The Pilgrim Fryer


Driving community connections: how Paul Futcher’s fish and chip van has become a weekly staple in local villages. Rachael Rowe reports

Paul Futcher (left) has run the Pilgrim Fryer for 15 years

Around 5.30pm on a certain night, the unmistakable aroma of fish and chips fills the air in villages north of Blandford Forum, enticing people out for their weekly treat. The man responsible is Paul Futcher, owner of the Pilgrim Fryer fish and chip van.
‘It all started about 15 years ago. I was working for Scottish and Southern Electric, driving trucks – and never a thought for working in the fish and chip industry! The previous owner of the fish and chip van found God and decided to train to be a vicar. I got home from work one day and my (now ex) wife said: “Do you want to buy a fish and chip van?” It went from there – needless to say I ended up buying the van!
‘We’ve always worked north of Blandford Forum and the Stour Valley. There were four original stops: Child Okeford, Shillingstone, Iwerne Minster and Stourpaine. We’ve recently added Okeford Fitzpaine.
‘With a shop, you are stuck in one place. The beauty of a van is that it fits with our ethos of being able to provide something to communities that are not big enough to have a fish and chip shop of their own. There has been a fish and chip van outside the Bakers Arms in Child Okeford every Thursday since 1998. The whole village knows that Thursdays is fish and chips night! We visit each village and it fills a lovely gap in the market. Some older people don’t have transport to get to a fish and chips shop.’
You can’t help but hear that the staff on the Pilgrim Fryer call some older residents by name.
‘We know a lot of the regular customers, especially the elderly.

We know their orders and what time they are coming to collect them. When people place an order they have around 20 minutes to wait – it’s a nice opportunity to catch up with others who are waiting, usually from their own community. A lot of the elderly don’t see many other people. We chat to them and I know it means a lot that they have this in the village. We become part of the community.’
What is the most popular choice? ‘Cod and chips. It is what we focus on and without a shadow of a doubt it’s what people order most of. It’s very traditional. There is a tendency for people down south to go for cod while haddock is more popular up north. You can spot a northerner who’s moved south, they still prefer haddock,’ says Paul.

Shop local
‘We use local suppliers where we can. There are actually only two main fish and chip suppliers in this country – all the local shops use the same supplier. We use Fryers Pride, as it has a depot in Poole. The industry is really mechanised with fish caught in the Arctic on huge trawler boats. We used to get fish from the North Sea but it has moved because of the fishing quotas. Once the fish is caught, it is blast-frozen really fast and we get the fish in packs which we portion. Because the fish has been frozen so quickly, the quality is really good, it is actually better than fresh, even though it has been stored on a trawler for three days. We get our potatoes from Alan Frout at Verwood.’
The idyllic roaming chip van life isn’t without its struggles, however.
‘It’s a challenge to get to each site and provide a consistent product day in and day out. With a van, things do go wrong – I always have a toolbox with me. Once we turned up in Child Okeford in six inches of snow! But we felt a responsibility to be there for our customers. Another issue is working on propane; it’s not like a physical shop with mains gas and electric. It’s more challenging to produce consistency.
And then there are the problems with no phone signal for taking payments, of course …
‘But I’m proud of our connection with the local people. I never thought I would run a fish and chip van, but to be able to make a difference in people’s lives is very rewarding. We’ve become a real part of the community.’

The Pilgrim Fryer, 5 to 7.30pm:
Mondays – Stourpaine
Tuesdays – Shillingstone
Wednesdays – Okeford Fitzpaine
Thursdays – Child Okeford
Fridays – Iwerne Minster


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