Loyal Linda’s life in Langleys in Norwich

There are only a few more sleeps to go until Christmas Day and many children cannot wait to see what toys Santa has left them. So imagine the excitement of working in a toy shop for 42 years of your life. Emma Harrowing talks to Linda Ashwood who has done just that.

It's a busy time for Langleys toy shop in the Royal Arcade. Shoppers are grabbing the must-have toys off the shelves, checking their lists to make sure they have not forgotten anyone, getting frantic when they cannot find that most-wanted toy and jostling for space when queuing to pay. Then in what seems like an oasis of calm stands shop assistant Linda Ashwood.

'Of course not every customer request is easy to solve,' says Linda as she takes a Lego fire engine off the shelf and gives it to a delightful couple who had been looking for this exact toy for their grandson. 'I had only been working here for about a year when an elderly gentleman came in an asked for a full size doll. I showed him the largest dolls we had, but it turned out that he wanted a life size blow up doll. I had to kindly tell him that we do not sell this kind of toys here! I was only 16 at the time so imagine my embarrassment.'

Linda is now 57 years old and so has worked in Langleys for 42 years having arrived 'shy and naive' at the tender age of 15 directly after leaving school.

'We lived just outside Brundall and didn't have a car so we rarely came into the city,' says Linda. 'I only knew where the bus station was and the Royal Arcade.

'My older sister had worked at Langleys but she left to have a baby, which is why there was a vacancy for me. I remember that when I first started they told me to work with a girl called Sally - in fact I never left her side for those first few months!'

When Linda started working in Langleys in 1970 the toy shop was situated at the opposite end of the arcade to where it is today. Linda recalls how the shop extended from where Marmalades cafe is right up to and including the building that Jamie's Italian now resides in.

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'There used to be so much space in the shop that we had room to put up tents and climbing frames so that customers could see how they worked,' says Linda.

'This changed when the shops in the arcade were converted into smaller units about 30 years ago. They wanted to attract more a variety of shops in the arcade. I remember that we used to have stockrooms that went across the glass roof. When they were doing work on the arcade the men showed us that the floors were just made of a thin wood, it felt like polystyrene to touch and some parts just turned to dust beneath our fingers. It was surprising that our stock and us didn't fall through the ceiling! There we even wires that used to stick out in the stockroom and you had to be careful not to get caught to them when you were going up and down the ladders. We were told that these wires were not attached to anything, but in the restructuring we were told that these wires were in fact live!'

Linda also recalls a time during the miners strikes during the 70s when they had gas lamps dotted around the shop so that they could stay open during the power cuts.

'They used to spit and sizzle when you went near them but at least the customers could see the toys' says Linda. 'Of course if this happened today health and safety would probably force us to close.'

Linda has seen many changes over the years. The UK's currency changed to decimalisation, many of the small independent shops in the city closed and made way for bigger stores to open up, and both The Castle Mall and Chapelfield changed the retail landscape of Norwich.

'The city is a much more vibrant place these days,' says Linda. 'The malls are great for the city as these are the places that attract people to Norwich. We usually have many people in the shop who are just in Norwich for the day and have been shopping in Chapelfield and have ventured out to explore Norwich.'

Not everything has changed though. According to Linda toys have not only remained a constant in her life but they have also not really changed much over the years.

'Many of the toys we sell are the same sort of toys we sold 40 years ago,' says Linda. 'Obviously there are more interactive toys these days, but we still sell the dot-to-dot and magic paint books, 10p marbles and other pocket money toys that are still popular.

'Lego is also still going strong after all these years. I think the key to the success of toys is that they keep up to date with the changing times. This year Lego is all about the Lord of the Rings and Starwars, and the top toy this Christmas - the Furby - which was popular in the 90s has been brought up to date with interactivity.'

Linda is due to retire in nine years. After spending all of her working life at Langleys her imminent departure seems like a blot on the landscape.

Linda says: 'I feel like I am part of the fixtures and fittings and I will miss this place. I am an honorary member of many people's family. People who have bought their children toys over the years and many regular customers who come back in when the next part of a certain collection is launched.

'I'm excited about starting a new chapter in my life, but it's daunting to think that I will no longer wake up in the morning and go to work. That said I will be able to spend more time knitting which I love doing in my spare time at the moment. I enjoy knitting dolls and animals such as hedgehogs - so toys will always be part of my life.'