Suffolk's community shops - use them, or lose them
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
While the majority of us hid away in the depths of the Covid lockdowns, taking to gardening, baking banana bread and bingeing on the latest box sets...for others, it was a period of action.
Alongside health workers, carers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers and many many more, there was a quieter faction, squirreling away in our villages and hamlets.
An army of staunch volunteers who, despite many unknowns, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, dedicated their time to keeping our communities ticking over.
They work tirelessly in the shadows, in tiny rooms and halls, vacant Post Offices and long-abandoned village shops, taking daily bread and milk deliveries, checking in on the vulnerable or observing their absence – often necessitating a call to ‘make sure everything’s all right’.
These are the merry band who fuel our community shops. And they need your support. Next time you’re passing by and need a loaf, a paper, a block of Cheddar, a cool drink or an ice cream...make sure you stop and say hello. They’re a friendly bunch!
Somersham Community Shop
A week ago this marvellous little shop, found in the centre of Somersham and serving an area that includes Offton, Flowton, Willisham, Elmsett and others, marked a decade of being open.
- 1 Teenager sexually assaulted and then robbed in Ipswich
- 2 'He'd be dead' - mum's terror after wave drags her and baby down beach
- 3 GALLERY: Photos show devastating aftermath of huge fire near Ipswich
- 4 Travellers pitch up in one of Ipswich's busiest parks
- 5 Smoke seen across Ipswich as crews tackle large fire
- 6 Teenager’s 10 year sentence is warning over ‘horrendous’ acid attacks
- 7 Ongoing heathland blaze sees 147 calls made to fire service
- 8 Open air theatre coming to Ipswich park later this month
- 9 Redundant care home being used as homes applying for planning after 5 years
- 10 One of the world's largest container ships arrives at Port of Felixstowe
Manager Jennie Hutchinson, who grew up in the house next but one along, returned to Somersham five years ago and was keen to get stuck in, supporting what she says is truly a lifeline for those who live out in the ‘sticks’ - even more so when March 2020 came around.
“It was so important in Covid,” she says. “Some volunteers had to step away, understandably, as they were shielding, but we had volunteers who were couples and happy to work together. We did quite a bit at that time. When people couldn’t get flour, we bought in big sacks and locals would come in with tubs to top up. And I think they found comfort in the support we offered.”
On a good day, perhaps two buses will pass through the village into Ipswich. Otherwise, locals rely heavily on driving to get to the closest ‘big shops’ in the county town, over in Bramford, or maybe Hadleigh. And this, says Jennie, is what keeps the doors open...even when there often isn’t enough money in the till for the shop to be sustainable. The committee and volunteers are performing what they see as a public service.
“It’s really important for communities to have these hubs,” Jennie adds, saying any profits are ploughed back into the shop. “They’re places people can get to easily and where they can socialise too. So, we do Meet Up Mondays, for example. It’s only small. About six to eight people come in every week, but they look forward to coming and catching up with one another. It’s great to have that purpose, to give people a place where they can come together without having to travel far or spend lots of money.”
For the shop to remain sustainable in the future though, more customers are needed, with Jennie saying she’d love the support of visitors to the area, and that, contrary to common belief, community shops aren’t always more expensive. “We do everything we can to keep prices down. Honestly, some things are cheaper than the supermarket. Our strawberries from Lindsay for example are cheaper than in the Co-op. The idea that we’re more expensive is a preconception that isn’t true.
“We don’t expect people to come and do a big weekly or fortnightly shop. It's more of a top-up shop if you’ve run out of something or fancy a treat. We have a really wide range of stock and have regular deliveries throughout the week of fresh items.”
Honey is sourced from just over a mile up the road. The shop is one of few local suppliers of Tosier Chocolate, made in Little Blakenham (also a mile or so away). There are new raw cider vinegars and fruit ciders from Baylham. Bread comes in three times a week from Baker’s Delight in Capel St Mary.
Cheeses are sourced from Hamish Johnston, including Suffolk-made Baron Bigod. And meat comes in from East End Butchers.
“We try wherever we can to support local businesses,” says Jennie. “All our beer is Suffolk-based, and we’re looking at local wine, but I’m really interested in better exploring seasonal produce as well.”
Alongside local treats, there are essentials too. Pastas, tins of soup, fruit and veg. All the things people might really rely on.
“We have cold drinks, lunchy bits, confectionary, ice creams. And we serve teas and coffees. We’re right next to a big playing field in the middle of the village and have two tables and benches outside, so find walkers and cyclists do like to visit us, which is nice.”
The address for the shop is Princes Gardens, Somersham. It's open Mondays 8am to 4pm, Tuesdays 9am to 4pm, Wednesdays 9am t 1pm, Thursdays 8am to 6pm, Fridays 9.30am to 4pm and Saturdays 9am to 1pm.
More volunteers are needed, especially during the summer months, when some of the regular helpers are on holiday. If you live nearby and think you can lend a hand, pop in.
Coddenham Community Shop
You could say this store, which really is a Tardis, including a gift section, café and more alongside what you might usually expect, has experienced trial by fire since opening its doors in September 2019.
Little did volunteers, including chairman Rod Stanley-Bell, know that the next few months would throw them a global pandemic to contest with...alongside learning how to do stock take, serve customers and ring in the tills.
There’s been a shop in its place since 1696, for the past 100 or so years owned by the Gudgin family, and operated variously as a village shop, butchers and for the most recent decade until it was taken over, as a food store.
“It was very successful,” says Rod, “but the ladies who ran it decided to retire and it closed in May 2019. Myself and a couple of others thought ‘crikey, we can’t let this happen, it’s the hub of the village, we need to carry it on’.”
A community business was formed, taking over rent of the premises and opening to what was a shaky start, from day dot. “We were hit but all sorts,” Rod recalls. “Floods, road closures, pests...and then, of course, the pandemic.”
The shop largely remained open during lockdowns apart from the first Easter, when one of the volunteers caught the virus.
“Although we closed the physical shop and café, we did have lots of sales and made deliveries to hundreds of people throughout the villages. It was a lifeline for the community. That was a real challenge. The other was that, when we opened, we had something like 50 volunteers on our books...down to around 20 now.
“We’ve learnt an awful lot and still enjoy doing it but it can be a struggle. We do need more volunteers and it’s the same story at most community shops.
“However, the shop goes from strength to strength otherwise. We’re used by people from a number of surrounding villages, we have a thriving coffee stop doing coffees, teas, sandwiches and wonderful homemade cakes. It's become a bit of a destination for people driving by.”
Rod lists off a number of services on offer – from operating as an outreach Post Office, to being a drop-off point for dry cleaning, and delivering newspapers.
And that’s after you’ve taken in the huge array of stock filling every nook and cranny of the premises. “We’ve got an awful lot in there,” he laughs. “You can’t do your ‘Tesco shop’ I don’t think, but we do have all the groceries, and try to stock a range of price points for things. We’ve got local jams and chutneys from a company literally in the next village, honey from local beekeepers, the local bakery delivers every day, and we have local meat and fruit and veg all delivered daily too.
“We’ve also got a thriving gift and card shop, stocking lots of greetings cards and a local artisan-made items such as pottery, bags, scarves, toys, candles and pictures.
“We cover a lot of bases and I think we make the best use of the space – we do the very best we can with it.”
Rod says he and the other volunteers have regular dialogue with customers to make sure the shop keeps on top of what they want and need – particularly important for those who find it hard to travel far.
“The closest other shop is a Co-op in Claydon three miles away. We’re the only sort of shop for seven miles around other than that, serving a number of villages, and to be honest, we find we can be cheaper than some other places.
“We try our very hardest to do our best on price, which can be difficult these days, but I think you can pick up quite a few bargains if you shop with us, especially on fresh stuff.”
What does the future hold for community ventures like this?
“They’re all very different,” Rod reflects. “Every single one has its own challenges, but fantastic work goes on in these places and we have some brilliant community shops throughout East Anglia which we should celebrate!
Coddenham Community Shop is open from 8am to 5pm during the week, and from 8am to 4pm on Saturdays.
If you’d like to volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01449 760313.
Sproughton Community Shop
If you use the Sproughton cut-through to the A14 on a regular basis, you might have passed the A-board on the side of the road for this shop. More often than not advertising cake...perhaps pies and sausage rolls.
But have you been tempted to step inside?
Manager Tracy Booth says a warm welcome awaits – and adds the shop has lots of offer not only the community, but drivers and holidaymakers to the area including, soon, the addition of a bean-to-cup coffee machine, donated by the CEO of the nearby Ladoria Company.
The shop is attached to a beautiful tithe barn, dating back to the 1600s – the building gifted to the village by a local resident. Pre-2010, fundraising efforts produced an incredible £250,000 to convert what was an old tractor store into the community shop you see today – leased out by the parish council.
Tracy became manager at the beginning of the pandemic, and says it feels “amazing” to give back.
“In lockdown they needed more volunteers as a lot of the people who worked there were elderly or vulnerable. As soon as the pandemic struck they had to step back. I was furloughed from my job and put my hand up.”
She’s one of 20 regular volunteers – but, as is the story across the board more are needed.
“It’s such a vital part of the community. But we need people to help out. The voluntary sector is really suffering, which is a shame as we do so much good.” That includes running a Meet Up Monday session from 9.30am to 11.30am each week in a neighbouring room, regularly attracting upwards of 40 people of all ages, being a FIND food bank collection point, and having a swathe of volunteers who shop for, and check in on, the people in the Sproughton area who need it most. Dry cleaning can be dropped off. And villagers can nip in to buy stamps – saving a round-trip into Ipswich.
“We have almost everything here,” Tracy says. “You name it, we have it. Meat comes from Oak House Farm in the village on Burstall Lane, we have pies and bread from Capel St Mary, our eggs are from Flowton, strawberries come from Lindsey, honey is from Boxford, and we use a local dairy for our milk and cheese.
“We try to use as many local producers, and to buy as much British as we can. But we have lots of other lines as well. We sell toiletries, general household items and frozen items.”
Despite not having a café (at the moment they do sell instant tea and coffee to take away), Tracy says she’s surprised at how many people pop to the shop to meet up – there's a courtyard with some benches to perch on.
“It’s such a hub. Especially when the sun’s shining. And you can guarantee, if you want to find out something about the village...someone at the shop will know the answer!”
Sproughton Village Shop is open from 9am to 4pm Monday to Friday, from 9am to 12noon on Saturday and from 10am to 1pm on Sunday. If you’d like to volunteer, pop into the shop for a chat.