Town of many talents

Words by:
Melanie Burton
Featured in:
February 2014

The unspoilt Lincolnshire town of Horncastle, a chartered market town since the 1200s, has much to offer locals and visitors alike – from a range of specialist eateries, independent shops and long-established family businesses to a rich heritage which attracts tourists from all over the world.
Though dubbed the ‘antiques centre’ of Lincolnshire, with its vast array of shops specialising in antique timepieces, collectables, bric-a-brac and traditional English crafted furniture, it has a unique character of its own because of the variety of products and services it has to offer.

It was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was listed as consisting of forty-one households, including twenty-nine villagers and twelve smallholders, and had 100 acres of meadow and two mills, all belonging to King William.

And it was once renowned as the venue for the world’s largest horse fair. At its peak in the 1800s, buyers and sellers were arriving from all over Europe to trade.

Unfortunately the horse fair slowly declined over the years, until ceasing in the mid-1900s. Despite this, trade continued in the streets of the town, and today it still holds markets on Thursdays and Saturdays.

It is the independent, long-established family-run businesses, however, which make Horncastle the popular destination it is today.

Agricultural and horticultural business J T Friskney Ltd has been putting Horncastle on the map for more than 100 years, having been established back in 1909.

Managing director, Eric Young said: “We are an old established family firm, having been here since 1909. Last year was very varied for us because we operate so many businesses. But we look forward to a happy and bright future after serving the town for 105 years.”

Perkins newsagents and stationers in the Market Place is another familiar landmark in the town. Current owner, Graham Perkins is the third generation member of his family to run the business since it opened in 1920.

He said: “Horncastle people are very loyal and don’t like change. There is never a bad year in Horncastle, but 2013 was very good. The good weather brought a lot of visitors to the town, particularly from the coast and we are hoping for the same again this year.

“Horncastle is a unique town with a lot of interesting, independent shops. The antique shops bring people in and there are plans for a lot more housing, but market days don’t seem to be as good as they used to be and parking has worsened.

“But we did have a better year last year than the one before and we can be busier on a weekday now than on a market day.”

Another familiar spot on the landscape is Crowders Nurseries, which has been trading for more than 200 successful years, across seven generations of the Lincolnshire-based Crowder family.

The Garden Centre celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, having opened in 1983. It remains an important business within the historic market town. Centre manager, Ken Davison said 2013 turned out to be a good year for Crowders and for the town as a whole.

“Spring was dreadful but once the weather changed, there was no going back and we ended the year with a bang which was very good. We are looking to keep it going this year,” said Ken.

“You can feel people are more comfortable with spending their money but it has highlighted that we are weather-dependent and seasons have changed, which makes it very difficult to make sense of it. But the feeling out there is good.”

Supported by the 120-hectare nursery, many of the plants, trees and shrubs sold in the garden centre are homegrown, and with Botts Coffee Shop and The Redwood Restaurant on site Crowders is also a popular visitor attraction.

Horncastle might not be the busy market town it once was but it still has a character all of its own thanks to the niche family-owned businesses that have served the community for so long.

Myers Quality Bakers is another successful local family business which has continued to go from strength to strength, even during the recent economic recession.

Established in Lincolnshire in 1901 and famed for their delicious Lincolnshire plum loaves, Myers first appeared in Horncastle in 1969 when they opened their traditional bakery shop. Since then they have added a café tearoom serving breakfasts, light lunches, afternoon teas and a tempting homemade cake range and more recently a cheese shop and delicatessen – home to over sixty fine quality cheeses, fresh olives and speciality foods.

The family believe it is important to vary their selection on a regular basis and always offer customers new and exciting products. This Christmas saw the introduction of a traditional Christmas pudding, made to a family recipe dating back to the 1940s. These went really well and were a big success.

As well as continuing to make more puddings, this year the family are keen to expand their buffet and catering service. Already popular with other local companies in the county, they are now offering it for parties and private functions.

Their latest outlet is The Country Stile, a giftware and home furnishings store which opened its door in June 2010. The shop’s extensive brand directory includes Gisela Graham, East of India and Newgate clocks and it has also launched an eCommerce site allowing customers to shop nationwide from the comfort of their own home.

Horncastle has much to attract visitors to the town, including St Mary’s Church which is the town’s oldest standing building, dating back to the thirteenth century, and which contains thirteen scythe blades believed to have been used in the Lincolnshire Rising of 1536.

It is also home to the Sir Joseph Banks Centre, which is the base for the Sir Joseph Banks Society and which houses a growing reference library to the famous British explorer, who is one of Lincolnshire’s famous sons and one of the greatest figures in Georgian England.

Sir Joseph Banks inherited his father’s estates in Lincolnshire and considerable wealth in 1761. His first voyage of discovery was to the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador on HMS Niger. On his return to London in 1767, he was elected a member of the Royal Society at the age of just twenty-three.

Banks became the friend of George III, with whom he shared an interest in agriculture and rural affairs. From 1773 he acted as unofficial director of the Royal Gardens at Kew.

Banks organised the first Kew collectors, including Francis Masson, James Bowie and Allan Cunningham, and specimens arrived from all over the growing British Empire. Under his supervision, Kew became one of the foremost botanical gardens in the world.

This year marks the end of an era for one of Horncastle’s long-established antiques businesses.

Alan Read Antiques in West Street, which specialises in seventeenth and eighteenth century furniture and accessories, is to close its doors in the spring after helping to put the town on the antiques map for the past eighteen years.

“I have been in business for thirty-two years, eighteen of which have been in Horncastle, and I was one of about twelve similar shops in the UK. Now I am one of only two left. The demand for high quality English furniture has fallen,” said Alan.

“Over the past ten to fifteen years there has been an oversupply of low-priced, imported furniture. Nearly all the long-established English furniture makers, some going back three generations, have decided to call it a day.

“Furniture trends do rotate but I feel that when confidence returns, there will be few retailers left.”

Alan’s love of beautiful furniture stems from his grandfather, F W Read, a Lincolnshire farmer who spent much of his spare time at country house sales at a time when many of the large estates were being split up and the large houses divested of their contents.

As a boy he was fascinated by the wonderful old furniture and objects his grandfather brought home and lovingly squeezed into his house, piled high and smelling of beeswax.

“I will be endeavouring to sell most of my stock at substantially reduced prices, so there will be some bargains. It is a shame but it is all about confidence. When people are feeling upbeat they will buy nice things, but at the moment they are holding on to see how the economy shapes up,” he said.

Alan Read Antiques has been located in the same spot since it first opened its doors in May 1996, three days after the birth of Mr Read’s first son.

“Singing and composing are an important part of my life,” said Alan, who belongs to the Lincoln Cathedral Consort, which has just returned for its Lent term. He has recently laid down some more songs at a local recording studio.

Alan’s shop is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, from 10.30am to 4pm, and on Saturdays from 10.30pm to 3pm, and he will be delighted to show customers some real bargains.

A popular coffee house in the heart of Horncastle is going from strength to strength even though it has only been open just over two years.

The Old Stables in the Market Place, set up by former special needs teacher Jonathan White and his partner Christopher Wilkinson, is already a multi-award-winning business for championing Lincolnshire produce and as a business of the year.

But the pair are not resting on their laurels and are already looking for ways to continue their success.

“It was slow at first but it has got busier and busier and is going from strength to strength,” said Jonathan.

“Within our first year we were recognised for our commitment to Lincolnshire produce, when we won the East Midlands Local Food Heroes award. Then we were voted a Business of the Year in 2012 (Lincolnshire Pride Awards 2012).

“We have come a long way in a short space of time. But you can’t afford to be complacent and we are now looking at what the next step is.”

The Old Stables has built its reputation not only as a friendly haven whose motto is ‘relax, refresh and revive’ but also for celebrating the best of Lincolnshire produce, with ninety-five per cent of its menus made with locally sourced ingredients.

“I’m a farmer’s son and Chris is a butcher’s son so we set out to be champions of Lincolnshire produce. We have one of the most extensive Lincolnshire-based, changing seasonal menus and we are aiming to get Horncastle identified as a food area, which I don’t think it is at the moment.”

The Old Stables has started doing outside catering and ‘on the go’ sandwiches and also introduced Sunday lunches in November which have proved extremely popular.

“This spring we are looking to do hampers but rather than provide the wicker picnic hampers we have created a hamper range which comes in a sturdy case, so it can transfer into your own picnic hamper,” said Jonathan.

“We are also set to open a traditional deli in 2014 where customers will be able to buy everything for a meal from start to finish.”

The Old Stables has been described as ‘a little oasis of calm’ but there is never a dull moment and it is often the first port of call for a lot of the older members of the community.

“We are not a quick pit stop. We like our customers to sit, relax and and let the world slip by,” added Jonathan.

“We are evolving and we don’t just sit back and think how well we have done. You have to be looking at how to improve customer experience.”

As much as is possible, The Old Stables makes everything from scratch even its mini shortbread biscuits.

“We make about 800 a week but it has provided employment for an ex-pupil of mine. I still have links with local schools and pupils come in and practice their life skills. It is a unique relationship which we want to keep going and wherever possible we try to forge these links with the community.

“We work together and have great relationships with a lot of businesses in the town because if we don’t work together we will lose our individual independent shops.”

The Great British Bake Off television programme has done much to inspire a new generation of bakers in the country. But one Horncastle business has been doing that for years.

Horncastle Cake Art was opened in the Bull Ring by Haltham born Dinah Ward back in 1993 and she has been teaching cake decoration and sugarcraft ever since – achieving her City & Guilds and Adult Education Teaching certificate soon after.

“When I first started teaching the majority of students were mature ladies but recently the average age has reduced significantly and many younger people have taken it up, either as a hobby or as a way of earning extra cash,” said Dinah.

“I love the teaching aspect and it would be the last thing I would give up. I regularly teach at North Hykeham, near Lincoln and the Grammar School in Horncastle. I also hold classes in Belchford.

“2013 has been good for the cake decoration business. The Great British Bake Off has inspired a whole new generation of bakers and giving classes is the expanding side of the business. Most of the classes this past year have been fully booked.”

A new programme of classes for 2014 is about to get underway, including Saturday classes at North Hykeham from 1st February, evening classes at Belchford from 4th February and others at Horncastle Grammar School from 12th March.

Dinah started her business twenty years ago and has never looked back, moving into larger premises in North Street just six years ago.

“I have lived in Horncastle all my life and attended school here. I have a very loyal customer base and have made cakes for some customers for most of the twenty years I have been in business.

“I cannot say I make cakes for royalty but in the summer I was asked to make a cake for Jools Holland when he was performing in Skegness.”

Horncastle Cake Art is located within the Horncastle Hobby House Shop but Dinah says customers should not be deterred by the wool and crafts – the business has a large display area in the back of the shop.

“My customers come from all over Lincolnshire to buy their sugarcraft requirements, as they can rely on not only getting the items they need, but also getting help and advice on how to produce their masterpiece,” said Dinah.

Horncastle Cake Art is a family business making wedding and celebration cakes and stocks a large range of sugarcraft equipment along with icing, boards, boxes and cake decorations.

“We offer a photo cake printing facility and we can also offer a personalised ribbon print service. Cakes can be vanilla, chocolate, lemon or fruit and we also make gluten-free and special diet cakes.

“Our cakes are all made fresh to order in our bakery at Belchford in the Lincolnshire Wolds. They can be made for every occasion, each cake being handcrafted and personalised.”

Despite the milestone anniversary, Dinah says it will be business as usual.

“I haven’t planned anything special for my 20th anniversary. I am just grateful I am still here to enjoy it,” she said.

“Horncastle is a lovely little market town with many unusual and specialist shops, but I feel that our local and county councils do not help us enough to attract people to come to our town.”

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