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Meet the ice cream van man who everyone from local kids to the Game of Thrones crew

Linda Stewart joins Neal Adair on his rounds in Belfast and hears how work has changed throughout the years

Ice cream man Neal Adair
Ice cream man Neal Adair

By Linda Stewart

The brief is to shadow the so-called poke man on his rounds... but I'm already running into difficulties.

"I'm going out at 7am and I'm too busy," one ice cream seller says when I ring him.

And it's a flat no from two more who inform me that most ice cream vans only have one seat and it's illegal to carry passengers. One tells me he fell foul of the law when he i nvited his out-of-work friend to join him and was prosecuted by the police for carrying an illegal passenger. So he isn't taking any chances now.

In the end, Neal Adair agrees. He has been booked for a family fun day in Clara Street off the Castlereagh Road on July 11, which means serving lots of customers at one site and no travelling around.

Matthew Milligan (10) with his mum Kerry Elliott and granny Mary McDonnell
Matthew Milligan (10) with his mum Kerry Elliott and granny Mary McDonnell

The 37-year-old father-of-three has been a poke man for more than 20 years and ice cream is in the blood, so to speak.

"My granda would have been doing it from the Sixties. And my great uncles opened the Riada ice cream factory - which is Adair spelled backwards," he says.

That's Northern Ireland's oldest ice cream factory and it still operates from a site off the Newtownards Road.

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Neal's granda built all his own vans. Now Neal drives a colourful Casper's ice cream van on a beat around Belfast, Lisburn and Newtownards.

"From me being a kid, all I remember is ice cream vans and I have been working in them from the age of 12.

"I used to go out with my granda back in the day, in the Nineties, when you could get away with it," he says.

Tegan Lynch is served a poke by Neal
Tegan Lynch is served a poke by Neal

"I'd go out with my granda for a couple of hours - it was more than just entertainment for me.

"I was quite adventurous as a kid and I found it quite exciting to go out in the ice cream van."

As he grew older, he would be drafted in by his uncles to sell ice cream from mobile catering trailers at events such as motorbike races or the Twelfth.

Neal Adair makes a poke
Neal Adair makes a poke

"I did that when I was a kid, up until I was 15. Every summer, that was what I did. I was told 'Neal, you're getting picked up in the morning to go to Armagh - be ready at 5am'.

"For Kirkistown you had to be in at 6am, way before all the races started. They were long days doing that.

"When I passed my driving test, I jumped straight into the ice cream van and put on my R plates. The first thing I drove after I passed my test was the ice cream van."

Neal serving his customer Carrie Martin
Neal serving his customer Carrie Martin

He admits that in his 20s he took a break from the ice cream business and studied ancient history at Queen's University Belfast, but it wasn't long before he was back in the game.

"We had young kids and I needed to earn money," he says.

He breaks off to serve Carrie Martin (32), who lives in Ravensdale Street.

She says her favourite ice cream growing up was a slider.

"That guy there who owns the van used to live in our street, the van was always across the street from us," she says.

"I loved it when the ice cream van came, we would just run out."

After serving up a 99 cone, Neal picks up his thread, explaining why he came back to the business: "I did try an office job, but I just missed this job. I liked getting out and chatting to people.

"The internet has really helped me in terms of bookings. We had one where an advertising agency wanted me to serve free ice cream as a treat for the staff in UTV and the Belfast Telegraph - that was a fun day, and it was through a booking I got online.

"Then we started to progress to working with schools that were having fun days and I would always give a bit of money back to the PTA."

Neal Adair beside his ice cream van
Neal Adair beside his ice cream van

Bookings began to come in for more unusual gigs - supplying ice cream on location at a few film and TV shoots, including Game of Thrones, and another providing free ice cream to staff at Belfast City Airport and tourists coming off long-haul flights.

One TV production company even hired the van to be part of the shoot.

"Until those bookings started coming in, my daily routine would have just been doing the streets," Neal says.

"But the bookings only really come in between May and August, although a few go on into September like Freshers' Week, and I'm doing the streets all year round."

Sarah Annett (27), who's treating her son Carson Morton to a 99 cone, says she doesn't see ice cream vans plying the street as often these days.

She says: "A poke van would come round every day but it doesn't really come now. Before you went to bed the poke van used to come and now they don't come round anymore."

Neal's granda’s van in the 1950s
Neal's granda’s van in the 1950s

Neal agrees that there aren't as many now.

"In the 1970s, my dad told me there would have been 30 or 40 ice cream vans going round this area. But now there isn't the same kind of money," he says. "Going round the streets, the money is getting less, and the prices are more with the amount of fuel and outlay I have to put in," he says.

"When I started in 1998, an ice cream was 30p and now it's a pound. I can see the difference."

He reckons the 99 is still the most popular product with adults, while kids love the screwball with the bubblegum sauce.

Kerry Elliott (30), who has brought her children Niamh (7) and Matthew (10) to the van, says Neal has been doing the run for years. "He's decent and he does good prices. There was a man in the Ormeau Park who charged £2 a poke - for me and my two, that's £6 automatically," she says.

"I like the fact that you can go out with a fiver in your pocket and that's enough for ice creams and a wee drink. The only thing is, he always comes round at the wrong time. He comes at dinner time and they're like 'Mummy, mummy!' and I'm saying 'I've just put your dinner in the oven'.

"I remember saying to myself if they're called a 99, why do they cost a pound?"

Her mum Mary McDonnell (50) says she remembers having an ice cream as a treat once a week when the van came round.

"Sometimes you would bring out a bowl to put the ice cream in if you didn't want a poke," she says.

Kerry says she used to go to the ice cream van when she was young and now her kids are doing the same.

"We would have done this when we were kids. It's still the same people I'm seeing, but we're all grown up and now it's us waiting while our kids are queuing for their ice cream," she says.

Neal shows me the bag of creamy fresh mix that is the raw material for the ice cream, supplied by the Riada factory.

He's scathing about the quality of the cheap supermarket tubs and about the UHT mix that is used by some sellers.

"That's cheap mix that anyone can buy. It's awful stuff - it doesn't taste good," he says.

"This is just a better quality fresh mix, compared to the UHT stuff. To me that's not just as nice and it doesn't blow as well."

It's a simple process; the mix is tipped into the hopper, goes through the pumps and freezing process and soft ice cream comes out of the nozzle.

"It takes about six or seven minutes to freeze and then you replenish it as you need to.

"Then we would be ready to start chiming round the streets if there are no bookings," Neal says.

"We still sell the same stuff as we did years ago but the only difference now would be the Slush Puppy machine.

"Allergies - that is all I am ever getting asked now. I have no nuts in the van now because many of the schools have no-nut policies, so I wouldn't be putting them in the van because they are so dangerous.

"Everybody is lactose intolerant now too, but I usually recommend that they read the ingredients or take a slushie," he adds.

Surprisingly, ice cream is not so much a female indulgence. According to the Ice Cream Alliance, men are more likely to choose ice cream as a dessert than women.

And this part of the world seems to have a particular taste for it - the organisation says the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland eat more ice cream on average than those in England and Wales.

That passion for ice cream is why it's worth continuing all year round, Neal believes.

Danielle Thompson (32), one of the organisers of the community fun day, says the kids will come running even when there is snow on the ground.

"The kids are out in that park all year round," she adds.

As for the weather, Neal says it's either too hot or cold: "In summer it's too warm and you're cooking with the heat in the van and you're busy and in winter, it's hard, it really is.

"God love my regulars - thank God for them, because you don't get any other bookings in winter. But I still go out just to pay for things."

These days, if you're running an ice cream round you have to pay for street trading licences from all the council areas where you operate. Neal is far from impressed with the cost, but admits it does deal with some of the problems there would have been back in the 1970s with territorial rival vendors.

"It helps us because it stops illegal traders. You would have gone out on your rounds and people would have said another ice cream van was here earlier. That used to happen all the time," he says.

"I work with a lot of community groups, which helps. Everyone knows me round here as the ice cream man. I do a lot of cross-community work too.

"I've had bookings for communions, events at St Dominic's or St Peter's on the Falls Road."

What you do notice is the way he cheerfully greets everyone who comes to the van, projecting a wave of personality out of the window and into the waiting queue.

There's no being moody or hiding away from the world on an off day, he admits.

"I've been doing this for 20 years now and I was serving these mothers then as kids, and now I'm serving their kids. You have to be very friendly with them because you're seeing them every day. Everybody knows who I am and I'm seeing the same faces."

Some of his customers will even confide in him, he says.

"You do become very friendly with people and they would confide in you - you have to be approachable. You see these people every day," he says.

"I've wee grannies who can't come to the van any more and I'll go to the door with their two 99s - that's building up a relationship.

"It's been the same here since I started doing this. I haven't noticed any difference.

"I am doing it for 20 years and it's the same streets I'm doing. Maybe there's a new building or something but it's the same old craic."

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