HE’S one of Dorset’s great food characters known to his loyal customers – some stretching back half a century – as simply John the Fish.
And for good reason.
John Bell is the fourth generation of his family to be a fishmonger.
For the last 30 years he’s run his traditional fishmongers, with wife Sally, from the car park at the back of No.1 High Street, Wimborne.
It was his great grandmother, Eliza, who started Bell’s Famous Fisheries in 1892.
She was followed by his grandfather, Alf, and then his father, Ernest.
John got the taste for what was to become a life-long passion at the age of five.
He said: “For my first job, Dad stood me on a little stool and rucked up the skins of the Dover soles and I pulled them off with a cloth.
“He gave me two and six or something and I thought this was alright.
“I was always asking Dad if I could work with him on a Saturday because it allowed me to make some money and I could go and buy my Matchbox cars, sweets or whatever.”
Such was the experience gained over the coming years that the traditional seven-year apprenticeship was shortened to three, resulting in John becoming fully qualified by the age of 19.
The Wimborne site includes a fish yard, smokery and Sally’s Café.
After business boomed during the Covid years, as more people turned to local suppliers, trade has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
John, 64, said: “Covid made us ultra-busy because people couldn’t eat out, so they were knocking on the doors of people like Paul Keating – Wimborne butcher – and myself.
“I would say that was for a two-year period and now it’s levelled back to something approaching what it was before.
“A lot of people went back to the supermarkets but if you can keep a few – and we have – then that’s good.”
As with all foods, prices have risen.
John said: “Fish is very, very difficult in the sense of the price of it.
“The demand is enormous and the London restaurants affect it because they will pay the prices.
“That then drives up the price of the prime fish.
“We’re okay, though.
“My father always said: ‘when prices go high, that sorts the men from the boys’.
“If you’re good enough, then you survive it, but you have to reduce margins when prices go up because otherwise it would be just too expensive.”
Some of John’s loyal customers go back to 1974 when Bell’s Famous Fisheries had a shop in Ferndown.
And children being pushed in buggies 30 years ago are now the buyers of John’s fish, pushing their own children in buggies.
“I’m seeing the second generation, which is lovely,” said John.
Each day John’s agents scour the main fishing ports – from Brixham to Petershead and Poole – to source the best quality catches and get it to his customers quickly.
John said: “Fresh fish is the key. There is no substitute.
“We’re fairly unusual because we’re about 75 per cent wild fish.
“I want all the stuff which is in this beautiful, sceptred isle of ours and continues to be surrounded by the best fishing grounds on the globe to this day.”
Known for his banter with customers, John’s wingman – traditionally known as First Hand – as well as chief smoker is Mike Tendler.
John said: “I’ve always liked to laugh and I’m lucky to have Mike in the sense that we’re about the same sort of age and a similar sense of humour.
“I like making people happy and, yes, the banter is key.
“If my customers are buying the fish, which I love selling, and they’re enjoying it and we’re all having a good time, then I can think of worse ways of making a living.”
John, who gets up at 4am from Tuesday to Saturday, said he had no plans to put his feet up and take it easier.
He said: “It’s a tradition that fishmongers don’t retire.
“My father didn’t and my grandfather didn’t.
“But as we grow older, we wear out, so we have to do less. It can be a bit challenging at times.”
Married to Sally for 34 years, with four children between them, John said he was frequently asked to name his favourite fish.
He said: “I love lemon sole fillets, just fried in butter with a bit of lemon.
“It’s the food of angels.”
Bell’s Famous Fisheries is open Tuesday and Wednesday 8.30am-noon, Thursday and Friday 10am-noon and Saturday 10am-11.30am.