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Beaminster Update - Yarn Magazine in June

Beaminster Update

“We hope to inspire people to visit Beaminster.” That’s what we said in the six-page special that we ran on Beaminster last month in The Yarn and we’ve been delighted to hear from many readers that we’d succeeded in rousing their curiosity about changes in the town centre. New shops, new cafés, new services. “I’ve not been there for a while, but now I’m going to go” — that’s what many people have been telling us.

This month, Jonathan Hudston has continued to look in some detail at ventures old and new and consider how Beaminster could promote itself. What weaknesses could be addressed? What strengths played to? You’ll find some ideas listed as suggestions. Let us know what you think.

Nick Tett - butcher in Beaminster

The scene: Nick Tett’s butcher’s shop in Beaminster Square. Nick’s saying that he’s recently had one of his busiest days for ages, and we’re chatting about what Beaminster could do to promote itself now that it seems to be on the up again, with some sad losses but many exciting new ventures.

Three holidaymakers appear. We can tell they’re visitors because they lament that the weather is improving just as their holiday is coming to an end. They buy 16 of Nick’s homemade pies.

“I’ll be going home with more than I came with,” smiles one woman.

“That’s the idea!” quips Nick.

He and his colleagues Mike Saunders and Anthony Cassar took up making pies a year ago; they now sell about 200 a week. Their record is 80 in one day. One reason, says Nick, is that he’s got a sign outside advertising his pies.

Suggestion 1: the simplest of them all — it can be good to let the world know what you’re doing.

Another reason: “You can smell the pies when they’re being cooked. It’s like fresh bread, isn’t it? You smell fresh bread and you’ll always buy a loaf. Whether you need it or not!” Nick laughs. “It’s instinct.”

Suggestion 2: The sensory appeal of visiting somewhere should never be under-estimated. Beaminster is blessed by having so many buildings made from Ham stone, with a honeycombish glow in the sun. It’s pretty. But does Beaminster rely too much on its looks? Could there be appeals to other senses? Could it be more attractive?

Beaminster Flowers owner Helen Stibbings
Beaminster Flowers owner Helen Stebbings

Just along from Nick’s at Beaminster Flowers they know about making stylish displays. The shop’s owner Helen Stebbings is working out the back with her assistant Sarah Porter from Netherbury. Both women are excited by the prospect of this year’s Beaminster Festival. “It brings a lot of people in, it’s a very well-organised thing and Nigel Corbett [who used to own Summer Lodge in Evershot], who’s taken it over this year, he’s really throwing his all into it. He sent letters out to all the businesses very early on, saying he felt [Suggestion 3] Beaminster was missing a trick by not making more of it, and advertising the town while people were here for it.

Beaminster Flowers Assistant Sarah Porter
Beaminster Flowers Assistant Sarah Porter

“He’s been all guns blazing for trying to improve the overall appearance of the town, things like encouraging people to have nice window-boxes planted up, rather than half-dead ones, and having special pillars to hang bunting from, just to make it more attractive.”

Helen, who lives in Charmouth, has been working at Beaminster Flowers for about four years; she took it over from the undertaker Simon Wakely about a year ago. She says: “It’s a nice industry at all times of year: Christmas is always lovely, Mothering Sunday brings a smile to everybody’s face, Valentine’s Day is not so big for us round here, though we’re working on that! And weddings — weddings are interesting.

“We do a lot of weddings and we have a lot of wedding venues around here: Axnoller, Mapperton, Hooke, Summer Lodge, they all bring people in from further afield. I think the majority of our weddings are brides who live in London or elsewhere and literally just come down here to get married, and I think [Suggestion 4!] Beaminster needs to be aware of that.

“You get different people in every week, who will come and spend money in the cafés and restaurants and explore while they’re down here and hopefully come back and that is something I think we need to embrace.

“We’re aware of it, because we do the weddings, but other businesses perhaps aren’t aware of it to the same extent.”

But where can people stay in Beaminster itself? Monica Gedge, who lives in the Square and has a good eye for trends across the local area (her husband Tim is Director of the Boat Building Academy in Lyme Regis) thinks that Beaminster [Suggestion 5] could do with more bed & breakfasts. She’s full of praise for the Bridge House Hotel but says gently that not everybody wants to stay in a hotel, or can afford to. “Beaminster’s a lovely little town and we have a lot of walkers come to stay, but we’ve lost a lot of our B&Bs. For example, The Walnuts is now a private house, Jenny Wren’s has gone as a B&B, which was always full, Mat [Follas] let the room next door for B&B [when it was The Wild Garlic], and of course we lost The White Hart years and years ago. It would be brilliant if The Red Lion started letting rooms [Palmers Brewery is planning a major refurbishment].”

It should be stressed that Beaminster is not totally devoid of B&Bs; back in the florists, Helen and Sarah praise Quigley’s, run by the famously cheerful David and Julie Woodroffe, who used to have the Marquis of Lorne at Nettlecombe. “They’re very active on social media,” says Helen. “We’re trying to do more of that ourselves.” [Suggestion 6]: use social media.

How best to ease people into the town is a question that’s been engaging Mike Read. He chaired the Beaminster Future Group that produced the Beaminster Parish Plan 2013-2023. “For me, signs are very important. They should be attractive, they should be useful, they should be obvious. Folks who come into Beaminster, initially they want to know where the car park is and where the toilets are. Signage is vitally important, and I think [Suggestion 7] there is room for improvement in Beaminster to keep working at it and get it more in tune with what people want and need.”

If Beaminster gets its information systems working really well, it might also be possible to make more of Beaminster’s history. Everyone The Yarn has spoken to in recent weeks agrees that Beaminster could and should make more of its history. Subjects such as Hine Cognac, the immense celebrations held in Beaminster when the tunnel was first built, or the extraordinary apparitions of 1728 are interesting — and more visitors are curious than might be expected.

Helen Stebbings: “You get talking to people as you’re in here wrapping flowers and quite often they ask where the church is, they like to go and have a wander round…”

Sarah Porter: “And the museum. People do ask where the museum is, don’t they?”

Helen: “Yes, and actually the people at the church here, they’re very up on it. If you ever go in there, they’ll almost jump on you, if they don’t know who you are, to give you a guided tour of the church.”

You can’t beat a bit of affection and enthusiasm.

Louise Chidgey in the new Brassica Mercantile shop
Louise Chidgey in the new Brassica Mercantile shop

It’s sometimes said that one of the secrets to being happy when you’re an adult is to find some way of carrying on what made you happy when you were a child. Louise Chidgey — who runs Brassica Restaurant in Beaminster with her husband, the chef Cass Titcombe — and has just started the Brassica Mercantile shop next door — is a lovely example of this.

A few days after the shop opened — with goods displayed as smartly as soldiers on parade — we asked Louise whether she could trace her love of nice things back to when she was a girl.

She looked a bit surprised — but she could: “I did have a doll’s house, and it was a shop called Truffles and I’ve still got it… I decorated inside with wallpaper and I made little bread for the window, everything… and I played shop more than I used it as a doll’s house and when I was really young I was obsessed by the Habitat catalogue, in the 70s very sadly, and my aim was that after I’d gone to university I would work for Terence Conran, and I did — and for his son.

“It’s 20 years to the month that I’ve started my own shop. I started at the Conran Shop in London in 1995 with the aim to open my own shop, so it’s taken me a 20-year journey.

“I always wanted to start my own shop but I always wanted to combine it with food, so I started with Terence Conran who I knew did food and restaurants and design shops and I was with them for about five years, and then I went to work for his son Tom Conran who owned a pub and a restaurant and a deli, so I could combine the two, get all my experience from the two different industries so that I could bring them together.”

Interior of the Brassica Mercantile shop

Louise also worked for retailers such as Selfridges and Marks & Spencer, did trend forecasting for Creative Intelligence, and ran a pub and hotel in North Cornwall. But a shop was always the target…

“And now we have it.

“It’s all about the convivial aspect of coming together, eating, drinking and also it all looking lovely.

“This is what I have always wanted to do since an early age and I really hope that Beaminster accepts it and that we stay here for a long time and if we can get the online side of this going as well, because obviously in winter, in January and February, our sales might be a lot less, that will help us get through.”

Suggestion 8: If small towns in West Dorset, East Devon and South Somerset are to promote themselves and prosper then online trading support will be increasingly vital.

Aside from this, Louise — being, as she says, “quite new in Beaminster” — is reluctant to make too many statements about the town’s future. But then her landlady Monica Gedge joins in the conversation. Monica used to run Monica’s Fashion House in Beaminster Square for 21 years; she’s seen “an awful lot of comings and goings” and has many shrewd observations to make.

Monica’s been peering in the windows of what used to be Nessie’s Yarn Shop and is excited by what looks — she thinks — like it might be America’s Pier 1 Imports. In fact, it’s going to be the Beaminster Emporium.
The Beaminster Emporium is being launched by Graham Hart, who also has an outlet in Crewkerne and, until recently, ran The Emporium in Yeovil. Mr Hart says: “Although we have in the past had businesses in the area, including Lyme Regis, Sidmouth and Beer, we’ve been strangers in Beaminster but are really excited about this venture because it’s such a lively community with great potential.”

“It all helps,” Monica tells Louise. “I’ve always maintained that [Suggestion 9] to have a good business is to have two of a kind in the town because people will come in, look at one, and look at the other. And now there’s going to be three or even four!”

(That’s Brassica Mercantile, Cilla & Camilla, the Beaminster Emporium and possibly Partners in Design where Strummer Pink used to be, although Partners in Design — run by the Beaminster-based interior designer Barbara Proctor — is intended to be much more than a shop.)

There will also be a revitalised mix of cafés, pubs and restaurants.

Louise recalls that at the end of her first Saturday, Richard Barker popped over from Cilla & Camilla to ask her how she’d got on. One of the appealing features of Beaminster is its friendliness.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to compare it with, but I think it went quite well’ and he said ‘I think there’s something in the air, because it’s the best Saturday we’ve ever had!’”

“That’s what I’m saying,” nods Monica. “Two of a kind. I think it’s all going to bring more people in.”

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