A unique place to live
Beaminster is a place of reinvention and industry; it is at the same time like a small French village and a smart quarter of a big city. Joël Lacey found out more.
Published in February ’12
Walking around Beaminster the first thing one notices is the honey-coloured stone on its many handsome buildings, then the church bells start to ring or rather, at three hour intervals, the clock’s chimes strike the hymn tune Hanover, getting one singing ‘O worship the King’ as one wanders round the centre of town. Nestling in a valley, there is a clear demarcation to where Beaminster begins and ends, which marks it out from many towns in Dorset, as does the fact that it has a listed building for every twenty inhabitants of the town. Its population of around 3500 is the same as it was at the time of the 1841 census, but the businesses, eateries and hostelries of Beaminster are what make it a little different – even from the rest of West Dorset.
Interestingly, the town plays host to two industrial enterprises of note, both related to the food and drink industry. Between The Square and the Prout Bridge lies what is, in a biological sense, the cultural centre of Beaminster; the Danisco site produces naturally created enzymes and cultures for the food industry. Just up the road on the Broadwindsor industrial estate is Clipper Tea which, two years shy of its thirtieth birthday, is one of the best-known names in ethical teas and coffees, having launched the first FairTrade tea in 1994.
However, it is in the heart of the town where the individual character of Beaminster becomes most obvious. In the words of one local, Michael, ‘It’s a proper working town with a huge number of individual businesses and trades. It’s also an astonishingly friendly place; within a fortnight of moving here I was on first-name terms with a dozen people.’
Herein, perhaps lie the two secrets of Beaminster’s vitality: its friendliness and the regular influx of new residents, many of whom wish to set up new businesses. This explains why, other than a listed building for which planning consent is being sought, there is only one empty shop-front in Beaminster. There is also a touch of class about the town; the Weldmar Hospicecare charity shop’s window more closely resembles a Knightsbridge boutique’s display than your common or garden charity shop.
There is also an understanding that, especially with two high-end supermarkets within easy driving, the town has to work hard to keep its vitality. The aforementioned empty shop was a natural wholefood store and its nearest neighbours have started stocking many of the lines that the store used to carry to ensure customers who used to come for its products are not left high and dry. The owner of one of the stores, Angie Denman, of the wonderfully named ‘Fruit n two veg’, sums up another of the town’s strengths, its inter-business support: ‘We supply quite a few of the pubs and one of the restaurants with produce. We try to keep as much of our produce as local as we can; we are growers as well, so much of our produce is cut and sold in a day.’
Both localism and mutual support are themes echoed by Nick Tett at his butcher’s shop, which has also started stocking some of the things that the wholefood shop used to stock. ‘Beaminster has got everything you need in a town, from a shopping and a trade viewpoint you can get pretty much anything you want here and there are good, local suppliers of quality all around here.’
West Dorset as a whole is now known nationally as a foodie’s paradise, much of it based on the principle of good, locally sourced food. Beaminster is about a mile from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s original River Cottage, home to the EatDorset festival in October and both Mat Follas’s The Wild Garlic and the Brasserie at the BridgeHouse hotel where chef Stephen Pielesz’s All Day Snail Breakfast made headlines a little while ago.
Beaminster must also be one of very few places of its size outside France to have both a bakery and a patisserie. The latter, Le Vieux Four, straddles the gastronomic and artistic sides of Beaminster. In its twenty-year history, it has exhibited and sold art which changes every six weeks or so. Debs Moxhay, owner of interior design business Strummer Pink, has an art gallery on the first floor of her store because she felt that ‘West Dorset is full of really great artists and the gallery space was a really good opportunity to showcase the local artistic talent.’ This marriage of the town and the individual is, she feels, the core of Beaminster: ‘What’s really fabulous about the town is, the Co-op aside, all the businesses are individual, there’s pretty good parking and people have time to chat and give a personal service. As to the area around the town she says, ‘I defy anyone to come here to West Dorset and not fall in love with it.’
Lynette Fisher from the Vieux Four describes Beaminster as a charming town and one with a changing population. ‘People come here to downsize or when they first retire and there are also a lot of younger couples where one partner will spend the week in London and come back for the weekend with the family.’ As far as business in the town is concerned she says that ‘the shops around here don’t so much change as change hands and I feel really well supported by the town, and it is more friendly now than it was when I started.’
In terms of the town itself, Lynette says: ‘It’s in beautiful countryside. We’re six miles from the sea, but we don’t get crowds that you get at the coast, and the walking round here is splendid. When I have a holiday, I’m very happy to spend it here.’
Mark Donovan, who co-owns the BridgeHouse, has been in Beaminster rather less time than Lynette, but is in full agreement on the town’s attractions: ‘We’re very fortunate that we’re ringed by places like Mapperton House and Parnham House, and while it’s incongruous to have a factory smack in the middle of a chic town with hundreds of listed buildings, you can walk just fifty yards and you’re in a completely different world. The whole Brit Valley is just staggeringly beautiful and there is so much good, locally produced food that Beaminster has become something of a foodie hotspot.’
As well as a gastronomic centre, the town is also incredibly well served for artistic and other attractions. There are over fifty societies and groups in and around the town and then there is the Beaminster Festival. Entering its seventeenth year, the Festival of Music and the Visual Arts is a truly exceptional event for a town of this size. Last year’s festival attracted authors like Melvin Bragg, Anna Pavord, Mary S Lovell and Michael Holroyd, musicians including the Metzger Ensemble, Machaca, Madalena Rusu, the Armonico Consort and the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, and it also featured a poetry night, a literary dinner and started and ended with outdoor presentations of Shakespeare’s plays.
This social activity side of the town is thanks to the combination of long-term residents and those who have come in from outside, not with the intention of remaking the town in their own image, but rather in emphasising the town’s existing qualities and bringing their experience to bear on making that happen.
In a business sense, this is exemplified by Claire Feasey, whose Green drawers eco-store started as a market stall in 2007, moved into a small retail unit in 2008 and in November last year moved to a bigger unit facing onto the square. ‘It was opportunity which brought me to Beaminster; it seemed a low-risk area in terms of the overheads of trading here and the town has a lovely feel about it, it’s very pretty and is in great walking country, so we get a lot of visitors here. There’s also a great mix of people who live and work here and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how people have embraced the green ethos of the shop.’
Talking to people who live and work in the town, it is clear that each of them is happy to be here and it is clear to see why as one is greeted with a cheery ‘good morning’ by complete strangers as one walks around the town. Beaminster may not be wholly immune to the threat to its continued commercial success posed by huge out-of-town superstores, but one gets the impression very strongly that its residents, visitors and especially its traders are determined to carry on doing their best to support one another to ensure a bright future for the town. Like the words to the hymn whose tune greets the visitor to this prettiest of towns, Beaminster is very much ‘pavilioned in splendour and girded with praise’.