Every week in the UK, rural communities are losing their resources. Local bank branches, post offices, village shops, and even cash machines are disappearing at a rapid pace, often leaving the communities they’ve served for generations isolated and hopeless. The lockdown and cost-of-living crises have accelerated this trend, each dealing a hammer blow to small businesses.
The green shoots of hope, however, are there for those who know where to find them. Across the country enterprising shopkeepers and communities are fighting back. By putting customers first and going above and beyond, they’re proving that an older, gentler way of life is not dead yet.
Look no further than the finalists of the village shop category at this year’s Countryside Alliance Awards (often called the “rural Oscars”) which is sponsored by the Daily Telegraph.
Each of the shops described below was a regional winner that went on to compete for the national title; more importantly, each is a reminder that good people and hard work can offer a lifeline to rural communities.
Bayview Stores, Solva, Pembrokeshire, Wales (UK champion)
“I often think I’m the luckiest man in the world – I get up and I am excited about coming to work, I have a fantastic view over the bay every day – how lucky can you get?” says 56-year-old Gwyn Price, the owner of Bayview Stores.
Having worked in his parents’ shops since leaving school, he has plenty of experience. He’s been in the harbour village of Solva for 25 years now and watched the shop grow with him.
“We try to do everything as locally as we can,” says Price. “We do local crab, a milk machine filled up by the local farm, local sandwiches, local jams and marmalades. I am always trying to share the wealth around the village as much as I can.”
Every day Price entertains his patrons with quirky sandwich board signs outside. Snow warning in the news? “Snow coming, panic buy here.” Coronation? “Charles: Fancy a quickie? Camilla: I believe it’s pronounced ‘quiche’.” Arrival of the summer fishing tourists? “Don’t eat bad seafood, it’ll make you feel a little eel.”
But during lockdown he got serious about tackling local poverty too. His Cwtch Scheme allows the most vulnerable members of the community to drop off or pick up free food and drinks as and when they are needed from a discreet shed outside the shop.
“I might never make a fortune from doing this,” he says, “but I make a living and I have the most wonderful life.”
19 Maes Ewan, Solva, Haverfordwest SA62 6TX
West Meon Community Shop Ltd, West Meon, Hampshire, South East (UK highly commended)
Staff at West Meon Community Shop often find themselves struggling to get a day of work done, so beloved are they by the people in the village.
“I’m supposed to be in the office doing all the boring bits – all the ordering, the accounts, things like that – but I tend to get a little bit distracted,” says Rachell Barnet, the manager for the last six years, with a laugh. “My office is by the till so when people come in they chat with me, and I stick my head out and say hello to everyone. So I do get distracted a lot and spend a lot of time chatting.”
West Meon is a popular village for tourists, but having a community shop run by local volunteers has kept the heart in the community. “It’s the place where people congregate, chat, catch up on the village gossip,” says Barnet. “If people need to find out good places to walk or what time the doctor’s office opens, or what the special in the pub is – they come in here and ask all the questions.”
During the pandemic, the shop’s staff went the extra mile quite literally, offering a collection service as well as delivering orders in their own cars, picking up customers’ prescriptions, and sending their post for them.
Since then the personal service has continued. Shoppers are helped with carrying their bags to the car, freely avail themselves of the on-site lending library, or just sit and chat with the staff who they can be sure will greet them by name and with a friendly smile.
14 High St, West Meon, Petersfield GU32 1LJ
Burscough Bridge Post Office, Burscough, Lancashire, North of England
Though it looks unassuming from the outside, the little post office tucked away on Burscough’s village high street is the centre of an empire. From here, postmaster Craig Greenhalgh operates no less than 18 outreach village post offices, pioneering a way forward for the future of mail.
“The next village to ours, Rufford, had a post office for decades but it closed in 2006 because there simply weren’t enough people to make it viable,” Greenhalgh explains. “But there’s still a need for post offices in rural villages, so every Tuesday from 11am until 3pm we open a pop-up post office on their canal marina, allowing villagers, boaters, and local businesses to bank, withdraw money, send post, or buy cards – we even operate a dry-cleaning service.”
Every week, Greenhalgh and his team drive an estimated 700 miles around some of the most isolated and vulnerable communities in Lancashire bringing these vital services with them. “It’s enough for the community without being unaffordable,” he says.
“My customers are what I’m most grateful for, they are always so thankful for us being there for them, for not abandoning their communities,” Greenhalgh adds. “It can be very moving. We have one outreach office at a place called Calder Vale which is so isolated they don’t even have phone signal – there’s no passing traffic. It’s got a population of about 200 people – the nearest shop is five miles away. For some people there, we’re the only people they speak to all week when they come to do their pensions. It’s an honour to serve them.”
35 Liverpool Rd N, Burscough, Ormskirk L40 0SA
Humbie Hub, Humbie, East Lothian, Scotland
The shop and post office in the hamlet of Humbie, just South East of Edinburgh, have been in situ since the beginning of the last century, though in recent years they’ve been through the wars, shuffling between fair-weather owners who would flee at the first sign of trouble.
That all ended in 2013 when the shop’s current owners decided to transform the buildings into a community shop, café, studio space, and holiday let.
“That was their ethos, to give something to the community,” says Morag Taylor, who grew up in Humbie and was parachuted in from Edinburgh to manage the shop where she’s been ever since. “The goal was: Save the shop, save the post offices, and give the community somewhere to meet, get together and give young people job opportunities. There’s no public transport here so it gives older people a place to meet for lunch or a coffee.”
That goal has been a resounding success where the local care home can bring residents for lunches, the WI meets in the café in the evenings, and the hamlet’s most isolated residents are always welcome for a cup of coffee and a cake after their shopping.
Local craftspeople and food makers are front and centre, and during lockdown locals came to realise what a resource the shop was. “I think a lot of people realised what they’d been missing by shopping at these huge supermarkets,” says Taylor. “A lot of people have come in since then and told me that they used to live in the area, their granny or granddad visited the shop as it was then. I love listening to all their stories about what it was like and things and who shopped here.”
Upper Keith, Humbie EH36 5PJ
Bledington Community Shop, Bledington, Gloucestershire, South West
The clue is in the name here: getting this shop off the ground was a truly community effort as the villagers of Bledington in Gloucestershire hosted fundraisers and cake sales to buy their local shop and turn it around.
The shop finally opened in November 2019, opened by sometime Telegraph columnist Prue Leith, who was a neighbour and enthusiastic supporter.
“We are very much for supporting other local businesses,” says villager and shop manager, Sarah Newton. “Our bread comes from a company based in Chipping Norton, our meat comes from a local butcher in Moreton-in-Marsh; our chocolate comes from a handmade company in Stow-on-the-Wold; we have flour, jam, beer, eggs, fruit and vegetables, even our own gin which you can only buy in the shop.”
Just a few fields over from Lady Bamford’s Daylesford and Jeremy Clarkson’s Diddly Squat, Bledington Community Shop has no shortage of “friendly rivals – emphasis on friendly,” says Newton. But what makes it different is that it emphasises the village it serves equally to tourists, allowing them to shop locally with the finest quality products.
“Everybody knows everybody’s name, and they can come and sit and chat,” says Newton. “We have some elderly people in the village and we might be their only contact for the day. So I make sure to ask them if they’re okay, if they’d like to talk, or ask if I can help them with their letters or anything. I hope everyone recognises us as a place they can come if they need help, whatever that is. That’s what I’m very proud of, there’s a lovely sense of community here.”
Church St, Bledington, Chipping Norton OX7 6XB
Elton Village Store, Elton, Cambridgeshire, East of England
Having previously built up a successful high-end hair salon, Stephen Higgins and his husband Ravi were looking for a “complete lifestyle change” when they discovered Elton Village Store, five years ago.
The shop had once been a vibrant hub of the community, but had fallen into disarray under the previous owners and closed nine months before. It would be up to Higgins and his husband to turn it around.
“We refurbished it completely: new shelves, new flooring, new lighting – the works,” says Higgins. “And the community welcomed us with open arms. It’s more than just a job to run the shop, Elton is our home; we live here, we see everyone at the pub, we work with local charities, and support local people. With the price of everything going up, it’s hard running a small business but the village has rallied around us.”
While high-end, top-quality local produce has been key, Higgins finds himself forever being told how much villagers appreciate their new shopkeepers personally. “Even if they’re just coming in for a pint of milk they can be in our shop for an hour chatting, we are friendly, talkative people anyway but there’s an added responsibility when you’re a local village shopkeeper to make sure everyone is welcomed and feels it is a place for them,” he explains.
Now they’ve opened a new salon in Elton and are looking to continue with the success they’ve found already. “We’re a business but we’re community-led, we don’t see ourselves as just a shop. You’re almost a social worker, a friend, a teacher, you’re a point of call. We want to be the place people ring when they need some information or need to contact someone – they know we’ll be able to help.”
7 Middle St, Elton, Peterborough PE8 6RA
Daybreak Services, Packington, Leicestershire, Midlands
Since opening in 1989, Daybreak Services – a village shop and fruit and vegetable wholesaler – has always been a family affair. Since he could walk, Joe Swift has been following in the footsteps of his dad, Pete, helping to take the shop from strength to strength.
“My dad is 68 now and he can still run rings around me on certain things,” Swift says. “To see the way my dad thrives off it is incredible. He’s an enormously generous man: if someone forgets their wallet, he’s happy for them to come back and pay tomorrow. A customer spending 50p is worth as much to him as anyone else, he just loves it.”
Daybreak Services sells “everything except alcohol, and I really mean that,” says Swift, who reveals the shop is so beloved that he has been recognised while holidaying on the opposite side of the country as “that man who runs the shop near Leicester with his dad.”
While the supermarkets are taking a lot of the business of local shops like theirs, Swift believes it’s the personal touch and the enthusiasm which sets Daybreak Services apart. “Every day we’re like ‘Come on, big boys, let’s see what you’ve got! We do a lot for our village – we support the Phoenix Charity Group which runs a farm for disabled children, we do repairs and handyman jobs for people in the village, we sponsor anything local that we can, we check in on our elderly customers if we haven’t seen them in a few days. We’re a tight-knit village, we look after each other.”
3A High St, Packington, Ashby-de-la-Zouch LE65 1WJ
The national winners of this year’s Countryside Alliance Awards were announced at a reception at the House of Lords on 17 May; countryside-alliance.org