Meet the Norfolk residents who fought back and won

Water Rats jazz band playing in the White Horse Upton pub garden three weeks ago.

Water Rats jazz band playing in the White Horse Upton pub garden three weeks ago. - Credit: Archant

What a difference two years has made to the 600 residents in the neighbouring villages of Neatishead, Irstead and Barton Turf.

Community effort - the official opening of White House Stores, Neatishead. Norman Lamb M.P on hand t

Community effort - the official opening of White House Stores, Neatishead. Norman Lamb M.P on hand to cut the ribbon and buy a few essentials. Photo:Steve Adams

Retired stockbroker David Skinner recalls the day the White House Stores - once Neatishead's thriving hub and the last shop serving the three communities affectionately known as NIB - shut down with a seemingly inescapable finality.

Across The Street, the fortunes of the Punch Taverns-owned White Horse Inn were dwindling and it seemed only time before it followed suit.

In Mr Skinner's words, the community was 'dying' with villagers seldom even crossing paths in the street.

'We all missed walking down to the shop to collect our papers and chat to people,' he said.

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'I had friends who were thinking of moving here, but when they discovered the shop had closed they moved to Stalham instead.'

Nothing could seem further from that desolate picture on a bright August morning earlier this week.

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It was 'cake morning' at the reincarnated White House Stores - now a coffee house as well as evolving into so much more than a convenience shop - and villagers were sitting outside reflecting on their achievements.

There were constant greetings, smiles and laughter as a stream of residents entered the shop to buy their milk and papers.

The White Horse Inn, liberated from pub company ownership by local businessman Ian McFadyen, has undergone a remarkable revival, clearly shown by the exhausted 10am look of landlord Ricky Malt, while on the Barton Turf road something almost revolutionary has happened. Bucking the trend of closures, a new business - a beautician's - has actually opened.

It is a story that gives fresh hope to countless other villages living in the shadow of a Tesco store, which controversially muscled into nearby Stalham 12 years ago.

Retired banker Keith Copperwheat explained how the fight-back had begun at a public meeting when 100 local people packed Neatishead hall to explore the idea of re-opening White House Stores as a community-run shop.

After thorough preparation and guidance from the Plunkett Foundation - a charity set up to help rural enterprises - the Three Villages Community Association was born.

In no time at all, 250 villagers had bought £10 memberships and many also invested in a shares scheme that quickly raised £50,000; grant funding enabled the association to reach its £150,000 target to buy and renovate the shop.

Schoolteacher Colin Gilbert said: 'Because the shop had been empty the water had frozen, leading to the property being flooded. However, that helped us in a way as we had to start again. With a lot of voluntary work we ended up with a new shop.'

Mr Skinner, who is chairman of the association, said: 'It is a convenience store but a lot of people try to do most of their shopping here. There is a good variety of stock with an emphasis on local produce.

'Lots of people meet here as a social activity and find someone to talk to.'

He said they had been able to peg prices to a level competitive with supermarkets while, crucially, still making a profit.

'We have seen sustained use from the local community and, additionally, we get a lot of holiday cruiser traffic from Neatishead staithe which is only 300 yards away,' he said.

'Once we have let the flat over the shop our net income will increase even more.'

The shop has three paid staff - 'to guarantee cover' - with volunteers working at other times.

He said while the maths clearly stacked up it was vital for any village embarking on such an initiative to do thorough groundwork and run it rigorously as a business to avoiding getting into a financial pickle.

It is here that Britain's ageing population comes into its own with a growing supply of retired professionals with expertise and time on their hands.

Mr Skinner said: 'One of the key factors in the shop's success is the friendliness of the staff; people sometimes come down here and stay a couple of hours.'

Mr Malt, pictured, said the White Horse was now into week 14 of its renaissance after a five-month closure for a complete refurbishment.

It has quickly become a magnet for locals, including the '6 O'clockers' who congregate on a Friday, and the restaurant under head chef Jamie Moore has become so successful you need to book at weekends.

He said the success of the shop had helped to breathe new life in the pub.

'It all works together in harmony with businesses helping each other.

'At the end of one lunchtime when we had virtually run out of food, we sent a party of 30 over to the shop for sandwiches and told them they could eat them in here,' he said.

'The pub has once again become an important community hub; locals who have not been seen for three years are coming in.'

Jade Rivett, 24, said the renewed buzz in the villages - 'There is so much going on with activities at the village hall as well' - had been a factor in her opening her salon, Indulge, at the Iken Leisure Pool.

Previously operating as a therapist out of one room, she moved into a renovated barn earlier this year, taking on an employee, Eliza Oakden, and renting space to holistic therapist Celia Smith.

'We have doubled our trade since April and it is nearly all local people who have heard about us through word of mouth,' she said.

Local wood craftsman and district councillor Paul Williams has been determined to breathe even more life into the villages by opening his studio to tourists and developing the 'Two Rivers Craft Trail' with other artisans, including villager Penny Graham-Jones, a textile artist.

Others nod when he says that over and above the efforts of individuals, it is the villages' 'strong sense of community' that has fuelled the fightback.

With legendary landlord 'Winkle' (AKA Ray Norman) trying to retire after more than 30 years - and finding no takers - the future for the White Horse in Upton, near Acle, seemed bleak.

However, the ghastly spectre of homes replacing the pub was banished when villagers raised the first £100,000 to buy the Chapel Road property themselves.

Two years on that total has reached £120,000 with the number of shareholders paying a minimum of £250 into a community interest company standing at 200 and growing.

'Sixty per cent are villagers but the other 40pc come from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong,' said committee member Peter Crook, the retired owner of a PR company.

He acknowledged that it had not always been an easy journey with the monumental list of tasks - from renovating the building and replacing kitchen equipment to finding good chefs and wading through grant applications - burning out the first valiant committee members.

But the re-born pub's second birthday has been cause for celebration in more than one way, coinciding with the end of its financial year.

'Food sales are up 102pc on the first year and overall, we are 26pc up. The pub is already in profit and there is still a lot more to go,' said Mr Crook.

'We are attracting a huge number of local people and we have built on the fact we are the only commercial consumer business in the village by adding other things such as quiz nights and bingo and bringing in wi-fi.'

There is already a meeting room at the pub and next year they are aiming to develop their position as a community hub by opening a convenience store and launching a local meals-on-wheels service.

Enthusiasm is clearly bubbling over on the committee, which includes retired engineer Malcolm Steward and Kerry Durrant, the MD of a green energy firm, and there are countless other plans, including one for camping pods at the end of the garden.

However, Mr Crook cautioned: 'With any community business there is a limit to speed; you have to bring the village with you.'

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