On a grey morning in Wiltshire, around 60 villagers gather excitedly outside the front of an austere, old stone schoolhouse. The threat of impending rain fails to dampen their spirits, as they have all turned up to see their local MP cut the ribbon on the village’s first food store in six years.
The old store, now a private home a stone’s throw away, shut down as no one stepped forward to take over when the owner put up the ‘closed’ sign for good.
But now Steeple Ashton’s retail scene has been given a new lease of life at a 1,100 sq ft community-run shop - aptly named The Village Shop - which boasts a selection of locally sourced fresh produce, chilled and frozen foods and even an internet cafe.
It is the latest in a growing number of newly opened stores around the country that are aimed at proving that there is still a demand for the humble village shop.
Steeple Ashton’s store has been eagerly awaited after six years of meetings and fundraising enabled the village to secure a rural renaissance grant of £57,000 from the Wiltshire and Swindon Rural Regeneration Partnership to go with the £12,500 raised from villagers’ own pockets. It will be open 7.30am to 6.30pm on weekdays, for six hours from 8.30am on Saturdays and for a couple of hours on Sunday mornings.
The store, to be run by a salaried manager and a rota of volunteers, will be serviced by Jones Food Services, a family-owned wholesaler in nearby Midsomer Norton.
On the morning of the opening, villagers saunter in for a closer look as soon as local Tory MP Dr Andrew Murrison has declared the bunting-clad shop open for business. Within minutes, all the £3.50-a-jar pots of honey - supplied by 15-year-old local schoolboy Chris Wickham - have been snapped up and paid for by eager shoppers, while the store is also doing a roaring trade in locally baked bread, newspapers, milk and home-made pickles and chutneys.
As the excitement dies down, some of the more elderly shoppers decide to try out the new café, while a young suit-clad man kisses his wife and baby goodbye and jumps into his Porsche to set off for work. He is not the only one who has taken the morning off to attend the grand opening. Those who have decided to stay a while are certainly in no doubt as to what the new store will mean to them. Retired schoolteacher Colin Green says: “I think people will definitely use the store, particularly for top-up shopping. Some elderly people will also use it for all their shopping, as long as prices are competitive.”
John Pullen, a retired Ministry of Defence official, agrees that the shop will be a welcome plus to community life in Steeple Ashton. “It will be a meeting place for everyone, particularly with the cafe bar.”
His wife, Rosemary, is among those who are vocal about what robbed the village of its store in the first place. Despite its rural setting, the Tesco in Trowbridge is just three miles away, while Sainsbury in Marksham is a five-mile drive and Budgens and Coopers have stores two miles and six miles away. “I just feel that Tesco has taken over everything and it is a real shame that all these village shops have closed down,” says Rosemary.
However, Charlotte Boxall, a community retail adviser with the Village Retail Services Association (ViRSA), which advised the villagers in their quest to raise funds to open the store, says the reality of why village stores are closing is not so clear cut. While she acknowledges the impact of increased competition from supermarkets in rural areas, she claims there is a far more fundamental problem in village retailing.
“It’s true that a village store can be the heart of a community, but it is essential to have a good manager or owner,” says Boxall. “Some people have bought into village retailing towards the end of their working lives but not really understood what it is all about. The success of a local shop is more down to the person or people who are running it than to the store’s location or size.”
Local businesswoman Dawn Galey, who runs her own chain of kiosks, including one at nearby Westbury station, and will be the store’s manager, says: “This is about offering convenience and a special service that people can’t get anywhere else. It’s not about competing with the supermarkets.”
Boxall agrees. “It is not simply a case of Tesco killing off the village shop. Yes, they are cheaper on core products, but with a longer shopping list you often find the supermarkets are not always that much cheaper.”
Indeed, ViRSA figures show that average spend per visit in village stores is now £4.80, at an impressive margin of 18%. Adding other offers into the mix, such as home deliveries and helping older shoppers, also creates a point of difference and ensures that customers keep coming back, says Boxall.
Nevertheless, ViRSA’s number-crunching suggests that as many of 5%, or 150, of the 3,000 remaining rural shops in England will close by the end of this year, although the 150 community stores the association has helped to get up and running over the past decade are helping to buck the trend.
A community effort
Gaelle Walker explains how small can become beautiful
The story of The Etchingham Community Stores is one of triumph over adversity. Its white, wood-panelled building had stood proudly for 150 years until five years ago, when the residents of the West Sussex village watched in horror as it was wrecked by flooding. Heavy rains had swelled the small stream which snakes its way behind the store into a raging torrent, submerging the entire village, including the church and store, under three feet of muddy flood water.
The store was so badly damaged that the then owner decided not to re-open, leaving Etchingham without a village store for the first time since 1851. It sparked an instant reaction. Not only had the community lost a much-valued meeting point, but the nearest food store was 10 miles away.
“Public transport isn’t great in Etchingham, so the absence of a local store caused a serious problem for many residents without cars and some of the elderly,” says Etchingham’s Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator, Colin Boylett. Concerned villagers contacted Boylett about re-opening the store, an idea that received full support from the local Parish Council.
Etchingham’s residents pulled together and, with the help of the Sussex Rural Community Council and the Village Retail Services Association (ViRSA), a business plan for the community to buy and run the store was drawn up - and the Etchingham Community Shop Association was born.
Countless meetings and negotiations later, 350 villagers purchased £10 shares in the store and, along with additional funding from Rother District Council, the South East England Development Agency and The Countryside Agency, the premises were bought by the association in March 2003.
After months of backbreaking work to strip the building and rebuild the damaged sections, the store was refitted in time for its opening this summer on June 14.
“Traffic in the village was literally brought to a standstill, as a huge crowd of local residents gathered to witness the opening,” says Boylett, who is now involved in running and managing the store.
Jane Webb, the store’s current manager, adds: “Everybody was thrilled that all the hours of hard work had paid off and that the community had its store back.”
Today, The Etchingham Community Stores has a long list of unpaid volunteers who assist in its day-to-day running. “We are so grateful to our unpaid volunteers. Not only do they keep costs down, but, as most are local residents, they create a wonderful community atmosphere,” says Webb.
The store is trading well and helps to repay the community by selling a variety of locally produced goods, including ale, pies, cakes cheeses and honey. It also provides a range of services such as dry cleaning, mobile phone top-ups and on-site photograph processing. The rooms above the store are used for gatherings, including the shop association’s monthly meetings. There are even four computers, donated by residents, for public internet access.
“The Etchingham Community Stores is so much more than just a shop,” says Webb. “It is a place where people can stop for a chat and catch up on local news and gossip. It really is at the heart of Etchingham.”