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Archives for November 2010

Can Somerset really turn back time?

Dave Harvey | 17:07 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010

Shepton Mallet is throwing a party. There will be music, market stalls, a hog roast. Why? Well, in the teeth of the recession, the town's little shops are booming.

The Butchers in Shepton, as recreated for Turn Back Time

The High St butcher's been re-opened, just across from Devlin's the brand new family bakery. You wouldn't believe this, but behind the copper kettles and brass bells of S Grant-Jones the Ironmongers, they'll even forge you a candlestick.

Who says the recession has decimated town centres? Who's afraid of the big bad retail park? Not with Sergison's Grocery selling Angelica by the ounce.

OK, we're in fantasy land. Not completely mind, this is a television fantasy. In a massive social experiment, BBC One re-opened family shops in Shepton, fitted them out with period props and the brought real shopkeepers from across Britain to run them. They call it "Turn Back Time", and it certainly feels lifelike.

"This is unbelievably hard," puffs Karl Sergison, the grocer. "I don't know how these poor buggers did this in the old days." In 2010, Mr Sergison is a real shopkeeper, running a deli in Lincolnshire with his wife Debbie. For him, taking part in the TV experiment was a dream come true.

The Ironmongers, recreated for

"The Victorian grocer was the hub of the community," he says on the programme, "it would be nice to get that sense of community back."

In Shepton, that's a popular view. With the inevitable retail park at the top of town, the high street has been decimated. Dozens of shops lie empty, their windows whitewashed. The TV company had the pick of the place when they looked for new premises. Then, for six weeks in the summer filming, the town buzzed with excitement.

Every week, a new era. From Edwardian toy shops to a Seventies Milk Bar, the town's shoppers were in retail heaven. Mandy McKenna loved it.

"My kids thought it was the best ever," she tells me. "Specially the Milk Bar." It was more than just getting stuff, this was shopping as community, as entertainment, as life.

Modern shopkeepers take on Victorian shops, in Turn Back Time, BBC One

So, when the stardust fades and the TV trucks roll on, can Shepton do it for real?

Mandy's giving it a go. With a friend she's taken a lease on the old dressmaker - and has just opened a new place called WooHoos, selling glorious vintage. It's very now.

I'm impressed she and Zoe have got it together, in the few weeks since filming ended.

"We already had some gear we sell online, and Zoe has a shop in Bruton," she tells me. But although online sales are good, "people feel more comfortable buying from a firm with a physical shop, a real place to go."
Now there's an insight into the new world of e-commerce.

There's talk of the Milk Bar being re-opened too, it was such a hit, maybe by a community group as a not-for-profit enterprise.

So far, it feels like a party. Loads of good feeling, energy, music and a hog-roast. But can Shepton really beat off the clone town formulas that have claimed so many towns?

Can these funky new shops make a living? It could be every bit as hard as making Victorian bread and Edwardian butter.

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