Village shops are fighting back. Frederic Manby discovers how the Shop on the Green, Burnsall is doing it.
"The perfect village shop and so much more!" is how Dirk and Paula Wharton describe their lock-up in the idyll that is Burnsall, hugging a pretty bend of the River Wharfe between Bolton Abbey and Grassington, capital of the upper dale.
The Whartons drive in daily from their home in Harrogate. Dirk says it is half-an-hour each way and exactly 19.6 miles. He has had five years to savour the trip into Yorkshire's finest countryside. They never failed to open during the recent hard winter. They are an exemplar of how much people are willing to put into running their own shop.
The view from the frontage is almost perfect, over the village green and the river to the cricket pitch with the roller like a giant see-saw. Visitors paddle, many of them clutching a net from the Whartons' Shop on the Green.
From the beginning the ethos was good quality food from local suppliers where possible, but it wasn't long before Dirk and Paula decided they needed to sharpen their appeal and reduce costs.
The answer was home cooking – Dirk's.
Dirk has had many sorts of jobs, all in Harrogate, including the motor trade and a spell with Ackrills publishers, but his first career was butchering with Yorkshire Farmers and now he makes his own sausages in the backroom at the shop. They are a minimum 70 per cent meat and sell at 2.50 for half a dozen thick links or 2.80 for a dozen thin ones. There's traditional pork breakfast mix and chunkier Cumberland, plus the familiar and less familiar recipes: pork and apple or ginger and spring onion. The sausages were a hit and he quickly doubled sales. Over the winter Dirk's Burnsall Bangers have headlined the Monday sausage night at the Devonshire Fell Hotel in the village.
Dirk also makes excellent meat pies, bread, cakes and flapjack. This latter, a staple of walkers and cyclists, epitomises the Wharton Way. Make it as good as you can, and pitch the price right.
Paula rings up just 80p a slice for the flapjack. This value for money strategy means that they sell so much that it brings a better profit. They do 500 pieces a week. Flavours include maple pecan, lemon curd (a surprising number two seller after cherry almond) and Belgian chocolate.
The sticky calorie-rich stuff is made from a recipe so secret it isn't even written down, conscious of the constant risk of catering espionage, perhaps. Well, maybe not far off. A renowned, award-winning, pie maker and sausage maker has already bought some of the product to see what the fuss is. Dirk has plans to extend his catering sales and the day we met the pork and apple were being trialled at the village's big hotel, the Red Lion.
Shop local is a rallying cry but Dirk and Paula face competition from the supermarkets in nearby Skipton and Ilkley, where many of his customers do "the big shop". The internet has also been a kick in the pants, with Tesco, Asda and Waitrose all doing home deliveries. The travelling shop was once familiar in the countryside and the Whartons have a mobile shop at the campsite a few miles down river in Appletreewick. How many "local" customers then? Dirk does a rapid count: 30. One of them comes out licking a Brymor ice cream – Andrew Grayshon, who with his wife, Liz, has the Red Lion. Just the thing on a warm spring day.
"I'd be lost without this shop," says Wendy Gibson, emerging with her children who were also on an ice cream treat. It is human nature that villagers with their own transport will use the big stores, too. Yvonne Stockdale shops at a supermarket in Skipton but is also a good customer for the Whartons, carrying away a large bag of goods. "I have bought baking, sausages, firelighters, butter, eggs, flapjack, cream and cereals", says Yvonne.
There is another aspect: supermarkets thrive on the impulse shopping, the buy one get one free, the things we didn't go in to buy.
The shop almost erupts with local and non-local produce. The latter includes the dry goods, wash powders, soft toys, canned goods. Little of the available space is wasted. Gloves and hats hang from the ceiling. A toy glider is shoved nose-first into a shelf already full of boxes and canisters. An inflatable flotation ring hangs on the end of another shelf. There are bags and bags of sweets, pharmaceuticals, packets of Yorkshire bacon, eggs so large they over balance your egg-cup, footballs, sandwiches, toy cars, Dirk's Scotch eggs, fresh fruit, jars of preserves.
Despite the support of regular local customers, Dirk and Paula have a clear view of how things are, and that the relatively small number of inhabitants in the immediate area are not going to make the business viable. In fact, they have yet to match their first year, 2005, which was a dry, hot and sunny summer. "It looked like it was going to be a fabulous place, then we had two or three years of wet summers", reports Dirk, a visitor to the area since childhood.
The winters are quiet. "When your accountant says you should close in the winter months and you don't want to, you just soldier on," says Dirk. "We have a nucleus of local customers but we have come to realise that this is not going to increase. We can't compete with the supermarkets but have offered accounts to this nucleus of locals." The future expansion, he knows, will be in selling his own and other local foods to the visitors.
The Whartons are being advised by Making Local Food Work, a Lottery funded project managed by the Plunkett Foundation to support community-owned and privately-run village shops to find, stock and sell more local food. The target is 200 by 2012. The scheme includes modest funding for special promotions, point of sale material and plenty of expert advice.
Charlotte Foster is their area adviser. She has 12 shops in the region. "Village shops are fighting back," she says, adding that on many items they can compete on price with the multiples. "You can buy two carrots, say, or just what is required, with no wastage", says Charlotte, who lives near enough to be a customer.
"I think what people really want is quality and value for money", adds Charlotte, whose mother, Jolande Hepworth, had the Cow and Calf Hotel on Ilkley Moor, Overdale Country Club in Skipton and the Royal Hotel in Kirkby Lonsdale.
The Shop on the Green, Burnsall, Skipton. Open 8am to 7pm in the summer and 8am to 5pm in the winter. Tel 01756 720 000. www.shop-onthegreen.co.uk