Village shops are often the heart of a rural community. Emily Scaife reports on how villagers took innovative steps to save their store and support local producers.
Arriving at Barford Village Shop, I am warned they are expecting a delivery any moment.
Sure enough, we soon hear the sound of a van pulling up and shop manager Corenna Jennings swings into action, making phone calls to the ‘troops’.
Straight away, helpers pile into the shop and begin unloading products – packs of tea, tins of beans and chocolate bars are all replenished.
The amount which had to be raised to make the dream a reality
The number of shares sold to villagers at £20 each
The number of volunteers
The number of people who use the shop every week
The amount donated to community projects
So far, so normal. Until you stop to consider the ‘troops’ are volunteers and the shop itself was created by a community which missed the interaction and sense of belonging a local store provides.
Amanda Griffin, one of the original group which spearheaded the project, says Barford, a village near Warwick in the Midlands, had a shop until 2006, until the couple who owned it decided to retire.
Attempts by the subsequent occupant to keep the shop in situ ultimately failed and the village, which is home to about 1,300 people, was left without a hub.
Amanda says: “People were not walking around the village anymore. Previously, a lot of people would go for a walk, pop into the shop and pick up a newspaper or post a letter, but once it closed down everyone was a bit more isolated.”
Kirsty Healey, another Barford resident involved in the project from day one, agrees: “When our village had no shop, only the dog walkers went anywhere.
Villagers never really met each other for the sort of casual chat we were used to.
“The village felt dead, but I wanted Barford children to have independence and freedom.”
The first meeting to discuss the issue was called in May 2006 at the village hall, where an action group was formed to explore the feasibility of residents creating a shop from scratch.
Villagers with specific skills were called on to help out – a chartered surveyor, builder, accountant – and Amanda was asked to get involved because of her experience in retail, having worked for Selfridges in London as a buying manager.
It became quickly apparent the only suitable course of action would be to build an annex to the village hall rather than purchase a property and attempt to convert it.
Of course, at some point all projects must turn their head to the dreary but necessary question of funding. And it is here Barford was particularly innovative.
The shop was set up as a Community Interest Company and Barford Community Charity was established.
Although the group went down the traditional route of securing a loan from a bank, it also applied received grants from the council and other organisations. But this was not all – every resident of the village was approached and asked to become a shareholder.
Altogether, about 500 shares were sold for £20 each to members of the village and wider farming community.
Amanda says: “Each person can only have one share, so we are all on an equal footing.”
The committee organised numerous fundraising activities, from dinner parties and sponsored walks to quizzes and fashion shows.
Finally, it raised loans from villagers to reach the £370,000 required. Raising funds was not the only thing the group had to do.
Once planning permission was granted in February 2007, the build went ahead without any signification problems and the shop was formally opened on November 1, 2008.
Amanda says: “It shows if people work together they can achieve something really quite amazing.”
This concept of working together did not end once the shop was up and running – today it is staffed by 80 volunteers.
More than 50 per cent of these are of retirement age, but volunteers of all ages help out, from teenagers completing the Duke of Edinburgh Award to students home from university for the holidays.
Amanda says: “Some volunteers are widowed, so it is nice for them because it puts them in touch with everyone in the village. “I have met loads of people through the shop.
My daughter is always saying I know everyone through it.” Kirsty says it is a great way for people to connect with others they might not naturally socialise with.
“The shop has become a central point for the village. Having volunteers, two to a shift, we encourage people to meet up outside their normal circles. You get to know someone quite well after spending three hours serving with them.”
The impact the shop has had cannot be underestimated. Such is its popularity, all loans required to get it up and running were paid back within 18 months of it opening.
Any profit generated now goes to the Barford Community Charity, which then funds other projects in the village. So far, the money has gone towards transforming the local playing field, investing in a new play area, two tennis courts and other amenities.
Amanda says: “The church has used some money to get new chairs, the school has had some for a new piano and it has bought some things for the Scout hut. “We also paid directly for a new flagpole and at Christmas we buy a Christmas tree for the village to put on the green.
We turn on the lights, sing carols and make everyone free hot chocolate in the shop.” The village rejuvenation extends to the surrounding area, as the committee is keen to support local producers.
As many items as possible are sourced from nearby butchers, breweries and grocers – a recipe for success, as store manager Corenna estimates the shop is visited by about 200 people a day.
She says: “The shop has made an amazing difference. It is a lifeline to some of our customers and is a great way to meet and make new friends.
“This is a great village where people are not afraid to stand together and get things done.” But would this work elsewhere? Amanda thinks so.
She says: “I would definitely recommend it to other villages. If you have people who are willing to do a lot of hard work to get it going and keep it going for the first couple of years, do it.
It does make a big difference.”