Beech Hill village store in a vanishing act

PUBLISHED: 12:06 20 December 2013 | UPDATED: 10:13 03 January 2014

Sam Moore

Sam Moore

Archant

The village store at Beech Hill can do a vanishing act and convert back into a pretty Victorian church when needed. So Claire Pitcher went Christmas shopping there for us

Tempting cakes. most made in the villageTempting cakes. most made in the village

With their closest supermarket a 20-minute car journey away, simply ‘popping out’ for a pint of milk was never an option for the 240 villagers of Beech Hill in West Berkshire. That was until local resident Sam Moore came up with the idea of opening a community shop. This one however, is a little bit special as it’s in the aisle of the village’s Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, a stunning Grade II Listed building.

Anything’s possible

According to the Plunkett Foundation, a charity that helps community projects in the UK, in 1993 there were just 23 community-owned shops. Twenty years on and there are now over 300, with another 30 opening this year alone. It was the foundation that Sam went to for help and advice armed with her idea of a shop in the church: “They visited and told us we were mad. The concept was for it to stay a church but also be the shop as well, which no one else has done yet, that’s where we are unique,” she says. The vicar at the time, Béatrice Pearson, was very enthusiastic about the plan and on sending out a questionnaire it seemed the villagers were supportive as well.

In keeping

As with all best laid plans however, there were some obstacles to overcome. Sam and the rest of the committee had to convince the Victorian Society of their vision: “They were unhappy with how we had designed it so we kept going backwards and forwards to get things just right, which is why we ended up with these cupboards; all hand finished and stained to match the pews in the church. The idea is for it to all disappear and still look like a church on Sunday.

“English Heritage also visited to check the Listed building aspects of the plans and said if we were to remove any of the pews we would have to store them for 20 years so the church could be put back to how it was.”

After all the planning and red tape, the doors of St Mary the Virgin Church finally opened in February this year and the customers poured in to Beech Hill’s new Village Shop.

Taking stock

At the church’s entrance you can’t help but notice the display of fresh fruit and vegetables. “They’re bought to us by a supplier in Burghfield and also from local charity Thrive, who grow fresh fruit and vegetables. People also donate produce from their allotments,” Sam says.

And fruit and veg aren’t the only locally sourced products on sale at the shop. There are cheeses from the next door village of Riseley; Barkham Blue cheese from just a few miles away in Arborfield; Berkshire honey and milk from Thames Valley cows at West Horsley Dairy. Plus there are some very talented residents in Beech Hill, as Sam professes: “Janice makes all our jams and chutneys, our cakes are from Alison, another local lady, who also makes the most delicious fudge. Our ‘card lady’ is also local, she’s going to be making us festive stockings and bunting for Christmas.”

Cost conscious

The shop’s ethos is to be as local as possible but offer good quality products at sensible prices. It sounds impossible. Experience shows that the more local and good quality an item is, the more expensive it is, you only have to go along to a farm shop to see that. Chairman Stuart Barry is quick to set the facts right however: “We can be cheaper than both Waitrose and Tesco; I do a regular price comparison which you can view on our website.” Indeed, a visit to thevillageshopatbeechhill.co.uk will show you that 40 Yorkshire teabags cost £1.39 in Tesco that day, but just £1.10 at the shop and a 24 pack of Weetabix was 40p cheaper at Beech Hill than Tesco and Waitrose. Apart from bulky items there’s no reason then, to go anywhere else for these villagers. Plus as well as being the greener option in terms of food miles, the church shop produces almost no waste whatsoever compared to those supermarket giants trying to tackle the amount of product wastage.

A friendly face

Then there’s the personal service and the social aspect of the shop. Sam points says: “Our customers help us choose what we stock. Some people have special dietary requirements, such as wheat and dairy, we can order in specific items.”

“But people don’t come in just to shop,” says Stuart, “I’ve noticed there are a few elderly residents who come in regularly to buy one or two things but you can see there’s an element of wanting to socialise with people. They spend longer chatting than they do buying – which is great, that’s also what we’re here for. We want everyone to be involved.”

With 20 volunteers on board there’s no shortage of people who want to help the shop to stay in business; everyone gets involved in keeping the teas and coffees coming during busy times in the ‘shop tearoom’, keeping shelves stocked and organising events to involve the rest of the village – such as a wine tasting recently held to promote their new range of wine on sale. With only a couple of months until their first year of trading ends, the hope is that the shop will begin to make a good profit so they can give back to local good causes, as well as the church.

For everyone involved the last three years has meant a lot of hard work and perseverance, from red tape to local objections on traffic. Was there any point when Sam wished she had never come up with the idea? “I don’t know what kept driving me; I think I must be bloody-minded. This was my initial vision, the shop needed to be in here because it’s such a beautiful environment which would make people come to visit, not just the villagers. I felt the church needed the shop to help support it. They both needed each other.” n

Open your own community shop

Visit the website www.plunkett.co.uk to find out more on how to get a community project off the ground.

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