According to recent figures there are 537,000 businesses registered in rural areas, accounting for 24 per cent of all registered businesses in England.* These businesses come in all shapes and sizes, and Westbury in North Buckinghamshire offers a snapshot of the huge variety of occupations and enterprises in rural areas today. Home to a surprising number of small local enterprises among its 400 strong population, Westbury boasts an artisan bakery, an asparagus farm, a historic printing press (updated to make contemporary cards), and a hobby that has grown into the sales of local honey and beeswax products. These family businesses have all started up within the last five years, and all are thriving and expanding. Sue Lucas, one of a band of volunteers at Westbury’s village community shop, takes an amble through the local countryside to catch up with four of the shop’s local suppliers and witness first-hand rural enterprise in action.
Real Artisan Bread
You can’t get much more local than baker Geoff Woodburn who was cleaning and scrubbing the bakery when I met him. He bakes his artisan bread in a recently renovated warehouse barely 50 paces from Westbury community shop. Before that, he baked in the converted family dining room. His whole family – mother, stepfather and girlfriend – are part of the enterprise, though Geoff is the one who actually makes the bread. His flagship sourdough loaf, the ‘Westbury White’, is a wonderful round, ridged, crusty creation, with a flavour and texture a world away from any supermarket offerings. It’s a long process to create the real stuff. On Thursdays, mid-morning, the sourdough culture has to be started and fed. In the afternoon Geoff makes the ‘poolish’, the mixture of culture, flour and water, which “bubbles away overnight”. By 4am on a Friday morning the rest of the flour and other ingredients are added and allowed to ferment. Then it is turned and left to rise until midday, when it is divided into loaves and put into the ‘bannetons’ which give its distinctive shape and form. The Westbury White then rises for another 3-6 hours, sits in the fridge overnight, and is finally baked on Saturday morning – and delivered warm to those in the know who order it from the village shop – often along with Geoff’s irresistible iced cinnamon buns.
Just over the road, Geoff’s step-father, Steve Harrey, keeps the bees. Rather than being a day job, beekeeping is a hobby which has grown beyond expectations, and Steve now has ten hives with his sights firmly set on at least ten more. Finding the right secluded spot for the hives, sheltered from the north wind and not too close to village centres, can be difficult, but Steve works hard for his bees and they all live in beautiful quiet gardens and paddocks on the edge of villages around Westbury. Last year, they produced 300 lbs of honey, extracted and bottled at home. “The best bit,” Steve says, “is the final product – seeing the golden clear honey all jarred up”. He uses the wax too, to make solid bars of hand moisturiser, softly scented with coconut oil and honey, and extremely effective for dry hands, and real beeswax furniture and leather polish. While honey and beeswax is his mainstay, locals contending with a bee swarm are also grateful for Steve’s local expertise.
The antique printing press belongs to Claire Viner, whose Wildberry Cards enterprise has been going for just over a year. The press is an original 1896 Arab Letterpress, which came from Winchester College in a state of rusty disrepair. It took nine months to bring it back to life and was delivered to Claire, ready to go, at Christmas in 2015. Now she produces nearly 300 different cards for all sorts of occasions, using polymer plates and modern technology for the design process. The press, which is operated by a foot treadle and lives in her garden shed, literally presses the design into the paper, producing tactile cards with unique designs. They are one of the best selling items in the village shop, as well as being available in bookshops and boutiques around the country. After working in publishing and design, and having a family, Claire says she had a “light bulb moment” when she came across a little shop in Ludlow with letterpress print products. She suddenly realised what she wanted to do, found a printing course at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and set out to find a press. The business broke even the first year, and now she is investing in setting up a website to establish an online outlet.
I talked to Rupert Smith as he prepared the asparagus for sale, expertly sorting and bunching it. The first full crop – a year after initial planting – was in 2013. Since then the family business has expanded from 3 to 4 acres of planting, with 30 to 40 thousand plants. The asparagus is cut daily by hand from two field buggies designed for the task, and takes 14 man-hours per day. There’s a real skill in sorting the crop as it is being cut, to produce the right length and size, and discard anything damaged or misshapen in the process. Like Geoff’s baking, this is a truly family business, with Rupert’s wife and their two young daughters all involved while his brother comes for the short season (traditionally from St George’s Day on 23rd April until Ascot week in June). Their parents all help out as well. The strap-line for the business is “grown with pride by Rupert and Clare Smith & Daughters”. Rupert says there are two things he’s especially proud of; “We’ve managed to start a business from nothing and now people drive up our drive just to buy asparagus, and secondly that it’s a family business and everyone is involved, with the girls now selling and helping with the preparation”. Customers include locals, the postman, the man from Aylesbury who comes on his motorbike, even one year a group of cyclists on their way to Aberdeen. After the short asparagus season finishes, Rupert concentrates on a new venture, selling a range of quality country themed gifts, including his own handmade wooden items at www.westburygifts.co.uk
All four represent what is best about the growing band of successful rural entrepreneurs, with pride in the final product, and enthusiasm for the process of making it being their major motivators. Claire also mentioned the pleasure of meeting the people who buy her cards – she is often up at the village shop and talks to customers there. Westbury bread and asparagus are served at Silverstone for the celebrity lunches – but they are also available locally to anyone passing by, and with a jar of honey and a handmade card to celebrate, you can really toast the ingenuity and tenacity of those successfully setting up and running their own successful rural enterprise.