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Sturminster Newton: Surviving the storm

Sturminster Newton has more than its fair share of long-established shops which have successfully ridden the buffeting of recent years. Alan Illingworth has been finding out why by talking to some of the people running them.

The distinctive frontage of Candy’s

In times of financial depression and change, when too many ventures open full of hope and quickly fail, there is something reassuring about retail businesses that not only have been around for twenty or more years but have been run by the same people during that time. It is not only reassuring but remarkable to find half a dozen such businesses in one comparatively small town, as one can in Sturminster Newton. What is it about ‘Stur’ that has encouraged such successful continuity?
The town’s geographical position works in its favour. In the centre of the closest Dorset has to an Empty Quarter, it is at least a twenty-minute drive from all of its surrounding larger towns like Blandford, Shaftesbury, Gillingham and Sherborne. Once known as ‘the capital of the Blackmore Vale’, it services a large number of substantial villages. Against that, the Vale and its villages were traditionally almost entirely dependent on agriculture, and the radical changes in farming practices over the last 50 or so years inevitably had an enormous impact on Sturminster Newton. The Monday cattle market, which was established in the 14th century and became one of the largest in England, closed in 1997, followed three years later by the loss of the creamery which had processed much of the produce of Hardy’s ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’.
Looking at today’s thriving town, it is hard now to remember the mood of depression and apprehension that hung over Sturminster Newton in those uncertain years.

The Exchange, built on the site of the old market, has been a major factor in the revival of Sturminster Newton. The old market bell is in the building and is rung before performances.

‘The loss of the market in the end didn’t affect us as much as we thought it would,’ says Myra Hanson, who started Hanson Fabrics 32 years ago in her garden shed. Today the business occupies premises at the bottom of Station Road, big enough to accommodate not only an almost bewildering variety of fabrics but sewing machines, knitting wool and haberdashery, plus Hansons Sewing School, which runs a wide range of classes. Unsurprisingly, it is a Mecca for a clientele from right across the south of England.

A corner of the almost bewildering range of fabrics at Hansons

Philip Hart of Harts of Stur agrees about the market: ‘Monday still has a feel of market day about it, partly thanks to the WI market (and stallholders) which happens on that day and partly because the older farmers still come into Stur on a Monday because they always have.’ His business has its roots in agriculture: his grandfather was a blacksmith in Sturminster Newton after World War 1 and after the next War, Philip’s father went into the business and built it up into a major manufacturer of agricultural equipment. As Philip himself joined his father in 1979, Harts changed direction once again, and today it is a ‘country department store’ which offers a huge stock of kitchenware, clothing, ironmongery, garden goods etc. So successful has this development been that Philip has had to extend the premises four times!

Harts of Stur’s ‘country department store’ had its origins in a smithy

David Lewis of Wessex Photographic goes further in his opinion, ‘The loss of the market has turned into a plus point for the town.’ He took over from the legendary Helmut Eckhart in 1989. The original premises were in Bridge Street, but it is more than 20 years since the shop moved to its present location in the Market Place. Few businesses have changed as radically as the photographic trade, with the coming of the digital camera and the consequent disappearance of revenue from developing and printing, yet Wessex Photographic has not only survived but thrived, with the empire expanding to branches in Blandford, Dorchester, Weymouth and Ringwood from the base in Sturminster Newton.
In particular, says David, ‘The Exchange has put the heart back into the town and, unlike the market, is there seven days a week.’ The Exchange is the multi-purpose building – a mixture of community centre, learning centre and arts centre – built on part of the old market site. The moving spirit behind it was SturQuest, the community partnership, run by volunteers, that has had an enormous influence on the recovery of the town from the trauma of losing the market and the creamery.

Marsh’s, which dominates the southern end of the Square, began life as a garage

‘The Exchange is very good for bringing people into the town,’ agrees Sarah Palmer of Marsh’s. The electrical goods shop of Marsh’s today dominates the southern end of the Square, but it started in Station Road in 1930. Back then it was a garage which did some electrical work. When it moved to its present building in 1940 the electrical side became more important, and the change from cars was completed by the 1960s. Marsh’s was founded by Sarah’s grandfather and great-uncle, and she joined the business as her father retired in 1993. In 2001 a branch was opened in Sherborne. Like all traders, Sarah has noticed some change in her shop’s clientele as the population of Stur has grown rapidly with housing developments on part of the market site and elsewhere: ‘They are more cosmopolitan and not so completely countrified,’ she says, ‘but they came here because they liked the friendly atmosphere of a small town and that basically hasn’t changed.’
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Candy’s, whose distinctive bow windows were added when an earlier private house became a shop in the early 19th century. The Smith family have not been there as long as that, but Tony and Anne Smith took over the business 42 years ago and, following Tony’s untimely death, Anne continues to run it with her son, Ashley, as a traditional confectioner, tobacconist and newsagent – something of a rarity these days. More than perhaps any other shop, it is a social centre: it can’t be the case that Anne knows every customer’s name, but it seems that way. ‘We’re now seeing the children and grandchildren of our original customers,’ says Anne, only slightly ruefully.

Gemma Rose and Rachel Baker (right) in the office of Vale Travel

As Blackmore Vale Travel, then Vale Travel, Sturminster Newton’s own travel agency has occupied its premises off the Square for the last 30 years. One constant through changes of name and of owner has been assistant manager Rachel Baker, who was in at the beginning and has watched the town change. She agrees that the apparently fundamental changes have had less effect than might have been expected, but feels that they have been positive and that Vale Travel has benefitted from the newcomers moving in to the new developments.
As for the question of why Stur is fertile ground for businesses that enjoy such a long life, Rachel points to the large traders like Harts of Stur and Hansons Fabrics bringing in customers, and to the good range of food outlets. Anne Smith of Candy’s mentions that the town still has a good butcher, greengrocer and chemist, while Myra Hanson thinks that the diversity provided by a range of independent retailers is a major attraction. The other side of the coin, as David Lewis of Wessex Photographic points out, is the importance of maintaining the independent retailer’s traditional virtues of efficiency, friendliness and good service, particularly in a small town where word travels fast.

There is a perception that small market towns like Sturminster Newton are unchanging, yet the house nicely bedded in next to the mill was hugely controversial when its building was proposed

Like every town, Stur faces some issues, such as the noise caused in the evening by shiftworkers leaving the Stalbridge Linen works on Station Road and the consequences of the influx of Eastern Europeans working there and in the abattoir on the Manston road. Some traders would like to see a larger, more dynamic supermarket, although others fear the effects of such a development and take comfort from the fact that the town is probably too small to attract the attention of one of the giants. These issues do not detract from the town’s success, nor from the quality of life it offers – another reason why businesses last so long in Stur is that it is a hard place to leave! A high proportion of young people stay in the area and, in Philip Hart’s experience, ‘it is not difficult to find good, honest employees.’ Sarah Palmer of Marsh’s sums it up: ‘You’re never going to make a fortune in Stur, but it’s a good place to live and work.’ ◗

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