to the Arts and Crafts Movement of the era (1880 and 1910), which advocated traditional craftsmanship in design teamed with medieval, romantic and folk references. Small Venetian windows mark the timber-framed houses in Bournville, the architecture of which were, according to the Cadburys’ objectives, “intended to make it easy for working men to own houses with large gardens, secure from the dangers of being spoilt either by factories, or by the interference with the enjoyment of sun, light and air”. What was emphasized upon me at Cadbury World was the social work that the Cadburys were involved in. They were much ahead of their times when they developed Bournville as a model village, not just for the factory workers. The schools, shops, church hall and Friends’ Meeting House that they set up have been preserved, and as a history buff, it is fascinating to walk down the Bournville Trail.
The Cadbury factory itself is nestled in the middle of a garden. The Cadburys had envisioned it as a garden factory. Before entering its hallowed portals, we came upon a lush green cricket ground and an adjoining Cadbury club, once upon a time the social hub in Bournville.
I did turn up my nose a bit at the start of the tour when I saw waxworks of Inca tribesmen and a charting out of their presence in the timeline of the discovery of chocolate. But once we moved on ahead, I was hooked. Windows opened out into three-dimensional scenes being enacted to showcase Victorian street scenes. There were facades of iconic places — the original shop front of the Cadburys and White’s Chocolate House in St James’s or ‘the most fashionable hell in London’ which was frequented by rakes, dukes, earls and lords who smoked and idled their time over thick, luxuriant chocolate. I was, however, most amused by a three-dimensional little figure of the famous diarist of the times, Samuel Pepys, as he held forth: “Waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink, which I am very sorry for; so rose and went out with Mr. Creed to drink our morning draft, which he did give me in chocolate to settle my stomach”.
My own experience was anything Pepys would have goggled at. Inside a factory that churned chocolate, I was getting freebies, and let us admit it. There is nothing that thrills as the free things in life. A bag each of Curly Wurly, Chocolate Buttons and Crème Eggs handed out as a welcome pack had me at the word Go.
There were rooms we were taken into to show us what happens to the cocoa beans once they reach the factory. That, I assure you, is not an experience to be missed. Because those seated towards the front, experience vibrations and all kinds of effects, that can only make you squeal with pleasure.
Other rooms took us back into the history of the Cadbury brothers as they popped out as three-dimensional figures to speak to the audience, along with a history of the memorable Cadbury advertising campaigns. Fun rides, interactive games and adventure playgrounds made us feel akin to two-year-olds, but you would not have caught us complaining. I even found an outlet to my creativity when I could design a chocolate box packaging for Cadbury on one of the interactive kiosks. It looked most professional and made me as happy as a child with a successfully executed DIY chocolate box project.
The moment that is etched into the memory is when we walked into the factory to see the entire process of the making and packaging of chocolate. The intense, sweet smell of Dairy Milk drove the senses into a sort of delirium – a heady, happy one. My high points of the day were divided between moments when I was handed over a bar of Dairy Milk and a pot of warm, melted Dairy Milk. The cherry on it was getting to choose a garnish for the pot from sinful toppings of marshmallows, jelly beans, popcorn, licorice and nuts. I confess I went nuts about it. And even though I am a dark chocolate addict, I scraped the bottom of my warm pot of milk chocolate clean. By the end of the day, we ended up hoarding on booties of chocolate from the Cadbury shop that stocks all sorts of Cadburys fare – from Fry’s Peppermint Creams to Jamaica Old Rum Bournville and cutesy chocolate sculptures.
Yes, that is the kind of sweet delight such purple towns are made of. For how many towns can boast of being built for and by chocolate?
(A version of this story was published in The Telegraph on September 7, 2014)