New chapter in store for Corfe Castle village shop

A Dorset village store with a 300 year history is passing into new hands, as the couple who rescued it from ruin 10 years ago, are retiring to see the world.

Custodians of the Castle Corfe Village Store since 2014, Terry and Carole Birnie, took on the historic shop after losses proved too great for the previous managers, despite a high profile BBC makeover by retail expert Mary Portas.

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Terry and Carole Birnie are looking forward to retirement after ten years at the village stores

A smile, local produce and choice

But Terry and Carole went back to basics by building up a business which earned a reputation for friendliness, local produce and choice – even down to the 450 different gins they stocked.

After their final day, Monday 11th March 2024, they will begin a journey which will take them to Australia and the Falkland Islands.

Before that, they will hand over the keys of the East Street store to new managers Carl Seaward and Sarah Macaulay, whose father used to run Swanage’s Red Lion pub.

The building itself dates back to 1697, when it belonged to the Dolling family, passing to the Jenkins family in 1745 by which time it was being run as an inn.

It was also a butcher’s, a plumber’s and a glazier in its history before the Bankes sold it to the Clealls family, who turned it into a grocer’s store in 1881.

BBC

Mary Portas had brave ideas to turn around the store’s fortunes, but ultimately they didn’t work

Mary, Queen of Shops

Despite a further change of ownership in 1934, the store remained known as Clealls until it closed down in 2014 despite Mary Portas – television’s Queen of Shops – giving it a makeover in a 2010 episode of her BBC2 show.

Store managers Chris and Juliet Porter, who also lived at the property in East Street, were said to be losing £6,000 a week when Mary Portas went in with the idea of selling high quality local produce and targeting tourists – the DFL (Down From London) second home owners, as she called them.

After Chris and Juliet admitted defeat, Terry and Carole took on the property, first renovating it and then rescuing it with a policy of stocking everything that could be needed at a village store, whether their customers were locals, campers or second home owners.

The building dates back to 1697 and has been an inn, a glazier’s and a butcher’s in its time

“Thoroughly enjoyed being part of village life”

Carole Birnie said:

“We had looked at the property before Mary Portas and would have liked to take it at that stage, but then we heard on the grapevine that she was coming in.

“She tried to make the business more successful for the previous couple, but they went under within four years and we took over then.

“The place was completely empty and we spent £120,000 fitting it out, as fridges and freezers cost a fortune. We also had to renovate the flat above with a new kitchen, bathroom, carpets, boiler – we must have spent another £70,000 upstairs even though it’s not our property.

“We have been here for ten and a half years and have thoroughly enjoyed being part of village life. It has also been a privilege to be a small part of the story of such an historic building.”

Something for everyone on the shelves, including much fresh and local produce

“The tourist year has got longer”

Terry and Carole were certain they could restore the fortunes of the village store by following basic principles – being a focal point of Corfe Castle, always being friendly and catering for everyone who came through the doors.

Terry said:

“I hate to hear the phrases DFLs or grockles, they are the people who keep this shop running and we need to nurture them, not be rude about them.

“We are very lucky that we can live and work down here, not have to work in London to make a living and then come here to get away from the city.

“It can be manic here in summer, and we have noticed that the tourist year has got longer, it’s busy up to November – once the schools go back for autumn, the older visitors come here for walking holidays.

“We make sure we can cater for the festivals, have staples for the walkers, campers and cyclists, but also have the luxury items too. A good quarter of the village is holiday homes, who come back here to use us year after year.

“You can buy everything here, it’s all fresh, and they soon learn that we are a better place to come to for their needs than Tesco. We also try to get in as much local produce as possible, as everyone who lives here really believes in supporting local businesses.”

A small corner of the Corfe Castle shop’s famous gin emporium

“When it comes to gin, people want a choice!”

Then there is also the gin emporium that Terry and Carole became famous for, which stocked up to 450 different gins at its height and ran regular tasting sessions.

The shop even had its own gin made up for it, Cromwell’s Ruin, with mayweed, elderflower and wild chamomile among the botanicals, which Terry and Carole picked from local fields.

Carole said:

“When it comes to gins, people want a choice! Visitors want a local gin to take back home, it turns out there are a lot of people who collect local gins wherever they go, like fridge magnets, but better!

“You’d be surprised how many Dorset gins there are, so we would organise regular taster sessions – from the outside we might just look like a normal store, but on the inside we had a gin emporium!”

CHANNEL 5

Celebrity campers Michelle Collins, Stephen Bailey, Cheryl Baker, Joe Swash and Bobby Davro joined Terry and Carole for gin tasting

“You never know who might come in here”

The village store has had its fair share of celebrity customers over the years and Terry said:

“You never know who might come in here, they may be ordinary tourists, they may be multi millionaires, and it’s important to treat them all the same.

“Famous people do walk in and you need to treat them all with courtesy, even though people do not always treat you courteously.

“People come in with a long face, but it’s nice if you can make them feel better, it’s very rewarding when people come back and thank you for looking after them.”

A new chapter is ready to begin in the life of the village stores

“We will really, really miss this life”

Carole added:

“Sometimes you don’t recognise the famous customers, they walk in, you serve them and they walk out again – they’re on holiday a lot of the time and want their own private life.

“We had the television architect George Clarke in here and I didn’t recognise him at first even though he had his sound crew in with him, waiting behind him. But once we realised, we just had to ask him the question, are you going to rebuild the castle?!

“We had Andrew Ridgely from Wham, who the girls swooned over. He was on holiday and said it was nice to be normal for a while.

“And we also took part in the Channel 5 show Five Celebrities Go Camping which featured Cheryl Baker, Joe Swash, Michelle Collins and Bobby Davro, who stayed at Burnbake and came here to do some gin testing, it was lovely.

“We will really, really miss this life.”

Carl Seaward arrives at Corfe Castle from Bridport, where he was manager of the town’s Spar shop

“It’s time to hand the baton on”

The couple have invested part of their retirement fund in a motorhome so that they can tour the UK, but first plan to visit their daughter in Australia, where she works at a racing stables in Melbourne and has discovered a talent for camel racing.

They will also visit the Falkland Islands as Terry is a war veteran from the 1980s conflict, when he worked as an electrician on HMS Endurance.

Carole said:

“Corfe Castle is a beautiful village, the people have been brilliant, they have supported us all the way through and become friends.

“The years we have been here have flown by, but we have so much more that we want to do and if we don’t go now, we’ll be buying our plots in the cemetery.

“But we know we are leaving the shop in safe hands – Carl and Sarah are young and enthusiastic, they have experience in the trade and we feel that Corfe Castle village stores is going into safe hands. It is time to hand the baton on.”

Watch Mary Portas rebrand the shop in 2010

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