The wonders of Woolhampton - editor Janice Raycroft on why the village deserves more recognition
PUBLISHED: 16:27 24 November 2014 | UPDATED: 16:29 24 November 2014
Don't just slow down as you pass through this village between Reading and Newbury, it's a place to stop and enjoy, says Jan Raycroft
Many of us make regular journeys that become so familiar it seems our car could probably complete them with us just on auto-pilot. The scenery along the way flashes by, but there is that odd spot on the route where you tell yourself ‘I must stop and look at that a bit more, sometime’.
Woolhampton is surely such a place for many. The front of the village sits on the A4 below the Berkshire Downs, intersected by little lanes that form no part of most journeys. There are some interesting old buildings to glance at… and then you have passed by. Well, we stopped, and thank goodness we did because the next couple of hours introduced us to some fascinating shops and services, and a delicious lunch beside the River Kennet.
First port of call was The Corner Shop, run by Claire Dibble and Nina Peddie, aka ‘The Bucklebury Girls’. Now, you could pop in just to admire the Grade II listed building that dates back to 1560 and retains many original features.
But the truth is all this history is outshone by the contents of perhaps the most amazing gift shop we have seen on our travels. You could spend half an hour or more just admiring the stock of beautifully crafted and fascinating items for people of all ages, and to suit all pockets.
Nina explains: “A year ago, neither of us had ever considered opening a shop but when I drove past the old craft shop in Woolhampton in September last year and saw a ‘to let’ sign hanging over the door it just seemed like a good thing to do! The building had been empty for five years, following the flood in 2007, and the owner had just decided to try to let the building.”
Nina and Claire have been friends for years, raising families alongside backgrounds as a cancer charity event organiser and in PR, respectively. Neither had ever run a store but the lure of what was to become The Corner Shop (and it is right on the corner) was irresistible.
They opened in March this year. Claire says: “There really is very little between Reading and Newbury, and nothing like this so it was a classic ‘gap in the market’, but you still need to then have customers come through the door.”
If the constant flow of people seeking unique gifts or something for themselves or their home during our visit is anything to go by, then they can look forward to many years of successful business. What will you find in The Corner Shop? There’s so much that we could fill a magazine with it (which would probably suit the ladies!) but for some selected highlights we have to mention Scottish basketweave blankets, Noble Isle toiletries, Mateus ceramics and Nadia Dafri jewellery. Also proving extremely popular are the Mighty purse from Australia and lovely leather clutch bags with a built in telephone charger.
To the rear of the shop is a packed section of children’s toys and a large range from the French company Djeco who make beautiful craft kits. There are some exquisite puppets and many games you just will not find elsewhere.
Nina says there is a “real buzz” about this area right now and, as an example, before we leave they point us in the direction of The Blackbird Café in nearby Chapel Row, a wonderful, stylish and vibrant place serving the most amazing coffee, tea, cakes and light bites. It was opened in January this year by Emma Blackman who used to be a shoe buyer (www.theblackbirdcafe.co.uk).
But for now we are heading right next door to The Corner Shop, where florist Jo O’Brien of Tudor Cottage Flowers works from her home, creating the most beautiful arrangements within what is truly a ‘cottage industry’.
Her kitchen is a sea of blooms and, as she works, Jo tells us about the personal service she offers: “I’ve never liked the idea of brides being given a few minutes to choose their flowers from some photos or from a small selection of styles.
“The flowers can really lift wedding photographs,” she says, to wise nods from photographer Maureen McLean who knows a bit or too about such things.
So brides-to-be find themselves having a long face-to-face chit chat with Jo to ensure the flowers are perfect for their complexion, dress and the overall wedding style. You may well have seen some of Jo’s creations in weddings at The Vineyard at Stockcross, where she is a supplier, Ufton Court or the Wasing Estate.
Jo’s introduced a Friday Flower Club where you can have flowers delivered weekly or monthly to your own address or as a gift, from bunches up to a large hand tied bouquet, see www.tudorcottageflowers.com.
Across the road sits the village shop, Woolhampton Stores, run for the past three and a half years by Elliot and Ros Wright. Any village that does not have a store like this needs one, with its ‘shop local, buy local’ message both prominently displayed and delivered with the huge amount of local produce packed into the shelves and display cabinets.
Everything from local sausages, ham and handmade Scotch eggs to speciality teas and cakes, you’ll find it all here alongside seasonal fruit from nearby farms, with the best local beers to wash it down.
What’s more there’s a little patio where you can sit and enjoy a snack when the weather suits. They will also make up seasonal gift hampers for you (we’re beginning to think you could do most of your Christmas shopping in this little corner of Woolhampton).
It’s time to move on to Station Road where Debi Richens and her partner Simon Taylor produce the most beautiful bras at Fitelle. Pass the window and you might see Debi sewing away – if she’s not there it’s probably because she’s in the pretty little fitting room at the rear, discussing designs with a client.
Debi says: “Each of our bras is totally bespoke, made to the client’s exact measurements rather than those manufacturers decide we should wear.
“Some people come to us because they have had surgery, or perhaps have a narrow back, but many others simply want something special and feminine that is absolutely their own.”
Like many of our local entrepreneurs Debi started out working from a kitchen table and now has her own premises. It can take eight to 10 weeks to make each bra, demonstrating the work and personal attention to detail that goes into each garment. Despite making hundreds of bras, Debi has never made the same one twice as each is unique and clients can choose from a huge range of fabrics and styles.
A first bra like this can cost around £250 but substantial discounts are offered on subsequent purchases as Debi already holds a pattern to your individual shape and size, see fitelle.com.
Finally, we head to lunch, down Station Road, crossing the railway and passing pretty Midgham Station, to arrive at the Rowbarge next to Woolhampton’s swing bridge over the River Kennet, just a minute’s walk from the lock.
The pub’s roots are in the 19th century but it seems much older with its little nooks and crannies. One of the first surprises is that it’s actually quite large – there are six rooms – but in good weather we’d always head outside to sit in the pretty garden overlooking the bridge.
At this time of year though there’s plenty to fascinate you indoors, not least of which is the food. An extensive menu means you can enjoy an excellently cooked three or four course feast, or choose a lighter bite, plus there’s a decent children’s menu of smaller portions of Rowbarge treats.
When we say ‘light bite’ be warned that the servings are ample and delicious. For instance, sandwiches start from just under £5 and what arrives is more than worth it, generous filling within the freshest bread. Vegetarians are looked after, with mains such as harrisa spiced halloumi skewers, saffron and cinnamon cous cous salad and pomegranate dressing.
Now, who would think you’d find something like that just off the A4?
It’s one of the wonders of Woolhampton, and well worth stopping for.