ASCOTT-under-Wychwood is not as far from Hollywood as you might imagine. My producer at the BBC cornered me with this question: “Bill can you fill the shoes of Gandhi, because Sir Ben Kingsley has just pulled out of the opening ceremony for the Ascott- under-Wychwood village shop on Saturday morning and they need someone to cut the ribbon.
Sir Ben Kingsley.
“You mean I’ll be second fiddle to an Oscar winner?”
“Very much so.”
“I’ll do it.” Well, if the truth be told I’ve always enjoyed both the village of Ascott and the story Sir Richard Attenborough told me about pitching the idea of a film on Gandhi to Sam Goldwyn at MGM. “Look Dickie, it’s a nice idea, but who’s going to pay to watch a little black guy dressed in a sheet going barefoot and carrying a bean pole? The answer is ‘no’.”
I said ‘yes’ and arrived at Ascott before noon on a most miserable winter’s day 10 years ago. It was cold and raining, but the shop was bursting with a crowd of warm and welcoming people.
This was the official start of Ascott’s great adventure. The village had produced not so much a building as a creature; and we’re not looking at a Frankenstein here but a Tarzan who always managed to find a new grape vine and swing out of harm’s way to a higher level, leapfrogging over obstacles.
Bad weather turned out to be good news for the village shop. In 2007 the floods from the Evenlode spilled over the Shipton Road and everything including the pub was up to a metre under water. Then the heavy snows for two years running cut the village off from the rest of West Oxfordshire. Disaster made people focus locally as needs must. The locals who previously by-passed the community shop now stopped to satisfy their needs and the community spirited people tried harder to meet those needs. People with a 4X4 swung into action to get supplies from the outside world so the village shop would not run out of stock. Adversity has its advantages and when Ascott started to patch itself together again after the floods, the teams who repaired the roads and rebuilt the rail station, the houses and the pub used the shop for many months. This produced a peak in profits and performance and along came the accolades – “Oxfordshire Community Shop of the Year 2007”, “Best Village Shop in the South of England in the 2007 Countryside Alliance Awards” – culminating with the big prize, the “National Best Rural Retailer” award which was presented at the House of Lords in 2008.
“But we want people to remember we’re not just here in the bad times; we’re here all the time,” says Richard Squires, chairman of the committee. So the shop improved its offer of products and added gourmet, ready-made, frozen meals from “The Cook” franchise.
The different portions suit a family or a single person and the prices are reasonable.
Customers wanted a good bottle of wine with their meals and according to the chairman the committee appointed a ‘wine mistress’. “She’s been quite nimble at sourcing wines that won awards and sell at £5 or less; that’s competitive with anywhere else. Wine is now a major source of income.”
The Ascott- under-Wychwood village shop
Localness is also a big key. The beer comes from the Hook Norton Brewery. Beef and lamb are supplied by a farm between Chipping Norton and Banbury called “The Meat Joint” and the adjacent farmer has pigs and supplies pork and sausages. The vegetable supplier is based at Brize Norton airbase and delivers three times each week.
Bread is fresh daily and delivered by “Thierry”, who bakes traditional French bread and all the strawberry, apple, apricot and prune tarts you would see at the local patisserie if you were on holiday in Cannes.
Even the honey and wax products come from nearby Charlbury: and the shelves hold six to eight local books, mostly by villagers. The resident photographer produced a limited print run of Ascott craftsmen at work and village scenes.
All this distinguishes the local shop from the supermarkets. Now the Ascott shop can compete even with the big stores by having local and national newspapers on general sale instead of on a “to order” basis.
Probably the biggest secret of success is the number of volunteers. Out of a village of 500 to 600 people with many of these children, 40 to 50 people form a pool of volunteers at any one time; so a very high proportion of a small village is involved one way or another.
The shop also serves as a social centre for political pressure and plotting. Petitions tend to find a home at the village shop. When Oxfordshire County Council decided to put iron railings on each side of the medieval bridge, the residents rebelled at this health and safety measure that was not needed for centuries and the shop was the centre of a strong and successful protest. A current threat to village life is a cut to the infrequent bus service into Ascott, so right now there is a petition against that.
But if you want to be successful, it pays to have friends in high places, and even David Cameron sent the village a letter on the 10th anniversary of the Ascott village shop. And Sir Ben Kingsley did eventually make it to Ascott 10 years ago on the opening day. So in the afternoon the village had a sequel to the first ceremony called “Opening Part Two”.
David Cameron congratulates the shop.
Sir Ben gave his advice on how to be successful and said it all boiled down to “service”. “Just before my wife and I were to attend the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood, she broke the heel on her Jimmy Choo shoes and nobody could fix it until we found a small, back- street cobbler who put the Jimmy Choo shoes back together in time for the Oscars. That kind of service makes all the difference,” he said.
Yes, Sir Ben, I think the Ascott village people got the big picture.