HOW does a person come to be a collector of sugar packets, those most ephemeral pieces of ephemera?
After all, most of us only look at them for long enough to dump their contents in a cup of coffee or tea and screw them up into a little ball of paper.
There are as many answers to this question as there are collectors. Val Green from Chiseldon began casually in 1998 during a trip to the Rugby World Cup in France with husband Dave. She gathered a series of souvenir packets with pictures of the French team.
Then, two years later, something else happened.
“The collecting didn’t really take off until 2000,” she said. “I had breast cancer.
“I had six months of chemotherapy and friends would cheer me up by saying ‘Let’s go out for coffee.’ “That’s when I started picking up packets from all the places they took me to. Great Britain doesn’t produce many sets of packets, but in 2000 there was one called the Millennium Set, a series of 50 distributed among restaurants and cafes.”
By the time she completed that set, which was themed around history and culture, the collecting bug had its teeth firmly into her. She now has 30,000 – which seems a lot until she reveals that other collectors across the world have millions.
Val is a 64-year-old retired primary school teacher and Dave, 65, is a financial advisor. The couple have four children and 10 grandchildren.
Like many collectors of anything from coins to comics, Val is a completist who enjoys the challenge of assembling complete sets, and the fact that most examples of the items she collects are thrown away merely adds to that challenge.
There are other satisfactions, too. “I find many of the packets’ designs artistic,” she said. “I have examples with paintings by Van Gogh and Monet.
“I’m also heavily into nature so I like ones with a nature theme.”
If a person takes the time to look, there is fascination and even beauty in many disposable items, and sugar packets are no exception.
Val’s collection, carefully filed in loose leaf binders, includes stunning nature photographs that are almost as vivid as slides. There are flags, maps, historical figures and incidents; sometimes designs are issued as jigsaw puzzles to be assembled packet by packet, coffee by coffee, tea by tea.
The history of design trends can be traced through decades’ worth of packets from department store cafes and fast food outlets.
Val even has packets from Travellers Fare, the old British Rail catering brand, bearing the scrolled legend: “100 Years of Refreshment 1879-1979.”
The albums contain packets from dozens of countries including just about everywhere in Europe plus places as diverse as the US, Italy, Tunisia, Japan, Israel, the tiny Pacific island of Palau and another island nation, Sao Tome and Principe, which lies off the coast of Central Africa.
On Saturday Val joined other collectors from across the country at Gorse Hill Baptist Church for the annual exchange day of the UK Sucrologists Club, an organisation with well over 200 members. Collectors came from across the country to swap their duplicates and catch up with other enthusiasts.
Sugar packets are often found on eBay and its competitor sites, but most hardcore collectors prefer to track down items themselves or by swapping. Buying packets is a bit like a birdwatcher ticking a species off by visiting a sanctuary instead of waiting in a hide.
Val is especially fond of visiting France, where new designs are issued constantly. The record weight of sugar in her luggage for the trip home was seven and a half kilos. The sugar is removed before packets are displayed.
Val anticipates the next question: “I make a lot of jam.”
She doesn’t eat too much of it, though, as seven years ago she was diagnosed with diabetes. The UK Sucrologists Club’s website is www.uksucrolo gistsclub.org.uk