Shop on wheels rolls out to villages

With damp summers putting paid to their tourist trade, the couple who run a shop in a Dales beauty spot have decided to go directly to local customers. Chris Berry reports.

When Dirk and Paula Wharton took over the Shop on the Green in the delightful Dales village of Burnsall – one of Yorkshire's countryside hotspots for summer tourism with its famous bridge, green and Red Lion pub all either alongside and straddling the River Wharfe – they thought they had it made.

Their first season, in 2005, saw a booming trade in everything from food and drink to the obligatory dinghies, oars, nets, buckets and spades for families with youngsters wanting to splash in the river.

But four summer seasons later and the dreams they had of replicating year one have been stemmed by the one thing every visitor attraction dreads – the weather!

"I come from Harrogate and had visited Burnsall every year since I was five years old. I've always loved it here," says Dirk.

"So when the shop came up for sale I just had to have it. Now it's just like coming out for the day, every day. It's not like going to work. We're your average shop but we do stock a few specialist lines that always go down well, like Belgian chocolates and preserves."

Behind the smile and the friendly manner of someone who is clearly enjoying what he is doing there lurks the serious side of running a business that earns enough for he and Paula to survive.

"Our success is all down to tourism and if it's bad weather, the tourists don't come. The hardened walkers who are doing the Dales Way will get covered up and off they go, but they're not really our mainstay. We want the people who are coming for the day. They don't bother at all when it's raining. After our first season went so well we thought, that's it, retirement plans taken care of."

But it hasn't worked out that way, courtesy of yet another summer of downpours. Not one to be beaten easily, Dirk has found solace in the acquisition of a van. And it could yet be the making of the shop business and a major boost for the surrounding villages.

"I had been approached by Georgina and Grant of Mason's camp site at Appletreewick earlier this year. They are the new owners and people were asking them whether they stocked bread, milk and lots of other items.

"They don't, but we do. We were talking about trying to set up some sort of service where I delivered what they wanted, and then I decided to go all out, purchase a van, and turn it into a mobile shop which would mean we could turn up on the site and sell people whatever they want. It's a refrigerated van so it can carry all kinds of food and drink."

Dirk tells of a "little glowing light" in his brain which told him that maybe what he was doing for the campsite could also include neighbouring villages, many of which have lost their shops and post offices in recent times.

"A lot of people from other villages in the area come here and tell us that they wish they had a shop like ours.

"We've already had interest from as far away as Malham and my idea is to serve the area within a 15-mile radius.

"There's nothing at places like Skyreholme, Appletreewick, Greenhow, West End, Storiths or Hazlewood."

It's early days, and the village service is untried at present. "Dirk goes Mobile", the slogan painted on his van, has only been seen in two or three locations so far in the five weeks since he took to the road, but the initial results have been very encouraging.

"Nobody knew we were going to do it. I just started turning up. At the moment I'm serving one official camping site, one camping field and a residential site. The response has been great."

Autumn is now upon us and the tourists, apart from those seasoned walkers, will largely disappear in the next couple of weeks until at least spring 2009. So can Dirk's idea of serving the villagers actually work and pay its way, as a number of cottages and houses in the countryside are also now second homes, largely unlived in for the winter months?

"What we're doing, as well as trying to run a business in a beautiful part of the world, is going back to old values.

"We're gauging interest, having leaflets printed and door knocking. If people want us to visit weekly, daily or twice weekly we will find out. We will put the villages first and set up the rounds.

"It's going to be an interesting learning curve but if it all falls on its backside and the village-run idea doesn't work then the camp site work is enough to keep the van running in the summer. Appletreewick will be our mainstay.

"We'll visit there seven days a week every morning and go for an hour on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon as well."

Dirk and Paula get great support from the villagers of Burnsall, and the Shop on the Green is also a regular meeting place for the young in the village.

"The kids all come in here. Often they will sit around, have a cup of hot chocolate and just chat. On Friday afternoon we put on a chocolate fountain too. That's always popular!"

One way or another, Dirk and Paula are going to make a success out of both the shop and the van, no matter what our wonderful weather brings about!

Dirk has only one request for when he's doing his rounds in the countryside. He wants something a bit more rustic and old-style than simply sounding his horn when he arrives.

"I fancy a handbell, and I fancy shouting out 'Bring out your dead!'"

Could we suggest something something more like "I'm bringing your bread!"

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