One-man bottle bank

Pictured is Alan Blakman who specialises in selling bootle at BBR Auctions,Elsecar Heritage Centre
Pictured is Alan Blakman who specialises in selling bootle at BBR Auctions,Elsecar Heritage Centre
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IT was while on a teenage date that Alan Blakeman discovered something which has been a pleasure and obsession ever since.

It was an antique bottle.

“We were walking around this lake, all romantic,” says the 62-year-old. “I saw this piece of half-buried glass and, for some reason, I dug it up.

“It was a broken bottle neck with a marble in. I’d never seen anything like it but when I took it home my dad said it was an old pop bottle – the marble was to attract children. I thought it was so beautiful I immediately wanted to find an undamaged one. I was so hooked, the next day I went to the town dump with my spade.”

Today, Alan has dozens of such ‘codd bottles’ and, as one of the world’s foremost experts on glassware and pottery, has bought and sold thousands more.

His business BBR (British Bottle Review) Auctions – based in Elsecar Heritage Centre near Barnsley – is one of the UK’s leading auction houses for antique bottles, pots, ink wells, clay pipes and medicine jars.

And this year Alan will cement his reputation by releasing his 12th – and far most ambitious – book on the subject: the somewhat specialist A World Encyclopedia Of Ink Wells.

Oh, and that girl on the date turned out all right too – Alan and Gill wed a few years later and remained happily married until she passed away in 2004 suffering with cancer.

“The bottles obviously didn’t put her off,” says Alan, of Elsecar. “To be honest, I think she found it quite exciting.”

That Alan’s excitement remains almost half a century on is obvious. A look round his office makes that clear.

Here, on piled-high shelves, is everything from a jar shaped like a skull warning it once held poison to an early 20th century HP Sauce bottle, which some might say held a far more foul substance; from jugs made at the old Hope Glass Works in Stairfoot to codd bottles exported to Greece; from one so big it comes up to Alan’s waist, to another so small it held just a spoonful of medicine.

Alan estimates, meanwhile, his four annual national auctions – each one of which is attended by about 2,000 visitors – boosts the local economy by about £1 million a year. And the quarterly magazine he produces is sent to hundreds of subscribers across the globe.

Not bad for a business set up because the father-of-three and grandfather-of-two thought “it would give me more time to go climbing than a proper job”.

That was the decision he made shortly after resigning from his post as head of art at Wath Comprehensive in 1985.

“I’d become disillusioned and, one morning, I handed in my notice,” explains Alan who was born in Staffordshire but moved to South Yorkshire in 1973. “When I told Gill she couldn’t believe it but I said we’d eek by.

“I’d been doing the magazine for the Old Bottle Club of Great Britain since 1979 and I’d started getting requests to sell pieces. I thought there was the demand for an auction business and I thought it would give me time to go climbing.”

He was half right.

The demand certainly was there – within three months of opening he’d outgrown the study at home and moved to Brampton Enterprise Centre, and six years later moved to Elsecar Heritage Centre – but it didn’t leave him spare time.

“It’s hard work,” he says. “I can do 15-hour days but this has been my passion since that teenage date so it never feels like work. I just love bottles. I don’t know why, I just find them intriguing – the history and the art and everything.”