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South Petherton is a large village in the district of South Somerset. It had a population of a little over 3000 in 1990 when we moved there from Edinburgh but is estimated to be over 4500 today so is really a small town and any place with over 1000 inhabitants can be called a town.
There is a North Petherton but it is 22 miles distant and I used to live there. I went to the village school and sang in the church choir and that place was supposed then to be the biggest village in England but is now officially a town with a population of 6750 and a dormitory for Bridgwater where I went to secondary school.
Both places take their names from the River Parrett nearby, a derivation of Parret Town.
Built largely of hamstone, a soft mellow sandstone quarried at nearby Ham Hill, as are many villages in the surrounding countryside which is largely agricultural, it has become a dormitory town for Yeovil 9 miles distant.
Within the parish are Over Stratton which has no shops but has the Royal Oak pub which unfortunately is owned by Wadworths, a dreadful beer, but Petherton (SP) fortunately has the Brewers Arms which is a free house and sells the delectable Otter. The hamlets of Yeabridge and Compton Durville are also part of the parish while Stoke-sub-Hamdon, Norton-sub-Hamdon ( affectionally known as Norton-sub-Normal), Lopen and East Lambrook are within cycling distance as are Martock and Merriot, pronounced 'Murr-tck and Murr-ut'. The usual form of greeting is 'orr-oyte' to which you reply 'orr-oyte'.
The Fruit Shop.
We purchased The Fruit Shop from Mike and Jane Hill. It had that original name for over 20 years but one of the first things we did was change its name to Provender, the dictionary definition being a seller of annimal fodder. It did sell a lot more than fruit as Mike had combined another business he owned in the village which was a freezer centre and bottle shop. The Fruit Shop had become a general store selling everything from goceries to petfood and Mike moved his six big chest freezers into the shop. The result was the shop overheated in the summertime which we soon discovered and installed an air conditioning unit.
We continued to operate the shop as a going concern for the rest of 1990 while we prepared ourselves and our staff for the changes we intended to make. This involved attending retail hygene courses run by the Delicatessen and Fine Foods Association which we had joined prior to buying the business and which was eventually dissolved replaced by The Guild of Fine Food. They also arganised the Great Taste Awards of which we and our staff became judges and The World Cheese competition of which I became a judge. I also sat on the management commitee of which more later.
Changing the business to a fine food deli involved much change to the shop over the next year and a considerable further investment. I have recorded those changes and how we did it however, I appreciate that many of my readers will have absolutely no interest but those who do can click here to expand the page.
We began to compile a mail order list and sent out regular offers and promotions by email. I then discovered something called file transfer protocol (FTP). A simple little FTP program could transfer files up to your internet provider just by dragging the file from one window to another. I set up a domain name called www.provender.net and it really was that simple so I designed a web site and sent the address of the pages out with the circular emails.
It also kept my brain in gear which shopkeeping didn't and, like the guy said on that train up to Edinburgh, I did underestimate the bad taste of the general public. Like the lady who brought back a bottle of Liebfraumilch that she said was corked and claimed she knew something about wine! As I said to her "If you knew anything about wine Madam you wouldn't be drinking this rubbish and that was another customer we lost!
Some Petherton Characters.
Fruit and Veg supplies for the shop came from two sources, Reylands just a 10 minute drive away which was my first stop every morning and Jake Radford who used to deliver in the afternoon. Joe Reyland knew about quality but Jakie didn't have a clue and sometimes didn't even know the name of what he was selling. "Was these called Rog" he would say pointing to a box of avocado's.
He first introduced himself to me saying "You don't know 'oy but 'oy be a bit of a chorocter" (sic) and he was. My favourite story about Jakie was when he was in the Brewers Arms talking to a lady who shall be nameless. He asked her who her mother was and he did not recognise her mothers married name. When she told him her mothers maiden name Jakie exclaimed "Oh 'oy know 'er. I used to shag 'er"
Walter used to delight in making our Provender girls blush. He was a bit like Walter Gabriel in the radio serial 'The Archers'. There was a TV adaptation broadcast of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Walter was in the shop the next day saying "Yer, what was 'e doin' to 'er up agin thic tree?". You know full well what was happening Walter the girls would say but he would protest he didn't.
He once went into the butchers asking for a puncture repair outfit. When it was pointed out he was in a butchers he would say "thic liver oy 'ad from thee last week tasted like inner tubes". Walter could be guaranteed to brighten our day.
Readers familiar with this web site will know Chris has featured regularly in our lives but I first met him on the day we moved in. I took our removal men over to the Brewers for a drink and he introduced himself at the bar.
I offered to buy him a drink and he declined saying he had gven up alcohol for Lent.
I did wonder what he was doing in a pub but it was a village meeting place,
After the requisite 40 days and nights he and Dave Legg (Leggie) were observed to consume a whole bottle of whisky sitting on the steps of the Bakehouse restaurant to celebrate.
There are so many funny stories about Chris that it is difficult to pick a favourite but we were in the Bakehouse one night with Chris & his wife Carol when he announced he would just go and put his sports car away.
He drove down St James Street to the next road junction, did a handbrake turn on loose gravel when he thought he caught sight of a police car.
He then quickly drove the car into his yard which was at Norris House next to the Brewers, shut the gates and fearing arrest, ran down his garden and jumped into the stream at the bottom.
He was gone so long that we baecame concerned but he finally turned up back in the Bakehouse on the other side of the Brewers much later when he said he was sure the police had not found him!
Here you can see Chris in a soporific state at one of our Burns Suppers which we introduced to the community of which more later. Note his unique sporran.
Chris is 10 years younger than me and we discovered that we had each lived in Nether Stowey and had each gone to secondary schools in Bridgwater, Chris to Dr Morgans Grammar and me to Bridgwater Tech. Our best friends in Stowey were brothers. Danny Davies was mine and Michael Davies was Chris's but with 10 years of a difference at that age he was pushing round Dinky toys while Danny and me were out chasing the birds!
South Petherton Business Association (SPBA).
Soon after we arrived in the village we attended a meeting of the SPBA which we had joined. There were 60 members at that time in a thriving business community. Chris Hockey was continually giving us his opinion on what we should be doing as an association but he seemed to talk a lot of sense and we became firm friends, a friendship that has continued to this day.
The SPBA for us was more of a social club than a business organisation. It did produce a village guide which advertised all the business's in the village, organised hanging baskets for the shops, organised Christmas Trees and lights for everyone and we were even seen to be planting loads of daffodils at the entrance to the village. We also went around carol singing for local charities at Christmas. It provided Sue and I with a bunch of ready made friendships which have also lasted to the present day.
South Petherton Pub Cycling Group (SPPCG).
This organisation was an offshoot of the SPBA. We would assemble at the weekends and cycle round the local pubs until we were thrown out of the last one to close by which time we were not fit to ride a bike. Furthermore few of us ever had lights on our bikes so we had difficulty seeing in the dark through the narrow lanes. The trick was to pick out the top of the hedges and steer a course in the middle. Inevitably the lead member would lose concentration and crash off the metalled surface resulting in everyone else following crashing as well and we had some mammoth pile ups!
It was a wonder that nobody was injured but I suppose we were all too drunk to feel pain. We were stopped once by the police pushing our bikes up a hill into Petherton and were warned that being drunk in charge of a bike was an offence but he let us off with just a warning.
Our corner lounge above the shop was a nice big space and we put a gas fire and hearth on the inside wall. The wall overlooking Market Square had a big Georgian sash window but the other outside wall was windowless. The room was dark with only one window so we resolved to put in another sash window giving us a nice view of the church.
Local stone mason Tommy Monaghan was contracted to do the job and I ordered the window and a nice polished wooden window sill. Tommy also removed all the plaster and pointed that wall which was left in the natural stone. The other walls were all replastered.
Here you can see the building works underway which you will appreciate was no easy task but the result was just as we had imagined.
The floor of the lounge sloped diagonally and there was probably a difference in height of several inches from one corner of the room to the other. I had all the floorboards up to see if there was any structural problems. The floor had two rows of joists at right angle to each other and a builder assured me was strong. Just the same when we had a party and people started dancing the floor bounced up and down like a trampoline.
Many years later after we sold the property the new owner did some further investigation and discovered that several of those joist were not attached to the walls and the whole floor could have collapsed into the shop. There were times we had 50 or 60 people up there dancing away so we were fortunate not to have a disastrous accident which I am not sure we would have been insured for?
The photo above features another shot from a Burns Supper but is included as it demonstrates our new window being put to a use it was never intended!
When you become a shopkeeper , and we are supposed to be a nation of them, taking a holiday is difficult as you have to find someone capable of running it and you have to pay them. For some inexplicable reason your takings reduce massively during your absence do you are hit with a double whammy. Never the less we needed a break but we had to go somewhere where it was warm and when trade was at its lowest volume.
We decided on Florida and the Hockey's came with us. We flew into Orlando, hired a car and headed for the East coast.
We drove South to Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach where we indulged in the art deco bars and cafes before continuing South to the Keys.
It is a wonderful drive down highway one to Key West where Ernest Hemingway made his home which is open to the public. On the Quay in the evening we watched cats performing tricks. I had thought that it was impossible to train a cat to perform but these ones were like a cat circus, even tightrope walking.
Back up North next and into the Everglades to see some alligators before heading to the Gulf coast and Naples.
Now here was a very smart place and we hired bikes to cycle round the millionaires mansions. At one point we realised we were cycling though someone's garden drive as it was so huge we thought it was a public road.
Chris always asks the waitresses their names when he is in a restaurant and he did this in Naples. The girl told him her name was Jodie to which Chris replied " Oh my....." but was immediately interrupted with a "Christopher..." from Carol who had anticipated what he was about to say as had we because we knew Jodie was the name of his dog! Chris received several 'Christophers' on that trip.
I asked Jodie (the waitress) if we could have some white wine and the response was "Oh, does it come in two colours?" Then she upset Sue by telling her she had Panda eyes from the sun so did not get a tip from her!
We discovered Gladys and Phil Pickles diner and had breakfast there every day. Then there was the ice cream sundaes which Chris couldn't finish they were so big.
Gladys had visited by herself from somewhere up North on a holiday and fell in love with the place. She phoned Phil and told him "sell everything I'm never coming home" so he did, they set up this diner and have never looked back. We bought the tee shirts.
On the way back to Orlando we had to go though Dade County. Back in Petherton Ann Legg had warned us whatever we did we should not go near Dade County which she said was very dangerous. A tornado had recently destroyed most of it but we had to stop for petrol there and I did feel distinctly uncomfortable as I filled the tank with a lot of rough looking characters lazing about.
We took a spoof newspaper headline of us being in Dade Country back with us and Ann Legg was not amused.
We gorged ourselves on Back Baby Ribs which for some reason were the best I had ever had in the US however I had never eaten a Macdonalds hamburger before so we stopped for me to have one. I have never understood the popularity of the Big Mac and understood even less after I had tasted one. I vowed it would be the first and the last.
Our accountants in Edinburgh, BDO Binder Hamlyn, prepared our first years accounts at Provender and their fees were over £1000 which was very steep considering I did all the preparation on a computer program and all they did was to prepare written report in the correct format for tax purposes. I therefore told them I was inviting local accountants to tender for next year including them.
The quotes came in and BDO were again over £1000 whereas the locals were all much less and the lowest only £300 so I told BDO we would not be using them in the future. They then sent me a bill for £400 which they said was for preparation work which they were entitled to do as our current accountants despite them tendering for the work.
I refused to pay so they took me to court and I then had to travel up to Edinburgh for the court hearing or pay up. Everyone counseled me to pay up but I thought it was a matter of principle and I shouldn't let them get away with it.
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"Never call an accountant a credit to his profession; a good accountant is a debit to his profession."
Charles Lyell 1797 - 1875.
It was the middle of winter when it came to court and on my way there just North of Carlisle I was cought in a blizzard. I managed to turn around, headed back South then across country to Newcastle. The road to Edinburgh was open from there but still slippery with lots of snow so it took most of the night before I arrived.
In court that day the Judge ruled in BDO's favour. I should have known that the legal and financial professions are like an old boys club. The judge said he could understand my objections but he also understood that an accountant had work to do throughout the year which is of course a load of bollocks in our case because they could do nothing until I sent them the computer records.
I did consider appealing the decision but saw sense and gave them a cheque. We had used those accountants for many years since arriving in Edinburgh for our personal tax and as Ulstein UK auditors. With the management buy-out I had to terminate their Ulstein services and they were re-employed after it failed. I think they were a bit niggled with me over that but mainly it was them being taken over by Binder Hamlyn when their fees went up.
The busiest time of the year for our business was Christmas, especially for internet orders. Everyone leaves it until the last minute to order and if we have run out of stock or the courier loses the parcel their Christmas can be ruined.
Once we despatched a parcel we emailed the recipient to tell them it was on the way and saying that if the parcel hadn't arrived by a certain time then either to call or email us while there was still time to replace the order before Christmas.
We once had a Kent farmer who rang us on Christmas Eve to say his parcel had not arrived. I asked him why he did not contacted us before as we told him it had been despatched four days ago. He said he doesn't bother to read emails and if we didn't get a replacement to him today he would take his twelve bore to me!
On another Christmas Eve a local man came into the shop and asked for a whole Stilton truckle of cheese. Now a whole Stilton weighs about 7kg so I asked him if he wanted a whole one or a baby which is about 2.5kg. He said he wanted the whole one so that was what he bought. Soon after Christmas his wife asked us if we could take most of it back but of course we couldn't for environmental health reasons.
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"You can never underestimate the stupidity of the general public"
Scott Adams 1957 - .
Apart from their bad taste you cannot underestimate the inability of the general public to make up their minds.
We used to sell Christmas Trees which I bought from a local grower. He once told me had a field full of hundreds of trees and told his next door neighbour to just go and pick one out and he would cut it for her. She came back later saying she couldn't find one she liked!
I have watched husbands and wives almost come to blows over which Christmas tree to buy.
Christmas in Malmesbury
After our first Christmas in the shop we were ready for a nervous breakdown but Sue had booked us into a nice hotel called The Old Bell in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. It claims to be the oldest hotel in England and dates from 1220. It had a reputation for good food and we were eagerly looking forward to the break so as soon as we closed the shop we jumped in the car in our work clothes and headed off.
Arriving in good time for dinner we realised that in our haste to get away we had left our case with all our nice clothes at home. This was a rather posh place where everyone dressed for dinner except us two who looked like a couple of tramps.
After dinner who should turn up but the lovely Anna and her current boy friend who you might have read about in an earlier page. If you did you will know that she was responsible for getting Sue completely rat arsed in Edinburgh on a regular basis which she then proceeded to do again in Malmesbury. As if our clothing disaster wasn't enough, Sue having to be carried bodily out of the lounge and up the stairs to bed put the cap on our day.
The next day was Christmas Day and Sue was so hungover she couldn't even eat her Christmas dinner!
On the next page I talk about the Parrett Music Festival and Burns Suppers.