Northside - Andrew Martin remembers dandelion and burdock

I liked dandelion and burdock. There was nothing humorous in it at all

One of the best museums I've been to is Queen Street Mill, Burnley, a preserved cotton mill. If you're the only visitor, the staff will undertake to start up the steam engine that powers the looms. When you look at the huge driving wheel and consider that a man in the boiler room is going to have to become very dirty to set it moving, you feel like saying, "Oh, please don't bother on my account," but they always do.

On sale in the cafe are typical millworkers' drinks of Victorian and Edwardian times. One is dandelion and burdock. This was always available in fish-and-chip shops in my Yorkshire boyhood, where, because it contained essence of flowers, it was regarded as more wholesome than a can of Coke, just as a deep-fried pineapple fritter was the healthy alternative to a battered saveloy.

There are many producers of dandelion and burdock, which is mainly available in the north. If you see it in the south, it's usually labelled D&B. This is produced by A G Barr, which couldn't trademark the generic name dandelion and burdock so came up with this abbreviation, which sounds more thrusting and futuristic, just as "DLT" is self-evidently more contemporary in feel than stodgy, patrician "Dave Lee Travis".

A G Barr also produced Irn-Bru, another northern drink in the sense that it was created in Glasgow in 1901, and is the biggest-selling grocery brand in Scotland. Its PR people are keen to stress that it is also popular in England, but I associate it with the ad slogan of a few years back: "Made in Scotland from girders", which was a bit of an exaggeration, as it actually contains 0.125mg of iron per fluid ounce. The other ingredients are a secret, known only to two Barr directors, and, moreover, the name of one of them is a secret.

Barr now makes Tizer, also thought of as northern. It was invented in Manchester in 1924 by a man with the appropriate name - given the association with healthiness that British soft drinks manufacturers have always sought - of Fred Pickup.

Then there's Vimto, also created in Manchester - in 1908. This is made by Nichols plc, and was another regular in Yorkshire chippies of the 1970s. Today, it is the subject of an ad campaign featuring the whimsical stick figure Purple Ronnie, repeatedly described in Nichols's literature (to the point, in fact, where you want to top yourself) as "fun-loving".

Purple Ronnie epitomises the "fun and fruitiness of Vimto", while Tizer supplies, according to Barr, "extremely humorous idents" on a Saturday morning TV programme, and the Irn-Bru brand has a "quirky, humorous style".

But what I liked about dandelion and burdock was that there was nothing humorous about it at all.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The time of fear