Hats off to a fashionista who has found success in the countryside

Jane Wheldon in her Get Ahead Hats showroom at The Granary
Jane Wheldon in her Get Ahead Hats showroom at The Granary
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In another world, Jane Wheldon’s opening comment about her husband would be code for something salacious, cueing raised eyebrows and harking back to a different era.

But up here in North Yorkshire between Pickering and Scarborough where she and Kevin have built a new life over the past 15 years her words mean nothing more than a statement of fact even if they could easily be misconstrued.

“He likes his girls,” is what she says cheerily at their delightful countryside smallholding tucked away approximately a mile from the village of Snainton as Kevin’s flock of Ryeland and Poll Dorset ewes follow him expectantly and open-mouthed across the field, mainly because he is carrying a bucket with their favourite feed.

Female visitors of the human kind also arrive here regularly - by the car load rather than the bucket load and not, it has to be said, at Kevin’s behest but because of Jane’s enterprise that she started here a decade ago. Jane runs one of the 18 branches that her mum Beryl Otley inspired when starting Get Ahead Hats from the family farm at Poppleton, near York nearly 30 years ago.

It is a business that has been a Godsend for many rural-based ladies who were looking for another income to assist them in living where they are most content, as well as proving a lifesaver to those who had previously despaired in finding the right headgear for a wedding, the races or any other special occasion.

Beryl first started out selling and hiring hats on the family farm in 1985 with husband Barry, ironically using Jane’s bedroom, after she’d fled the nest, as the stock room. Jane took on her own franchise some 30-plus miles away in 2004 when one of her mum’s original partners Dora Poucher retired.

“Dora was based at Burton Agnes and we had just moved here to The Granary. I’d had no plan to run a franchise but it made sense as we could cover what had been Dora’s patch and it has now become so popular. Our ladies love coming out here because they find it such a calming and relaxing environment to try the hats and for many it is the kind of place they are used to with many being country people themselves. It’s somewhere they can park easily, not feel under pressure from high street salespeople and bring their outfits with them so they can check out their whole look.

“Hats are not always expensive and we offer both hire and purchase. It’s presently a split of about 50-50 between both. The mother of the bride will often want to keep and cherish the hat they wear for the big day; we also get a lot of race trainers’ wives and partners who will possibly buy a hat that they will wear for the season; then there are those who just want to hire one when attending a friend’s wedding.

“We’ve even had Kate Middleton, HRH Duchess of Cambridge as she is now, as a customer. She bought a hat from our Reading franchise when she was to attend a wedding up in Whitby.

“Since we took over from Dora we have sold or hired hats to all types of ladies from Lady Downe of Wykeham to the High Sheriff and for occasions ranging from investitures to bar mitzvahs.

“Over the years we have had some fun in getting our hats out to be seen by others for the first time – as well as sometimes purely finding a way of getting them to customers!

“We have undertaken a lot of charity work by being involved with fashion shows and we have had to deliver hats up to the main road because of snow. In 2010 we were snowed in for nearly three weeks but thanks to locals helping us out – and a bulldozer - we made sure our customers weren’t disappointed.

“The business is never going to make us millionaires but it supports us with the other things we do such as holiday accommodation, the sheep and Kevin’s couple of days a week working for Glaves’ butchers.

“It was a big leap of faith to come here but we just wanted to be in a rural location that we and our children would love.”

What is now The Granary was a redundant, derelict and decrepit rural farm building.

“It took more time and money than we anticipated,” says Jane. “But it has all been worth it. We have a wonderful home and far from being isolated we have visitors all of the time either for hats or to stay in our two holiday cottages that we started with a few years ago.

“Both of our children grew up here and were members of Snainton Young Farmers’ Club and Helmsley YFC. Anna now lives in Scampston and John works as a mechanic in Snainton.”

Jane’s own career has seen her work as a buyer of millinery for Fenwick’s in York where she was floor manager for the fashion department of the Coppergate store.

She is predicting a fashion comeback for the hat this year.

“Hats are definitely back in fashion this year. I think fascinators have had their day. The little pill box hat that you see Kate wearing is still in, but big brimmed hats are back in a big way.”