IF YOU walked down Eccleshall High Street 400 years ago, many of the premises would have been occupied by shoemakers.
Even then, the town had a fair number of public houses such as the Garland, now the Royal Oak, the White Lion, The Cock, The Three Tuns and the Rainbow, and as the town prospered, so did the inns.
19th-century farming and the Corn Laws brought riches to Eccleshall land owners. The sweet shop on the corner of the High Street and Castle Street was run by Ma Jones, who was Eccleshall's first lady entrepreneur and had a large property portfolio.
Today, the town prospers again, but the shoemakers have been replaced by an eclectic row of delightful shops and businesses in the High Street. You can eat well and dress well in Eccleshall, without doubt, but tucked away in a little alley off the High Street you'll find Alley Cats Violins. Actually — you may hear his violins before you see them. The proprietor, Terry Brayshaw, is a man of many talents.
Alley Cat Violins, Rear of 41 High Street, Eccleshall. 01785 850429
He hand-makes violins and mends and restores them. But his passion is playing the violin, and that's what he often does in his tiny shop, with his faithful dog, Sophie, sat outside, patiently listening to her master's tunes.
"I just love music,” he tells me, "and I'm lucky enough to have successfully built up a property portfolio over the decades that enables me to pursue my passion for stringed instruments."
As a young man Terry joined the Merchant Navy and took a violin to sea with him thinking it might be useful to learn. Self-taught, he left the Navy and got a job in Birmingham where he was taught the skill of making violins by three craftsmen.
During that time he worked with Nigel Kennedy, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Fairport Convention and the CBSO. A career change saw him get into property development for a while, but his love of music drew him back to violins.
"I managed to buy this building I'm in,” he says. "I rent out next door so I'm lucky enough to be able to spend my days here surrounded by the musical instruments I love."
The 'here' he refers to is a tiny shop full of tools, oils and polish, and beautiful violins, cellos and a double bass, some of them covered in dust — giving the place a real craftsman's aura. This is the shop of a genuine music lover. If you need a violin or have one that needs some TLC, have a wander down Eccleshall High street and follow the music to find Terry.
The Earth Selection, 42 High Street, Eccleshall. 01785 851784
FURTHER down the road is one of Eccleshall's many exclusive clothing shops. Susan Farrier-Ray runs 'The Earth Selection' with Kate Telfer. They only stock garments made from made natural fibres — so they have row upon row of gorgeous linens, hemps, silks and cottons. There isn't a polyester or nylon to be seen. The shop is small and friendly, and above the counter is a thought -provoking message; ‘Wear what you and the Earth can afford’.
Susan is busy putting a customer's blue linen shift and gorgeous matching scarf into a trendy recycled bag made from old newspapers, and she's chatting away. "This is our second career actually,” she says. "Kate and I have been best friends for 40 years, and we worked together in social care for the council for 34 years, then retired and got into fashion retail.
“We opened this shop in Eccleshall three years ago and love it. We're lucky enough to be able to run it as a hobby, so we really enjoy what we do and our customers see that. We're fabric freaks. We only buy natural materials that feel fabulous on the skin. If it doesn't feel nice we don't stock it."
All their accessories are fair trade or ethically traded. Their suppliers include Saskia, Eva Tralala, Braintree, Capri, and they're the first UK stockists for the Florida brand, OneLife. "Eccleshall's great for clothes shopping now,” says Kate. "All the shops complement each other, and once you've browsed them all there are some lovely places to get a coffee, like The Artisan.” Before I leave, I comment on Susan's eye-catching scarf. She shows me four different ways to wear a scarf and with a flourish, turns one into a light, floaty jacket in a matter of seconds. You can see her do just that here:
Sean Hirst Flowers etc. 38 High Street, Eccleshall. 01785 85950
A FEW doors away a sign says 'Sean Hirst Flowers', though no flowers are on display in the shop.
Instead, there's a mixture of stylish household objects — all of a similar, cool, calming colour, and a myriad of textures; linen, wool, metal, stone and wood. It's very relaxing.
"We are predominantly a florist but our message is really about lifestyle, ” says Sean Hirst. "I used to work from home and this shop is a reflection of my style and so the kind of floral decorations we do. The decor is very "loft" and 'barn conversion', and our floral style is very country, it's not metropolitan.
“Our style is natural, unconstructed and as if just from the garden."
Sean used to work in the ceramics industry as a stylist, and learned his craft from watching and working with florists.
"We have a lot of repeat business from clients and word of mouth serves us well," explains Sean. "We love doing house flowers for local customers. One of my clients is a friend of Elton John's. He ordered flowers from us for Elton and then collected and delivered them by helicopter." The backroom of the shop is cool, and this is where Sean has assembled huge vases of fabulous fresh flowers in creams and greens, ready to make one of his natural, tumbling bouquets for a lucky bride this weekend.
James du Pavey, 11b High Street, Eccleshall, 01785 851886
OVER the road is a relatively new, Eccleshall-based estate agents — James du Pavey. I can see 'For Sale' and 'Sold' signs with his name on outside properties from where I am standing in the High Street. James launched his business in 2010, and just two months after launch, he had 60 local properties on his books.
He learned his trade with Reed Rains, running its flagship branch in Chester before returning to live in Eccleshall and set up his business. "Eccleshall is a close knit community where a lot of business is done by word of mouth," explains James. "For us, that's great, because it means we come recommended. I think in my business the personal touch is what makes all the difference. Because we're based here and know the area, we can give our customers more time and attention than bigger, more distant agencies.
“We're known for not over-promising and for being honest with our clients." James is involved with Totally Locally — a group that helps improve local economies by using local — he employs local people and uses local services. He's optimistic about the housing market and sales in Eccleshall are going well. "The market's been static for a while generally, but things are starting to pick up and we are starting to see some growth. We're always busy — but things will get even busier!"
James has opened a second branch in Stone.
The Artisan Specialist Coffee Shop, 14 High Street, Eccleshall. 01785 851 555.
BY NOW the smell of coffee is wafting down the High Street. I obviously have no choice but to follow my nose and I end up in the award-winning The Artisan coffee shop, and faced with a display of fresh homemade cream cakes.
The decor is comfy and stylish, with a nook and cranny for all types to relax in. Owner, Claire Young's inspiration for the coffee shop was a result of years of backpacking, sampling coffee and baking around the world.
"Opening the shop was rather a whim," she says, "I had very little business acumen and an even rougher business plan but a huge amount of experience and motivation.
“It was essential to me that I recruited local suppliers and that everything – from the coffee to the chutney was homemade by me.
“As we grew, I needed to take on staff — and I've been lucky to work with some of the loveliest, most loyal and hardworking girls in Eccleshall, without whom there would be no coffee shop. The satisfaction of being at the hub of the community and being involved in the locals’ lives is something I have never known before and I really enjoy being a part of it. I never imagined living in a small English town and running the local coffee shop but I love it. I live walking distance from work and have made some wonderful friends here. As a new mum, I have a new appreciation of the simple things — being able to walk into town; the Co-op; a child-friendly coffee shop and many baby groups. The recent Totally Locally campaign has reunited the town — the residents, retailers and schools are closer then ever and I'm sure my child will really enjoying growing up here.
This feature is taken from the September issue of Staffordshire Life, which will be out in shops on Friday, August 23rd.