The Busy Bee Motorcycle Club held their annual reunion at the Hilton Hotel at Watford on 1st September 2013.
While you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the club had gone upmarket by meeting at the prestigious venue, the reason for their choice of location is that the hotel is built on the site of the original café, which closed in 1968.
In previous years members had (with the permission of the hotel) dug deep into the lawn at the corner of the car park to reveal an existing section of the floor from the café, but this year the club had commissioned a rather fetching black marble plaque, bearing the following legend:
“SITE OF THE BUSY BEE CAFÉ
1938 – 1968
24 HOUR HAUNT OF MOTORCYCLISTS
BUSY BEE MOTORCYCLE CLUB
WATFORD SEPT. 2013″
Members took turns to dig another hole – in a slightly different location this time – in order to set the plaque into a concrete base, the explanation being that the committee felt that some of the members were getting too old to ‘dig that bloody hole’ every year, so the soil from the site of the plaque was used to fill in the original hole – now a depression in the grass – for good.
The management at the Watford Hilton have promised that if and when they build on the site, the plaque will be set into the wall of whatever is built there.
The Busy Bee was said by many to have been as important as the Ace Cafe in its day, and having both opened in 1938 there are a number of uncanny similarities between the two establishments.
But while the Ace found itself the target for one of Hitler’s bombs, the Busy Bee merely fell victim to wartime austerity rules, with food rationing forcing the sale of the café to a food producer – Energen Foods – while still being managed by the original owner.
In the decade after the Second World War the café stayed open 24 hours a day and with new and ambitious owners a number of extensions were built in the following years to increase the available number of covers. Pinball machines were introduced as a popular form of entertainment for the long distance lorry drivers whiling away their evenings when they were so far from home.
By the end of the 1950s, like the Ace, some fourteen miles away, the Busy Bee started to become more popular with the Ton Up Boys, with the newly installed Juke Box proving a hit with the motorcyclists, who along with the hauliers made up the bulk of the café’s clientele.
But while the eventual closure of the Ace Cafe was largely due to losing popularity, with many of the bikers swapping their bikes for cars and settling down to family life, the Busy Bee was indeed still busy with truckers passing in and out of London, situated as it was on a main trunk road.
It seems that the café was finally killed off by the extension of the nearby M1, and the construction of the proposed Scratchwood Services. Passing trade dried up, and with it profitability.
The last cup of coffee was drunk at the Busy Bee at around the same time that the Ace Cafe closed its doors in the late 60s. In the 1990s there was a reunion of former patrons, coincidentally just about when Mark Wilsmore organised a very well attended event to commemorate the closure of the Ace some 25 years previously.
But the coincidences end there. While the Ace reunion led to the eventual purchase of the building and reopening as an iconic bikers’ café, all that remains of the Busy Bee is that square of flooring and the bonhomie of the regulars.
The Busy Bee reunion in 1994 led to the formation of the Busy Bee Motorcycle Club, membership currently stands at more than 100, with meetings every Thursday night at the Broadlakes Social Club in London Colney.
As well as the regular meetings there are plenty of ride outs organised throughout the year to places of interest both in the UK and Europe, and the club very generously raises significant funds for its chosen charities each year.
One thing that impressed me at the Hilton reunion (apart from the fabulous mix of old and new motorcycles present) was how friendly everyone was, and a peep at the club’s website reveals a great collection of anecdotes, photographs, and online magazines (what a great idea!) revealing a very busy social scene.
While the Ace Cafe now goes from strength to strength, all that remains of the Busy Bee was a few square foot of tiled floor. But I was able to get an idea of what the café was like thanks to long term member Chester Dowling’s superb model, complete with bikes and café users.
Now that the annual sighting of the tiled floor has been consigned to memory banks, it’s good to see that the spirit of the Busy Bee will live on through the club.
With thanks to The Busy Bee Motorcycle Club for their hospitality