PUBLISHED: 23:52 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013
We couldn't find anyone with a bad word to say about Shipston-on-Stour. It really does seem to be one of those perfect market towns that people hanker after nowadays, and the businesses are thriving too. Jane Sullivan reports.
Living in Shipston-upon-Stour can be a bit of a culture shock for anyone who's ever lived in a big city. Ian Cooper arrived in the town four years ago. "It was quite shocking. When anyone walked past on the street they said 'hello'."
Coming from London via Oxfordshire Ian wasn't used to that sort of thing. People actually being friendly. A small town that actually had a sense of community. Businesses that supported each other. Shoppers who use the local shops instead of driving to the nearest big town.
This is what life in an English market town should be. Jaye Heckels of Niche boutique, is similarly appreciative. "I moved to Shipston about four years ago. I'd been in Stratford for 10 years before that and I really didn't want to come here because I loved Stratford but I am so glad we did. Shipston has really raised its game in the last few years.
"Apart from Boots the chemist all the shops are independent. Everyone here works really hard to keep businesses in the town going."
Ian Wallace, owner of The George Hotel agrees. "We have to work really hard because most of our customers are local people. It's not like Stratford or Chipping Campden where they know that their bread and butter customers will be in Tokyo or New York next week and a fresh load of customers will be coming in so they don't have to try too hard. Our pricing has to be right and our service has to be fantastic because we want our customers to come back again and again."
Ian has been at The George for 18 months, although he has lived in Warwickshire for a number of years. He is passionate about the town. "I can step out of the door and go to the bank and the shops. I can go out and buy a vacuum cleaner, go to the hardware shop or the bakers. It's a real town with real people in it."
Unlike other chocolate box towns and villages nearby Shipston doesn't have a housing crisis for its young people. "We don't tend to have a problem with social migration - and all the young people moving away because they can't afford houses and there aren't any jobs. There are jobs here and there are houses," says Ian. "Shipston is a great place to be doing business at the moment."
Ian Cooper would second that. He runs a financial consultancy service and is head of Stour United Businesses a group which enables businesses to network and which promotes Stour Valley businesses around the region. There are around 650 businesses in the Stour Valley and many of them are small to medium-sized and independently-run.
"There's a very lively business community and an enthusiasm for doing business here," says Ian. "It's helped by the variety of independent traders in the town. It's a community of small business and those businesses are very keen on supporting and promoting each other.
"To some degree Shipston is isolated from the other major towns in Warwickshire but that has ensured that there's more of a sort of community feel to the businesses here," says Ian.
It's true that the town may not be top of the tourist destinations. It's just down the road from tourist hotspots like Stratford-upon-Avon in the north and the Cotswold towns of Broadway, Chipping Campden and Stow-on-the Wold to the south and west. But visitors to the town will be pleasantly surprised at just how good the shopping is. And more and more people are coming into Shipston for specific shops says Jaye Heckels at Niche. "We've become a destination shop. When we opened six years ago we tended to get in our stock at the start of the season and not change it much until the end of the season. Now we have new things coming in every week so there is always something different."
The shop has a wide range of jeans including Not Your Daughter's Jeans from America and the German brand Michele Magic. "We find if the American cut isn't right the German jeans usually fit well," says Jaye. It's this attitude to pleasing the customer that has built up a loyal following in the six years since the shop opened, says Jaye.
Stour Business United group member, Susan Lewis, runs a marketing consultancy in the town says that Niche's experience is typical. "I know people who come from miles away to shop in Shipston," she says. "It's not one of those towns where all the shops are the same - in fact you won't find these shops anywhere else. In the last couple of years Shipston has really started to take off - there are some very interesting businesses and shops here now."
Walking around Shipston it's apparent that very little has changed - and yet so much has - since the days when the main income came from the sheep in these parts. There's a clue to its past history in the name of the streets - Sheep Street, for instance, and in the name of the town itself. The name of the town comes from the history of washing sheep in the river leading to the name Scepwaestune (literally sheepwashtown). Nowadays there's not much sheep washing going on but the town layout has changed little since medieval times, and the people here all know each other and they offer a friendly welcome.
If you're in Shipston on a Friday and you are at a loose end there are worse places to spend the evening than at The George Champagne Happy Hour (5.30pm) where Ian Wallace will sell you a bottle of champagne for 18. "We'll do 12 to 15 cases on a Friday night and the place is packed with people having a good time," says Ian. "We don't make a huge profit but it brings people in and it's just a small thank you to Shipston people for supporting us." And isn't that what small-town business is all about?