On the 14th August, a very wet day for the season, Aimee Evans from Plunkett and Helen Fagan, grants manager for The Prince’s Countryside Fund splashed through the rural roads of Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire to visit three community shops.

The Prince’s Countryside Fund have supported Plunkett since 2012 and are well aware of rural issues affecting communities and the action needed to seek solutions – as demonstrated by the fabulous Village Survival Guide. Through Plunkett, and the funding from The Prince’s Countryside Fund much of the funded support to date for community businesses has been allocated to community shops and so it seemed fitting to pay a visit to a couple of shop groups to find out more.

Co-incidentally, the shops visited were located next to/in village halls and alongside amazing playgrounds. This was useful to be able to compare and contrast, although it was far too wet to give the swings and slide a proper go!

A warm welcome was received from Sue and Ros at Westbury Community Shop and Café. As part of the new village hall build, Westbury shop and cafe, which is run by a separate Community Benefit Society (CBS), received a boost of funding to help get the shop up and running and a Power to Change grant to help with the running of the business. Access to the shop isn’t always ideal, without a footpath link to the village, but the location next to the hall and playing fields is perfect for bringing in passing trade and providing refreshments to the local clubs and sports teams.

Westbury’s paid manager; Hellen is a fantastic addition to the team at Westbury and thankfully relieved much of the pressure that was falling onto the Management Committee of the CBS and other volunteers. Recruiting a high number of volunteers still remains a challenge, but it has been rewarding to have committed staff and volunteers as part of the team.

Westbury Community Shop and Cafe have a good number of dedicated people on their management committee, but are aware of succession planning and their task to find individuals who’d be willing to take on these roles in the future. We discussed the feeling that you need to have knowledge about these kind of community businesses, a confidence that you could be part of committee and a supportive network who can help bolster the safety net.

The café is a lively hub for parents, visiting cyclists, families and builders working on a nearby housing development . While we were there, a volunteer popped into buy cake ingredients with her young family and the members of the village hall committee were in for refreshments too. The café has a thriving café society in the evenings with 48 members. This costs £10 per year for 4 events which range from comedy evenings to talks, including a recent presentation from a couple of luthiers (a maker of stringed instruments such as violins or guitars.)

What’s clear is it’s really the people at the centre and behind the scenes that are critical to the survival of the shop and cafe. The ability to pay for salaried staff, the relationship the manager has with volunteers and staff, and the dedication from the committee is really at the heart of this community business. Oh.. and the fishfinger sandwiches are pretty top notch too.

Check back soon to read about our next stop, Tackley Village Shop in Oxfordshire…

We met two part time members of staff, Maria and Toby, that couldn’t praise the shop enough. Toby has volunteered in the shop since 14 years old and commented –

“There’s always someone to chat to in the shop, you’re never just a customer. People know it’s a safe place, they can watch their children play and know someone will be here to listen if they need it.”

Smiles all round at Westbury Village Shop and Cafe