A.T. Welch - the Nantwich butcher’s shop carving a future from the past
PUBLISHED: 00:11 13 June 2013 | UPDATED: 22:58 23 October 2015
WORDS BY MARTIN PILKINGTON PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS
A.T. Welch in Nantwich is Narnia with good coffee and fine foods, inevitably including Turkish delight for Edmund. But here, it’s customers not coats you squeeze past making your way through this corridor of a shop. And just as in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, hidden away at the end is something rather magical.
The shop with its tiny frontage is run by Roger and Stuart Austin, the fourth generation of their family involved in the grocery trade. ‘It’s been in the family since 1967 when our parents bought it from the Welch family,’ says Stuart: ‘Goes on forever doesn’t it? 145 feet in total.’
Yet at its widest the store is just twelve feet across, at its narrowest a mere eight. Then near the end, at what is until the last moment a hidden opening, there’s a very special surprise – their replica 1940s grocery store.
‘We’re a traditional pork butcher – locally produced pork - plus a delicatessen, coffee shop and even a tourist attraction,’ continues Stuart: ‘You get a lot of tourist trade in Nantwich. And we get a few school parties coming to see the old shop display. Our parents put that together in 1982, and in 1986 we added the coffee shop beside it.’
Strangely the building housing this gem, 45 Hospital Street, is one of the few on that historic thoroughfare that’s not listed. The pick of them is the Grade I Churche’s Mansion. Similar half-timbered buildings present since the Nantwich fire of 1583 lean across the roadway towards one another, so in places the street narrows just like A.T. Welch’s premises, the (apparently) little shop revealed beyond a sharp bend. Happily you can park right in front for half an hour, though Roger warns me of the keenness of the traffic wardens.
The front of the shop remains as a pork butcher’s, as it was when Bill and Bronwen Austin bought the place. An elderly customer – on first name terms with Stuart – buys some fat bacon that to untutored eyes seems just bacon fat: ‘It’s home cured by us. We take the lean off it and cure the fat with dry salt – you won’t find that in supermarkets. And we make our own sausages daily too, no colour, no preservatives in those, ‘ says Stuart.
Other local produce sits on the shelves: Roberts’s bread, Mornflake Oats, and from nearby Stoke-on-Trent there’s Walker’s Nonsuch Toffee, brands that wouldn’t be out of place in the 1940s display. ‘I’ve been here 32 years, all my working life,’ says Roger. ‘A lot of brands have disappeared over that time, but some of the big names have been there forever and always will be – though they may be owned by different people now, and made in different places.’
Do Jacob & Co still do Puff Cracknells? Is Mansion Polish around, and Phillips’s Tea? Whatever happened to the Price in McVitie & Price’s Digestives? Packets and tins like those, collected by the late Bill Austin, make up the 1940s display, along with ration-era blue bags, grocer’s scoops, scales, colourful tin signs and a myriad other bygones.
Some of the names like Lion Brand and Carr’s of Carlisle may be found in both the museum-piece display and for sale in the main shop, but not perhaps at the same prices, indeed not in the same currency: Lyon’s 1/2d Milk Chocolate Bars and Fry’s Sixpenny Chocolate are two striking examples of that.
Small grocer’s shops are now almost museum-pieces themselves, the food business a tough one in which to survive. Roger says: ‘We’ve got plenty of supermarket competition, and that doesn’t make things easy – Aldi and Morrison’s nearby, Sainsbury’s that was knocked down to build a new one. How do we compete? With difficulty! But we can offer things that they don’t stock.’
There’s more to it than that. Personal service where the shopkeeper knows your name is surely to be valued even in a cut-throat world. Those quirky little brands that the giants won’t bother with too. And what price the addictive aromas of a fine food emporium? Proper bacon and sausages, a dozen types of coffee that can be bought for home or sipped in situ in the 90-seat café.
Spices, biscuits, cheese, chocolate, cooked meats... For some of us such things are as worthy of preservation as the architecture around Number 45 Hospital Street, which might not be listed but is definitely Grade I.