Upwell woman is setting out her Sheringham stall for a new career

For more than 15 years, Sharon Aldridge earned a living - and got lots of job satisfaction - running seminars to help the unemployed return to work.

Then, at the end of March this year, the government funding ran out and she found herself trading places with her clients.

Rather than feeling sorry for herself, Mrs Aldridge decided to take her own advice and 'do something different'.

And now, thanks to a bright idea that was born at a Spanish market, she is selling customised pet collars on a market stall in Sheringham - and is in the running for a national prize.

Mrs Aldridge, from Croft Road, Upwell, near Wisbech, has got to the second stage of First Pitch - a contest run by the National Market Traders' Federation (NMTF).

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Having reached the semi-final, she has received a free five-week pitch on Sheringham market.

And if she wins, she will join other entrepreneurs across the UK in getting reduced rates for a year and a �2,000 cash prize to boost her business start-up plans.

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Mrs Aldridge, who is married to Thomas and the mother of 15-year-old Rupert, Tilly, 10, and three-year-old Lottie, said: 'I've never done anything like this before. I come from a training background. I used to run training seminars for the unemployed.

'The government cut all the funding as of March 31. And I had always run these seminars with the message that people should think about doing something different. I thought it was time to practice what I preached.'

She added: 'I bought some collars in Spain and had never seen anything like them in the UK. I went back and checked out the hand-made collars, and attached different things to them to customise them.

'I did my first dog show on Norwich market on April 24.'

Mrs Aldridge, who gets the unadorned collars from Spain and from a supplier in Norfolk, attaches names, charms, decorations and all sorts of 'bling' to dog cat and even horse collars, according to the customers' requests.

She said: 'When I started out, I thought it was going to happen overnight. But you have to build it up. It's partly reputation and people getting to see what you've produced.'

Mrs Aldridge added: 'I've got an art degree and I've never done anything with it because I went into the training arena. It's fabulous being outside and creating something for somebody.

'I'm now applying to do a silversmith course, and I'm happier doing what I'm doing now.'

NMTF shortlisted the second stage candidates based on the most innovative, relevant and well thought out proposals received.

There were over 130 entries and more than 70 have been shortlisted to test trade throughout the UK during June in an attempt to get through to the final stage of the competition.

Up to 50 finalists will be chosen to run market stall businesses for 12 months from July 15 before the winning candidate is found.

NMTF chief executive Joe Harrison said: 'We are thrilled and overwhelmed at the interest from the public and also the support we have gained from market operators. It is clear that markets are a serious option for individuals looking to start their own businesses and we are seriously looking forward to watching our successful entrants develop while being mentored by experienced market professionals over the next 12 months.'

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