Inside the Sussex village store named Britain’s best at ‘Rural Oscars’

Retired engineer Mick Foote has all the energy and enthusiasm you’d expect from someone who’s set up an award-winning, community-run shop and post office with a near million-pound turnover in his local village. On one issue only does the smile fade.

“We’ll probably struggle to recruit another volunteer sub-postmaster in the shop – who would want to do it now?” asks the 68-year-old rhetorically, the unmentioned shadow of the Horizon IT scandal looming large as he offers me a gingerbread biscuit.

“I was at a meeting of sub-postmasters in London the other week and no one could believe I did it on a voluntary basis; there’s a lot of responsibility, plus it’s a loss-leader for us. If we were a commercial operation, we couldn’t run it – but the post office is important for the community, so we’ll find a way.”

Located in the South Downs, West Sussex, Fittleworth Stores is bursting with “can do” commitment which saw it crowned the UK’s best village shop and post office at the Countryside Alliance Awards, known as the “rural Oscars” last month.

The £450,000 purpose-built store was opened in 2018 thanks to donations from Roxy Music singer and local Bryan Ferry, a fortuitous pre-Brexit EU grant and some determined door knocking from the vicar. While cost pressures and volunteer apathy have seen similar not-for-profit social enterprises struggling in recent times, the shop credits an ambitious vision and the retention of a 30-strong mostly unpaid team as its winning formula.

For £25, locals buy a share that gives them a stake in the future of what has become the social hub of the village – supporting a micro-economy of nearby butchers, brewers and bakers and ploughing profits back into local clubs and the church; in short, transforming a community that Foote admits had “lost its heart” and identity.

“After the previous shop closed in 2011, Fittleworth was becoming a place residents were driving into and out and that meant older people in particular were becoming isolated,” he says of the village which has a population of just under 1,000 according to the most recent census.

“Now people are speaking to others they would have otherwise never spoken to and making new friends, which is what we always had in mind when we first mooted the idea to residents – a place where people would want to spend time.”

Indeed, on a Tuesday lunchtime, the shop, overlooking the village green, is heaving with both people and stock – spanning some 1,000 lines including basic groceries and produce from 30 local suppliers and anything from pickles to pregnancy tests, sewing kits to goat milk soap.

Enjoying a latte and toasted cheese sandwich in the café, which sells a frankly staggering £10,000 worth of coffees a month, new resident Kay Munn admits the store was a factor in her decision to move here from a large market town in Oxfordshire.

“It’s an attractive area with good bus services but, without this place, I probably wouldn’t have considered it,” she says.

“I’m used to being able to walk to places and buy some essentials or a few treats and this is a very good substitute. Plus the staff are just what you want – very friendly without being pushy.”

Down at the other end, the queue for the post office is snaking past the artisan bread display as people order holiday euros and someone enquires about obtaining a freshwater fishing licence.

At the main counter, laden with homemade cakes, food orders are flowing, with cyclists riding the Surrey Hills enjoying a bacon bap pitstop, and members of the local art society choosing savoury cream teas. Loud chatter flits from politics and potholes to the merits of the café’s bestselling Fittleworth rarebit.

In a world where anonymous self-service is becoming the de facto shopping experience, the personal touch here is refreshingly oldfashioned; the queue may be growing but no one is in a hurry.

Squinting at the till screen in front of him, John Bloomfield – one of the longest-serving volunteers – has forgotten his reading glasses.

He hands over to manager Toni Humphreys who cheerfully marshals her team of a few paid staff – including a recently recruited Ukrainian refugee – and volunteers mostly retirees, among them students gaining valuable work experience for their CVs.

Having been at the helm since the shop opened, 45-year-old Toni prides herself on knowing every regular’s name and she typically puts in 10-hour days to keep up with the far-reaching demands of the operation.

While the cost-of-living crisis has seen a rise in closures of similar community businesses, according to a report from rural enterprise charity Plunkett UK, Fittleworth Stores is weathering the storm.

Supplier costs may be increasing but, with pub lunch prices nudging three-figures locally, the café is drawing more families as an affordable weekend lunch option. Though it hasn’t always been so busy.

“In the early days a lot of people assumed we were just a farm shop selling a few niche products,” says Toni, adding that a gas leak in 2020 which closed the main road proved to be a turning point in its fortunes.

“Those who would normally head for Tesco and Sainsbury’s were coming in for the first time and discovered there was a lot more than they expected and things they wouldn’t see in the usual stores.We’d been written off by some – but they had a huge surprise.”

The pandemic further cemented the shop’s role at the heart of its community.

At the height of the crisis, 60-strong queues formed around the car park for essential supplies.

Strong supplier relationships, including with the nearby Burton Mill, kept stock levels replenished with 25kg bags of flour regularly ordered – crucial in meeting the demand for the domestic baking explosion during Covid.

Also at that time, the shop set up a “Food Angels” scheme to provide free boxes of food for families struggling financially during the crisis – particularly the self-employed agricultural and service-sector workers who didn’t benefit from the furlough scheme. The boxes are still made occasionally if required, along with contributions to the local primary school’s breakfast club – reminders that, in a largely affluent village of listed and chocolate-box houses and fleets of 4x4s, hardship is still a reality for some.

Toni adds: “We’ll also get calls from people miles away worried that their elderly relative hasn’t answered the phone for a while and someone here will check up on them; or those struggling to get out may ask us to drop something off which is fine. Basically, if people need help, then we’re here for them.” Plunkett UK CEO James Alcock has seen its role of community run shops, numbers of which have doubled to 450 over the past decade, broaden from simply safeguarding essential services to offering inclusive employment and welcoming those new to the countryside.

“They’re not without their challenges; in the pandemic, community shops were seen as vital businesses and then we saw a wave of volunteer fatigue and the additional challenges of the energy crisis, but the sector does have resilience,” he says.

“Often it requires them to go through periods of thinking ‘this is hard work’ to emerge stronger and innovate and grow the business, often through an injection of new volunteers and committee members.” With the lunch trade over for the day, Toni snatches a quick coffee before the post-school deluge for pick’n’mix and the accompanying parents ordering oat milk lattes and vegan flapjacks.

Returning after a knee operation, volunteer Nicky Hashfield, who is retired and comes in once a week from nearby Petworth to man the till and clear tables, has arrived for the late afternoon shift.

“Being here feels like spending time with a second family,” she says.

“I’ve been away for a bit so I’m not up to speed with some of the new lines but the customers are great. They’ll always be patient because they realise you are doing your best.” Which, it seems, Fittleworth Stores always manages to do.

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