Who Will Buy?

“But how do you  function without a Chinese take-away?”

My husband and I feel sufficiently countrified to exchange knowing looks when a visiting Londoner notes our lack of shops.

We have all but forgotten the astonishing choice of fast food outlets and take-away restaurants that lay within a few minutes’ walk from our former urban home, and our guest’s comment makes use realise for the first time that we do not miss them.

Should we feel the urge to eat out, we can choose between two village pubs, and on request, either will put a bar meal in a bag and call it a take-away. In the unlikely event that we crave a ready-meal, instead of the fresh eggs and vegetables available every day from our garden, we can rustle something up from the open-all-hours village shop.

There is also a post office, which was once housed in our cottage. That was when the old lady from whom we bought the house was village postmistress. Before that it was in a house just up the road from us, when the grandmother of our elderly neighbour was in charge. It now occupies the current postmistress’s front room.

At either the shop or the post office, you can buy a copy of what’s nominally the Parish News. This substantial publication, run off every month on a spirit duplicator, contains  about 90% general village news and information.

There is a tiny but excellent hairdressing salon, which has just opened in an annexe to a house in the High Street.

Even if we are overcome with a sudden attack of agoraphobia, we need not even leave our front garden to acquire goods and services. The shop’s proprietor will kindly deliver to any home in the village, free of charge. He’s even been known to bring out just a single pot of cream to our elderly neighbours, who had just sat down to eat the raspberries gathered from their garden and felt there was something missing. Some more decadent neighbours whose party went on through the night had more wine delivered with their morning newspaper.

Of course, the shop provides daily newspaper deliveries. One year, in a flash of inspiration, they also offered to send the paper boy bearing a single red rose to the person of your choice, within the confines of the village, of course.

There is also a bevy of other delivery services that never came our way in the city. By this, I don’t mean the sporadic, outmoded door-to-door salesmen or down-at-heel students or immigrants that tour towns touting overpriced dusters or double glazing. Here the deliveries are by people who take a pride in their trade, and whose main quest in life is to make their customers happy.

Naturally, in this dairy-farming district, there is a milkman. We are served faithfully by a village resident who is carrying on what was his father’s round before him. Although he  is now approaching retirement, our even older neighbour, once the village schoolmistress, still refers to him as “Young Georgie”.

Though hardly seafaring territory, Hawkesbury boasts an itinerant fishmonger. The apple-cheeked, small and compact Charlie Orchard (there’s nominative determinism for you), dispenses all manner of fish every Friday from the back of his familiar white minivan. We wonder where he goes on the other days of the week. He’d be perfect for a part in Camberwick Green or Trumpton, where with his name he’d take the role of local greengrocer.

Though we are out at work when the fishmonger delivers, a neighbour introduces us to him. Obligingly, Charlie Orchard posts our fish order through the letterbox and we leave the money under a brick for him the following week. Our cats approve.

Providing extra brain-food between Charlie’s weekly visits is the fish-and-chip van with a horn that renders the first bars of “The Dashing White Sergeant” as it trundles through the village on Tuesday nights. If we want them to stop to serve us, the agreed signal is to leave our curtains open.

Their fish and chips are first-rate, so our curtains are open every Tuesday. Around nine o’clock,  we form  an orderly queue with our elderly neighbour Lenny to collect our order. We’ve only ever had to specify once, because they remember what we like from week to week.

This ritual also serves an important social function: in the winter, it’s the only time we officially see Lenny, a harmless recluse who lives in the cottage semi-detached to ours. (He put up net curtains the day after we moved in to retain his privacy.) The arrival of the fish-and-chip van enables us (a) to confirm that he’s still alive and (b) to pick up his latest news, which usually relates to a report on the birds in his garden and his views on how fat our cat Dolly is.

On a Sunday afternoon, you could set your watch by the ice-cream man, arriving conveniently after lunch. This is no Mr Whippy with ice-cream full of air, but proper, golden yellow Cotswold ice-cream, made locally by Winstones. The smiley driver always remembers our order and has a tub ready for me on the counter by the time I’ve crossed the road to the van, brushing my grubby hands on my gardening apron ready  to take it from him.

Just opposite us lives a kindly couple who run a mobile shop to the outlying hamlets, for whom they are the only source of fresh food deliveries. (By comparison to them, our village is positively built-up.) Caroline bakes bread and cakes to order, while Arthur drives the van and makes the deliveries. We do not use their service, as it would be unfair on those who depend on it if we depleted their limited range. But we have been known to barter with Caroline and Arthur, swapping our surplus of plums for any home-made cakes or pies left unsold at the end of their rounds.

So much for the inner man: what about the outer one?

Well, there is an Avon lady with a difference: she operates on trust. We leave our order on our front wall and she puts the goods through our letterbox. When we remember, we put our money on the wall and her son picks it up on his paper-round.

To keep us warm, there are deliveries of fuel of all kinds – essential in rural areas like ours which are not connected to the national gas mains. (Indeed, mains water only reached Hawkesbury in 1945, and electricity not long before that.)

A coalman comes twice a week with bagged and loose deliveries, and for those who’ve opted for oil, a tanker man will call on demand. Woodmen abound. There is stiff competition from foresters and a long list compete for our attention via local newspaper advertisements. Our first choice comes  from the nearby Beaufort estate, from one of the Duke’s foresters who is allowed to cut and sell any wood he has felled in the course of his duties maintaining the rides. He cadges old sacks from his farmer friends in which to bag the logs up and drops them off in his old yellow British Telecom van.

And there are still occasional newcomers joining the fray: we’ve just had a leaflet through the door announcing the imminent arrival of a travelling knife-grinder.

Is this starting to sound like the famous street scene in “Oliver”, in which the traders form the chorus to the hero’s song, “Who Will Buy?” I must admit that even to me it sounds like something engineered by the English Tourist Board for an enticing film on the pleasures of our nation’s rural life.

And that’s before I’ve told you about the crowning glory of all. This comes twice a month in the form of the Village Market. Here we buy all manner of things, from handicrafts to baked goods, from preserves to pot plants. We may order our cakes in advance or trust to luck and brave the rush when the doors open. Or in return for just 20p, we can relax there with tea and cake and a varied collection of young and old ladies. My husband, venturing up there on his own one day, returned to report that he was the only boy there who wasn’t accompanied by his mum. There is a blissful sense of conquest in returning with a laden basket and hardly a dent in the housekeeping money.

But the market is not without controversy. Once, years ago, there was a WI market.  Sellers religiously paid 5p  to join, which entitled them to have their wares on display. A complicated accounting system worked out the financial rewards for sellers. The WI market laid down strict rules, and woe betide anyone who disobeyed. No more and no less than a pound of jam in every pot, and the pot had to be the regulation shape, or there’s be trouble. Everything had to be labelled with the official WI label. But did anyone ever ask the customers if that was what they wanted? Oh, no. It was generally agreed by buyers and sellers alike that the rules were restrictive to the point of being ridiculous. Next thing you knew, they’d be dictating the shape of the cakes.

So the village rebelled. Abandoning the rulebook, it restarted the market under its own flag, and the new form keeps traders and customers happy.

Rumours of  requiring a passport to enter Hawkesbury are as yet unfounded – but opponents of the European Common Market, eat your hearts out.

Post-Script (2013)

Reviewing this description 20 years later, I am sad to report that most of these services have now disappeared, though our two pubs, post office and village shop survive. When my first husband died 10 years ago, Mr and Mrs Fish-and-Chips insisted on providing me with my portion free of charge every Tuesday for as long as I wanted it, even though I was working full time and was hardly in poverty. Eventually, I kept the curtains closed each Tuesday night, too embarrassed to take advantage of their kindness. They, like so many other tradesmen, no longer call. If you are lucky enough to live in a community served by such wonderful people, neglect them at your peril. 

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7 thoughts on “Who Will Buy?

  1. Hi Debbie,
    I was surfing the net for some family history when I found your work.
    I really like your writing stile, it reminds me of my mothers editorials for ‘Talkback’, the free paper for Badminton, Little Badminton and Acton Turville.
    The bit of history I was looking for is something with which you may be able to help me.
    In “Who will buy” the following paragraph stood out:
    “There is also a post office, which was once housed in our cottage. That was when the old lady from whom we bought the house was village postmistress. Before that it was in a house just up the road from us, when the grandmother of our elderly neighbour was in charge. It now occupies the current postmistress’s front room.”
    I have an old photograph of my grandmother and uncle standing outside Hawkesbury Post Office in the late forties – early fifties with the postmistress and her daughter barely visible through the shop window.
    I knew these ladies as aunt Kate and aunt Marjorie I think, I was quite young and a little scared of the older lady who wore black from neck to ankle, and as we moved away in 1953 we lost touch.
    I would be most grateful if you could put me in touch with anyone who has information about these ladies so that we can research and find if they wereare blood aunts or very good friends of my gran who would regularly cycle from Little Badminton to visit them.
    I presume that they were from the house up the road from you given the date that we would have visited them.
    Kind regards,
    Martin Gentry

    1. Hi Martin

      How lovely to hear from you with your own memories of Hawkesbury. I believe the house you are thinking of may be the one in which I live now, as I bought the house from Marjorie Stinchcombe, who I believe had owned it jointly with her sister (whose name may well have been Kate) for many years. I bought it in 1991, after it had lain empty for about 18 months, Marjorie having moved to the other end of the village to live in the local retirement home, Beaufort House. I gathered she had become very frail with early signs of dementia and was no longer really able to look after herself. I believe her sister (Kate?) had predeceased her, and she’d been living alone for some time. When I moved in, there was no modern heating installed, just an open fire and a few paraffin heaters left about the place. The house had not been much changed since about the sixties or seventies. However, the ending is happier, because once she was in the care of Beaufort House, she rallied considerably, and lived there for a few years, enjoying the company of the other residents and becoming well known for her knitting – she liked to knit toys to be sold for charity at local fetes. I bought a couple of them and was able to pass them on to my daughter when she was born in 2003, long after Marjorie had died.

      Other villagers have told me that they were quite scared of Marjorie – possibly because they are remembering back to the time when they were children and she sold toys in her post office, and didn’t want them messing about in there! She also had a love-hate relationship with the man next door, Lenny Holloway, whose washing she used to do, apparently. He died a few years ago, in his late 80s, but had never lived anywhere else.

      There are still a number of people in the village who would remember her and be able to tell you more, including Prim Curtis, who was apprenticed to Marjorie and took the post office over eventually (though she’s now retired). Also one of the staff at Beaufort House, Anne Weaver, will remember her too. Another way of tapping into people’s memories would be to put a note in the parish news, which I can help you organise.

      I don’t know whether you know about the series of village history books that we’ve published – A Monument to Hawkesbury – but Marjorie is mentioned there. The books are available in the village shop or if you are too far to visit, I can arrange to post them to you.

      If you’d like to visit, just let me know. I’d be very interested in hearing more of your memories of the village also.

      Best wishes

      Debbie

  2. Hello Debbie, I’ve only just discovered your blog but will be sure to return – love your style, love your humour – and I am almost tearful at the wistfulness I’m suffused in after reading this lovely, lovely piece.

    1. Thank you for that very lovely comment, Sinclair! I have another few pieces like this which I shall post up here in the next few weeks, and also lots of new posts inspired by my recent trip to Luxembourg (just got home yesterday). I hope you will enjoy those too. Thank you so much for stopping by.

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