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Shop til you Drop by Carole Varley in Fareham

PUBLISHED: 17:11 23 August 2011 | UPDATED: 10:33 21 February 2013

Shop keeper in Fareham

Shop keeper in Fareham

Carole Varley finds the gems in a diadem of shopping on a day trip to Fareham...

A dear little town was the way 19th century novelist Thackeray described Fareham and, though it has expanded considerably since then, it still retains some of its old charm. In those days it was prosperous as a ship-building centre, then, owing to its clay soil, it became known for its bricks, tiles and chimney pots (the Royal Albert Hall in London was built of Fareham red bricks), and this is still reflected in some of the place names dotted around the town, such as Kiln Road. Today, though, the towns chief economic activity is retail, which employs some 15 per cent of the local population. Indeed, Fareham has a long tradition in this area, having held weekly markets since the 12th century and today its twice-weekly market is one of the best in south Hampshire with up to 50 stalls, while its farmers market catches the foodie zeitgeist with all produce sold having been grown, reared, caught, brewed, pickled, baked or processed within the local area.

The retail heart of Fareham, though, is the modern Fareham Shopping Centre, which is the large, particularly for the size of the town, bright and breezy home of many well-known retailers, such as M&S and BHS, as well as four large, airy atriums for indoor refreshments and relaxation, bringing shoppers into the town from a wide surrounding area. You dont have to walk far down West Street, however, before you come across yet another shopping experience. This is the location of Farehams actual High Street, where the former Georgian shipbuilders once made their elegant homes and where theres a treasure trove of independent retailers nestling in the older buildings. Typical of these is Christine Lavender, who has been running her little gem of a shop, Dancewear, for the past six years.

I used to do ballet myself, she says, but gave up because of a shoulder injury, so when I decided to go into business, this was the natural choice. Christine, who had a variety of jobs before buying the shop, from working as a PA in an office, to working on cruise ships, jumped when the Dancewear business came up for sale six years ago in what is now a listed building, but was once just an alleyway. She hasnt looked back since.

I just love it, she says and so, obviously, do south Hampshires dancers, since it was actually quite difficult to get to talk to her, so busy was she with customers, from a little girl being fitted with pink ballet pumps, to a lady seeking satin shoes to match an outfit.

I do everything here from hand-dyed shoes and bags, to providing prom and bridesmaids dresses and tiaras, plus, of course, all the dancewear, from ballet, tap and jazz to ballroom, says Christine. Theres always a surge when Strictly Come Dancing is on the television, she chuckles. Although shes happy that Farehams large shopping centre is a great reason for bringing people into town, she thinks that perhaps many of them dont realise that, just a hop and a skip away (well, if youre a little ballerina, at any rate), theres a whole other world of niche shopping.

I am lucky enough to have some very loyal customers, she explains, and people come in from as far away as Winchester and all the villages around, because here the children can try on the shoes and dresses to make sure that they fit. But I dont think everyone knows that we are here.

One business thats certainly doing its bit to bring more footfall down that end of town, is High Street Sweets, which was opened by husband-and-wife team Anne and Richard Howard three years ago. When I visited, this Aladdins cave of irresistible candy was thronging with customers of all ages, buying everything from the traditional coltsfoot rock and aniseed balls to chocolate spoons, stem ginger and sweet tobacco, from coconut mushrooms to cinder toffee. Although the couple have always worked in retail, this is a very different area from their last enterprise, which was a garage. So why the big change? Howard explains, When we spotted this shop empty, I instantly thought that it was just right for what we wanted. Owning a sweet shop had always been a dream of mine, ever since I was small myself and hated it when assistants would go over your head to serve someone else. I wanted to right those wrongs. You see there are no signs about restricting children here. We can have 50 schoolchildren in here at a time without any problems. We look after them, and, in turn, they treat the shop with respect.

Even so, probably only about 10 per cent of their customers are actually children and Anne and Roger also sell a vast selection of their sweets wrapped up in gift boxes with champagne for special occasions, as wedding favours and for corporate hospitality. One of the perks of the job for the couple is that they get to taste every single sweet that goes into the serried ranks of jars that crowd the shelves to ensure that they are all top quality.

Everything sells, says Howard, but I suppose our top sellers are still the bon bons and everything liquorice, although we do evolve the shop around our customers and what they want. The main benefit of the business is, as Howard says, making people happy, Seeing a customer coming in looking miserable and leaving with a smile on their face; that makes me feel good.

High Street Sweets is a relative newcomer to this part of town, but one that has been going for almost half a century is Soothills bakery, which has become something of a landmark in Fareham.

It was started in 1952 by Mr Soothill, says the manageress Angela Moyse, who is the current owners daughter. My father came to work here when he was just 14, eventually becoming a partner, and it has been in the family ever since. I first started working here as a Saturday girl and then eventually took over as manageress.

Did Angela feel that the new branch of Tescos that was being built nearby would dent their trade in any way? If anything, Angela replied, she expected that it would be a good thing for bringing people down to that part of town, and already it was supplying them with more customers.

Each morning at 10 oclock, theres a line of luminous donkey jackets queuing in the shop, she says. Also we have a very good customer base. Its the pastries and pasties, made to their own special recipe, and the lardy cakes, made to an old recipe of Mr Soothills, that theyre coming in for, and since Tesco wont be selling any of those, it looks as if this David of shop can co-exist quite happily with the Goliath supermarket branch nearby.

Just around the corner, in an appropriately quaint 400-year-old building, I came across A Clean Sweep Fireplaces, which is the new kid on the block, having moved into the shop only three months ago, although its chimney-sweeping business has been going for much longer. This, too, is very much a family affair with owner Colin Majors father, also Colin and a retired telecoms manager, helping out in the shop. Cousin Brian Callard, who runs SBC Heating Engineers, installs the appliances, and the whole extended family has long experience in the antiques trade, according to Colin.

We provide a complete service, says Colin senior, from buying your fireplace to installing your log burner and central heating. We go across the whole spectrum. Colin was surrounded in the shop by all sorts of fireplaces and log burners, fire backs and fire buskets, dog baskets and log baskets, from reclaimed high Victorian to reproduction and contemporary. In fact, two of them, a door stop and a dog basket, even made it on to national television last month, as they negotiated a purchase from Cash in the Attic antiques expert John Cameron in an episode of Put your money where your mouth is.

Putting their money where their mouths are is something that could be said of all these independent retailers and long may they continue.

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