Keith savours success after swapping tough Leeds police beat for world's oldest sweet shop

Keith Tordoff has gone from being a detective in inner-city Leeds to running the world's oldest sweet shop. Graham Chalmers spoke to him about his extraordinary life.

Keith Tordoff has gone from the police force to running the world's oldest sweet shop.
Keith Tordoff has gone from the police force to running the world's oldest sweet shop.

Keith Tordoff’s philosophy is simple. “Never mind the negative. It’s always worth being positive.”

The hard-working chairman of Nidderdale Chamber of Trade has taken time off to talk me through his life story – and a tougher side of his past as a policeman that he doesn’t talk about very often.

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Last month, Tordoff was made an MBE at Buckingham Palace from Prince Charles for his services to business and the community in Nidderdale.

Keith was awarded an MBE last month.

Now he’s back in the nerve centre of his operations – a cramped office upstairs in The Oldest Sweet Shop In The World, which he and his wife Gloria have run on the High Street on Pateley Bridge for more than 20 years.

Squashed isn’t the word for it. There are cardboard boxes spilling out everywhere. Apparently the shop’s mail order business is booming.

Typical Keith. At the most solemn moment of the investiture, as Prince Charles was about to present him with the actual medal, he made the heir to the throne laugh, he tells me.

“Prince Charles had a little chuckle when I met him. I explained how the high street on Pateley Bridge was more buoyant than the rest of the country and the award was for all of Nidderdale. He said to me, ‘You’ve got the sweet shop’. I said, ‘I’ve got some sweets with me if you want one’.”

The 62-year-old has become a well-known local figure for his larger-than-life character and old-fashioned showman’s approach to the task of promoting the retail sector in tough modern times.

But it would be wrong to mistake Keith for someone who merely talks the talk.

It’s clear his success is the result of all the experiences from an action-packed life’s journey which has taken him from riot shields to a sweet shop in the Dales.

Born in Leeds, his love of Pateley Bridge may have begun as a lad when his parents would take him and his brother and sister to the Dales on days out.

But the first 22 years of his working life was spent in the police force in inner-city Leeds.

He worked through the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry and, as a young man, was the first uniformed officer on the scene at one of the killer’s victims at Scott Hall fields.

Having volunteered as a police cadet at the age of 17, Keith made rapid progress in the force, including spells in quick succession in the Vice Squad, CID and Special Branch.

It was a career he loved, one that saw him become a firearms specialist and, eventually, an acting inspector.

Keith says: “At school I only ever wanted to be a policeman. I was young and fit and strong and working a lot in Chapeltown. I wasn’t into the drinking culture that existed back then in the police force but I did love being in the police and I loved learning new skills.

“I’d go on raids at the house of an armed robber in the wee small hours. I faced people with guns. I was in car chases and riot situations. I got commendations and left with an exemplary service record.”

Keith met his wife Gloria on the day he joined the force. She, too, was a teenage police cadet and Keith had to ask her to borrow a pen.

Gloria left the force after giving birth to their son Alexander, now a fire officer at Summerbridge and Knaresborough.

Eventually, his experiences in the police took its emotional toll on Keith and the family, who were also about to find a new home in Bewerley in the Dales.

Keith says: “I was trained to do a job and for a long time I didn’t see the dangers. I was injured in the line of duty a few times. I once got so badly beaten up I had a spell in St James’s Hospital. It was very worrying for Gloria.”

After leaving the police in 1995 to study as a lawyer at Leeds Metropolitan University, he gave up his academic studies to become an investigator for the Bank of Scotland.

It was a home-based job, which meant, firstly, he and Gloria could take over the sweet shop in Pateley Bridge he had loved so much as a boy.

Secondly, it meant he could also get involved with Nidderdale Chamber of Trade. During his first spell as chairman from 1998, the dynamic Keith helped drive membership up from 20 to 120.

But that effort didn’t come without its cost.

Keith says: “I threw myself heart and soul into it but I realised what a commitment it was and what it was taking away from me, from time for my own business and family. I had to stop after five or six years.”

Keith rode out troubled times for the giants of the banking sector after the financial crash at first but eventually his job became the victim of one merger too many.

If his first run as chairman of Nidderdale Chamber of Trade had produced innovations such as making Pateley Bridge the first place in the UK with signs identifying individual businesses, things have really taken off since he got back in the saddle in 2011.

Keith says: “When I realised what Pateley Bridge and the chamber itself was turning into, I had to do something.”

Not only has Keith thrown himself into raising Pateley Bridge and Nidderdale’s profile far and wide by entering – and winning – competitions like the Great British High Street, he and the hardworking members of Nidderdale Chamber of Trade have launched a series of new, visitor-friendly events which have transformed the town’s fortunes.

In all of this Keith has deployed his usual big-hearted charm and sense of humour.

But beware anyone tempted to say this is a triumph of personality.

He is convinced good things never happen unless you can reach out to community groups, businesses and politicians.

Keith says: “I’m not interested in the politics of the situation. I’m practical and flexible. I will work with anyone to get things done.”

That sort of approach has not only produced dividends for the Dales’ economy, it also means Keith and the chamber have built up a good relationship with Harrogate Bus Company to ensure Nidderdale has bus links to the outside world.

As for the future, Keith says he is always looking for new challenges and his first holiday for goodness knows how long is not on the cards yet.

“What people don’t understand is that I’ve been doing two or three things all my life,” he explains.

“I started working at 14. I’ve always worked in the sweet shop, at least at weekends.

“I’m proud of what I’ve done but I don’t have a day off and we haven’t been on holiday for 20 years.

“I get bored easily and always need a new project. I don’t think of retirement, I think of the next thing to do.

“I love my life. I love every day.”

Celebrity encounters part of the job

Enticing celebrities such as broadcaster Clare Balding to visit Pateley Bridge in person with film or radio crews in tow is only a small part of Keith’s style.

The man himself puts success in that area or the popular events he has helped to introduce such as the 1940s Weekend, Tour de Yorkshire, the Nidderdale Food & Drink Festival and Pateley’s Christmas celebration, down to his time in the police force.

Keith says: “I’ve got a fairly good understanding of organising large events from my days in the police. I’m also used to celebrities from policing gigs at Roundhay Park in Leeds with the likes of Madonna and the Rolling Stones. Phil Collins once flew into Meanwood Police Station by helicopter. I ended up waiting for him next to the loo!”