Celebrations as pioneering Itteringham Village Shop comes of age

When villagers rallied round to save Itteringham Village Shop in 1994, the portents did not look good.

Across Norfolk and beyond, shop, pub and post office closures were at their peak, and the pulse of countless communities was difficult to detect.

Now, as it celebrates its coming of age anniversary, the scheme has paved the way for hundreds of other projects across the UK, which have revitalised village amenities.

Yesterday evening, volunteers gathered at nearby Wolterton Hall for a party to celebrate their 18th birthday, and to reflect on almost two decades of swimming against the tide of decline.

And earlier one of the stalwarts of the shop delivered a rallying cry to other communities, urging them to fight for their facilities.

Mary Savage, who has been volunteering since Itteringham Community Association was established, said: 'These shops are vital, particularly in rural communities. They provide a place for people to meet and to talk.

'You need the right people around you, and it's hard work. But it's well worth having a go if your village shop is under threat.'

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Itteringham's shop and post office was threatened with closure in 1994, when long-serving shopkeeper and postmistress Brian and Dorothy Fairhead became ill. Mr Fairhead's father ran the shop before him, with the family connection beginning in 1908.

Mrs Savage said she and other villagers helped Mr Fairhead in the shop, learnt the ropes, then took the plunge to set up the community organisation.

She said: 'We had already lost the village school, and we didn't want the shop to follow. We formed an association, got legal advice and people bought �10 shares at the beginning.'

A grant from the Countryside Agency provided much of the early impetus as the community rallied round.

Eighteen years on and the shop, which also has a cafe, sells a range of locally-produced foods, drinks, plants and other products.

It is financed via a series of fund-raising initiatives, including open gardens, barbecues - and a pop-up restaurant run by committee member Mike Hemsley.

Mrs Savage said the intervening years had included some 'rocky times', and problems like a broken freezer meant more money needed to be raised.

The shop was initially leased on a peppercorn rent from then owners Lord and Lady Walpole. But they sold it, and subsequent owners have been happy to continue to lease the shop to the committee.

Mrs Savage said: 'We didn't think of ourselves as pioneers at the time, but it's clear that nobody really wants to take on village shops. Now there are something like 200 community shops in England.'

The committee are all volunteers, but everybody who works in the shop - who are all called managers - are paid.

Local support even extends to the supply of merchandise: some residents fill up the fruit-and-veg shelves with produce from their own gardens, free of charge.

There is a post office counter and a coffee corner with tables and chairs and, alongside, thanks to a connection with a book wholesaler, there is a selection of new paperbacks. The shop is licensed now.