After losing its village store in 2011, the ‘buzz’ in Fittleworth vanished. But now, after a huge push from local residents, a newly-opened community shop is planning to bring it back. Steve Denham reports
Fittleworth is a village of less than a thousand people and is within the South Downs National Park. It lost its village shop and post office in 2011 and it has been greatly missed – until now. On 1 October, a new-build, community-owned shop opened and they will be adding a post office in a few weeks.
The journey to opening day took nearly three years of research, planning, fundraising and discovery. At the start of 2016, Alison Welterveden, a member of the parish council, proposed a working party to investigate what the residents wanted from a new store and how community shops worked by visiting several others in West Sussex villages. When she reported the findings to the parish council, approval was given to set up a committee to manage the project.
“Local shops have an important role in helping their customers, particularly older people who live independently,” says Alison.
“For some people, their local shop is the place to have regular contact with other people. We haven’t had this for seven years and this is one of the strong messages that has come out of the research and conversations we have had across our community.”
A business plan was developed based on the initial research and Fittleworth Community Shop Ltd, a community benefit society, was established as the business. Plans were drawn up and the project costed at £400,000. Half of this was raised from the community, the local councils and selling shares to residents; the other half has come from grants. Guidance for grant applications and for the project has come from The Plunkett Foundation.
“The store sells everyday essentials at affordable prices. It also offers local produce and crafts, supporting local businesses, and has a unique shopping environment,” Alison says. “The café serves a range of drinks and food and acts as a much-needed social hub for the village.”
The central ethos for the new shop and café is that it will support the community. “When the previous shop closed, it was noticeable how it changed people’s behaviour. There just wasn’t the social buzz in the village. We wanted to bring this back and from the first week it is clear that residents really do want to come and use the café in particular as a place to meet,” she explains.
It isn’t just the local community that the shop is catering for – the team were approached by a cycling club that told them it would use the shop’s facilities if the team installed bike posts.
For some people, their local shop is the place to have regular contact with other people
The choice of the initial range of products was led by the responses in the village questionnaire that the team carried out two years ago.
“We need to offer a range that meets the basic needs of day-to-day life. From bread and milk to household cleaning, confectionery and cakes, alcohol and newspapers. One of our shareholders asked us to stock Johnnie Walker Red Label and he was thrilled to find his favourite whisky on the shelf,” she explains.
Store manager Sarah Hawkins and her deputy, Toni Humphrey, are the only employees as the rest of the store team are volunteers.
Around 50 residents have volunteered to take on a two-hour shift per week. Alison would like to see more, as she knows that this will add to the success of this community project in the long-term.
Alison says: “We are very grateful for the support and encouragement that we have had from our community and the generosity of our local authorities and other funds that provided grants.”