Together at Christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, the song says of Christmas. And you can bet that we’ll all be doing our best to make sure 2020 is no different.

 

It’s a time of goodwill to all, of carols, festive food and drink and swapping gifts with those we love as tokens of how much they mean to us.
That goodwill often manifests itself in acts of community kindness. A perfect example is Together at Christmas, where a group of extraordinary volunteers provide a three-course meal on Christmas Day for more than 100 people from Bridgnorth and the surrounding area, who would otherwise spend this special occasion alone.
This year should have been the eighth gathering but coronavirus restrictions have put paid to any plans for a large gathering. Undeterred, the volunteers still plan to offer meals – and much-valued human contact – by delivering to homes.
One of the main organisers Derek Bartlett says, “We had 120 people sit down to eat last year but, with the situation as it is, it makes no sense to plan to have a central meal this year. But we feel it is important to keep it going and home deliveries seem the best answer.”
Operations will be centred around Mike and Sarah’s Butchers in Whitburn Street, Bridgnorth, with meals cooked then loaded into volunteers’ cars at the rear. “We have a professional kitchen and volunteers ready to drive the food out. It will be a big operation but we are determined to make it work,” Derek adds.
Christmas is, of course, when the world of retail and commerce flourishes more than at any other time – a case of jingling tills as well as bells. Some businesses – particularly small independents and sole traders – have come to depend on it for their viability.
We all treasure those little family businesses that have operated in our town for generations, where not just money and goods are exchanged but so much more. Such as smiles, personal service, help and friendship, where staff invariably address their loyal customers by name.

Out of the ordinary

 

Christmas shopping in 2020 is bound to feel out of the ordinary as Covid-restrictions continue to alter the way we live. But there seems no reason, unless things change drastically, that we can’t don our masks, keep a considerate distance from our fellow shoppers and hit the High Street as we always have done.
We at WW! have made it our mission this year to champion our local traders. In the last issue our Love Local feature welcomed home-grown businesses out of the national lockdown and now we are showcasing them once again. They are the lifeblood of our towns and villages. In some cases they have been there for us for decades. Now, we can be there for them. Loyalty has never held a greater value.
Whitburn Street, Brigdnorth is home to many small independents
When life gets tough, dreams of a happier place become more important. And dreams can be found in Bridgnorth. Dreams Kitchens and Bathrooms, that is. Its stylish showroom has seen a steady stream of visitors since lockdown as people look to brighten their homes with a state-of-the-art new kitchen or a swish bathroom suite.
You can certainly allow your imagination to soar in here, where there is an expansive and eye-catching range of kitchens and bathrooms, arranged over two floors. As well as a fully-fitted working kitchen, there is a huge choice of tiles, worktops and kitchen and bathroom accessories.
Manager Ben Jones is not surprised that interest has increased since lockdown measures eased. He reflects, “People were confined to the house for long periods during lockdown and areas that, perhaps, looked a little tired, became more noticeable. They had time to think about improvements and the opportunity to plan them carefully. Many people couldn’t go on their holiday because of travel restrictions and decided to spend the money on their home instead.”
Dreams is part of TG Builders merchants, a family firm steeped in Shropshire. One of the UK’s leading independent suppliers of construction materials, waste management and recycling, it was founded nearly 150 years ago near Oswestry by William Griffiths and it is still owned by the same family.

 

TD Dreams Kitchens and Bathrooms was launched in 2004 within Oswestry’s TG Builders Merchants premises. It moved to a new standalone showroom in May 2017, winning the Kitchen & Bathroom Showroom of the Year 2019 at the prestigious Builders Merchants News national industry awards.

In February 2018 a second showroom was opened in Northwich, Cheshire, then in October 2019, Bridgnorth became the third showroom to open, at the TG site off Stourbridge Road. Unluckily, two months after its opening ceremony in January, lockdown arrived.

 

“We chose to open in Bridgnorth because of its reputation as a fantastic town with people who seem to value their local businesses.”

 

Ben says, “Initially we were very busy and then lockdown came in March. Since we came back, we’ve not seen a slump, which is very encouraging. We chose to open Dreams in Bridgnorth because of its reputation as a fantastic town with people who seem to value their local businesses. That certainly seems to be the case.”

Ben is now braced for the traditional festive rush as home-owners treat themselves to a new kitchen for Christmas.

 

Golden flames

There is nothing like toasting your toes in front of the crackling golden flames of a traditional open fire or log burner on Christmas Eve as snow falls outside. And a Bridgnorth family firm has literally been fuelling this simple pleasure for nearly 100 years.

Seal Fuels Ltd sells a full range of solid fuels, including coal and logs, as well as kindling, firelighters and various accessories. Autumn and winter are, as you can imagine, the business’ busiest time, with spring and summer revenue driven by sales of bottled gas to Bridgnorth’s many tourists. Except this year there were no tourists.

 

Richard at Seal Fuels in Bridgnorth keeping our homes warm and cosy for Christmas

“The campers and caravaners couldn’t come because of the lockdown, so it’s been a difficult year,” explains owner Richard Mansell. “It’s a seasonal business anyway but the lockdown has made it more difficult. I’ve stayed open throughout, though, because there will always be people who need fuel, even during a hot summer,” adds Richard, whose grandfather founded the business in 1925, across the road from its present location of Station Lane, next to the Severn Valley Railway station. Richard took over from his dad Derek in 2002.

 

With Seal entering his busiest season – October to April –Richard is looking forward to meeting up again with his many regular customers. “I have a lot of lovely customers, many of whom are like friends. This is such a beautiful town full of really nice people.”

Ironbridge is a tourist hotspot so, even with government restrictions in place, visitors have continued to flock there post-lockdown.

Alex Nicholls, who runs The White Hart restaurant and bat and its neighbour, The Water Rat inn, on The Wharfage, says there has been a brisk trade.

“We’ve had a bumper summer and even September was busy. What we have learnt is that when the rules allow people to get out, they want to go out. And perhaps if people don’t go out as much as they did, then quality becomes more important.

“We were doing very well before lockdown but, when the industry closed down for three months, we couldn’t be sure that people would come back to us. We are delighted that they have. Considering that The Water Rat only opened in July, it has been a great success.

“We are putting our Christmas offers out there and we shall have to see how much we are allowed to do. But as a business, we take the long view. ”

 

Chris and Anna outside their recently opened restaurant The Royale in Bridgnorth’s High Street

Chris and Anna Walsh, who run The Royale in High Street, Bridgnorth, have likewise been busy and are pleased with how staff and customers have adapted to restrictions like social distancing, mask-wearing and the booking system.

“It’s been brilliant,” says Chris. “We’ve been pretty much full every night we’ve opened and weekends are fully booked for the next six weeks or so.”

A craving for some kind of normality amid the restrictions on our lives was never more apparent than in our pursuit of the simple pleasures – like enjoying a cuppa with friends. And that’s just what Lynwen Bowen, from Ironbridge, Emma Brown from Bridgnorth and Cheryl Roberts, of Shrewsbury, were doing in Tea On The Square in Much Wenlock.

 

Tea on the Square, Much Wenlock L-R, Lynwen Bowen (from Ironbridge), Emma Brown (Bridgnorth) and Cheryl Roberts (Shrewsbury), work friends meeting up for a coffee

This is what would have been described as a ‘cosy teashop’ pre-Covid but the threat of the virus means we can’t do ‘cosy’ just at present.  However, even with tables further apart and screens and staff in masks and visors, there is still a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

Proprietor Sue Perkins says, “We can normally seat 26 but we’ve reduced that to a maximum of 14. Our priority has been making people safe but we also want them to feel also relaxed and comfortable. Wenlock has a very good community which has been very supportive. We also get a lot of visitors so it has kept us busy.”

Lynwen adds, “It’s great to meet up for a coffee and a chat. These kinds of things are important.”

 

Feel-good factor

Something else that we, perhaps, took for granted before lockdown, is visiting the hairdresser – as witnessed by the stampede when they were allowed to reopen. You can’t underestimate the feel-good factor of getting a new look courtesy of a talented hair stylist.

Mel Tabbron, who runs Envision in Much Wenlock, has not been short of custom over the past two or three months. “When we reopened, it seemed like everybody had to come in. It’s slowed down a little since then but we are still keeping busy,” she says.

 

Mel at Envision Hair in Much Wenlock

“We are usually pretty busy in the run up to Christmas with all the parties. No one knows yet what will happen but I think people will still want to look their best however they celebrate Christmas.”

Mel is styling customer Jenny, who attests to that feel-good factor, adding: “I’ve been in a couple of times. It’s nice to feel more like me.”

Those looking to celebrate Christmas in a new home are certainly house-hunting at the right time. The housing market has rarely been more buoyant, with thousands of pounds of savings on offer thanks to the government’s stamp duty holiday. Estate Agent Nock Deighton, which has branches in Bridgnorth, Ironbridge, Ludlow, Telford, Newport and Kidderminster, plus a land and new homes department, has seen a big rise in deals.

“All our offices are busy and the ratio between viewings and sales is high,” says Matt James, of the company’s Ironbridge office. “Customers are able to tour a property virtually online and make an initial decision on whether it is what they are looking for. If it is, then they can visit for a viewing.

 

Nock Deighton has been busy thanks to the stamp duty holiday

“The stamp duty holiday was brought in as a stimulus to the property industry and it’s certainly worked. On a £500,000 property you can save around £15,000, which is a big saving.”

Art and culture – the appreciation and feeding of creativity – can play a large part in mental welfare.

“During lockdown, a lot of people suddenly had the time for hobbies and interests like painting,” says Sarah Morris, who runs Ironbridge Fine Arts and Framing with her sister Jenny Gunning.

 

Sarah Morris and Jenny Gunning at their gallery in Ironbridge

The gallery encourages many local artists. Its current exhibition, running from September to December, features the work of 16 painters, mostly local with a few from further afield.

“It can be hard to get your work shown so we always try to provide a platform here,” Sarah adds.

As well as the very stylish fine art gallery – a lovely space in which to wander and view some very original and accomplished work – the complex, in the Merrythought Village, also has a print-making studio. It is well worth a visit, whether to view the current exhibition or see the Christmas one which starts in December. In these tough times, why not nourish your soul?

 

Alastair Humphries, Michael Baugh and Eric Humphries in Much Wenlock

Talking of culture, the world of literature also enriches our lives and what a joy it is to find a example of a dying breed, the independent bookshop. Much More Books, in Much Wenlock’s High Street, is packed with floor to ceiling shelves crammed with colourful and intriguing volumes on all subjects. It also sells CDs and DVDs.

“People love to come in and browse,” says Liz Baugh who, behind the screened counter, is there to offer help and advice as well as complete sales. “People will quite often come in to look for one thing and go away with something completely different.”

A theme running through this article is community spirit and nowhere is that more in evidence than in Broseley.

 

“Broseley is a very friendly town. We probably know 95% of our customers.”

 

On the day that What’s What! visited, a group of volunteers were bedding in winter plants to brighten the town centre. The Broseley in Bloom organisation has had notable success in the past, winning the title of Best Small Town and also a gold award in the Heart of England in Bloom competition. The group is as strong as ever, with around 30 volunteers to call on and there is an annual plant sale which raises around £1,000.

“People help in many ways, not just with tending the displays,” says Gillian Pope, who was busy planting along with fellow volunteers Lesley Leek, Sue Mattock, Dot Cox and Roger Knight.

“In autumn we are out winter planting and in spring we do our summer planting. My wife Blandine is the main volunteer in our house but when she can’t make it, she sends me,” says Roger with a smile. “This place has a real sense of community. We moved up from Maidstone and it’s the best thing we did.”

 

Volunteers brightening up Broseley’s town centre

 

Different experiences

In the High Street, we happen across David Springett, who is having a conversation outside the ironmongery and hardware store with its owner James Eardley. Both men are in their mid-70s, but with very different experiences of Broseley.

“I’ve lived here all my life and first started helping at this shop in 1954 when I was 12. I know loads of people and most of my customers,” James explains. By contrast, David only moved to Broseley six years ago from down south. And he loves it.

 

David Springett and hardware store owner James Eardley

“I don’t drive but it doesn’t matter because Broseley has everything I need. It’s got great shops and people are very friendly. I’ve moved from a place with no community spirit to one with a great community spirit,” he adds.

The pet store next door, Four Paws, illustrates the longevity and adaptability of stores in Broseley. In the past 100 years, the building, which dates back to 1762, has been a stationer’s, registrar, post office, gift shop, flower shop, clothes shop and latterly a pet store. In its latest guise it bustles with custom.

“It was frantic during lockdown,” says proprietor Chris Jones. “People are buying pets because, for some people, they have more time to look after them and pets can be great for your mental wellbeing, which is important just at the moment. It is important, though, to continue to look after them when you are back at work, aren’t at home as often and have less time.”

Chris says the local community is very supportive of the town’s retailers, giving him and his wife the confidence to invest in the future of the business with a brand new pet grooming parlour.

Broseley has a sloping High Street, lined either side by historic architecture, and at the top of the rise is fruit and vegetable grocers Downes. “We can see everything that goes on from here,” says Myra Downes with a broad smile. She runs the business with her brother Nick and the shop is another fondly-regarded fixture in Broseley life.

“We’ve been here 33 years and have a great relationship with the town,” Myra says. “We are local anyway so very committed to the area. We do deliveries to people in the town and beyond. Broseley has so many excellent independent businesses. It’s quite an old-fashioned town, in a good way. Everything local people could want is on their doorstep, which makes it very convenient for people to shop here. And it is a very friendly town. We probably know 95 per cent of our customers.”

 

John Adams is the fourth generation of family business, Perry & Phillips Funeral Director

 

Never is the caring face of a community more in evidence than when we lose someone dear to us. In the worst moments, the support of funeral directors who are an integral part of their town, can provide genuine comfort. Perry and Phillips have been in Bridgnorth since 1835 and John Adams is the fourth generation of his family to be involved in the business.

“This year has been challenging because of the restrictions and it can be about coming up with something different,” says John. At the funeral of a keen cyclist, for instance, mourners followed on cycles because distancing rules meant the limousine was out of bounds.

 

Bridgnorth, of course, is celebrated for having a High and Low Town but, in fact, has plenty to offer on many levels.

 

Viv at Love your Blind’s Bridgnorth showroom

 

Delicious fizz

For those looking for a delightful dining experience, Peepo cafe and bar on High Street offers a lovely option, while for that choice of a nice bottle to accompany Christmas lunch or delicious fizz to celebrate the season, Tanners Wine Merchants – also in High Street – is a family firm steeped in Shropshire history.

 

Phillip Jeffrey, Peepo, Bridgnorth

Roobarb, in Waterloo Terrace, is a charming gift shop with a wide range including homeware, fashion , ceramics and gift ideas for children.

Looking after your health is always important and caring for your eyesight is an essential part of that. Bridgnorth is fortunate to have Evenett Optometry in Listley Street. Run by optician Stephen Evenett, it has been established for more than 25 years and offers an individualised eye care service, using state of the art technology. There is a huge selection of spectacle frames, from budget to designer, and an expert contact lens service.

 

Julia Evenett and Liz Tibble at Steven Evenett Opticians

More people than ever have been improving their homes this year, with Paul Morris, owner of Love Your Blinds in Bridgnorth, estimating business is up by up to 50 per cent compared to the same time last year. He also notes that the value of the orders is higher.

He says, “Customers want more expensive remote-controlled shutters, rather than just a roller blind in a bathroom.  Money families would have spent on a holiday they are spending on their homes.”

 

Tourist hotspot

Shropshire is, of course, a tourist hotspot and few attractions are a bigger magnet for visitors in normal times than Severn Valley Railway, the heritage line that runs steam engines and carriages from Bridgnorth to Kidderminster. It is a perfect example of how much our county has to offer the leisure industry.

Meanwhile, back in Much Wenlock, we met four times former mayor Eric Humphries. He runs an electrical business with son Alastair and they are working on lighting in the square, while chatting to carpenter Michael Baugh.

 

“We support the local traders and they support us. It’s a very close-knit community which is a great strength”

 

Eric, mayor in 1987-88, 1993-94, 1999-2000 and 2006-07, has no doubt of the value of independent local businesses to a community.

“We support the local traders and they support us. It is a very close-knit community which is a great strength.”

And the final word on the value of localism goes to Bill Hague and his wife Jane, who we happen across shopping in Much Wenlock’s High Street.

Bill says: “When all this started, we decided not to use big supermarkets and shop locally. Why travel when you have everything you need here.”

 

Bill and Jane Hague, Much Wenlock

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