Behind the scenes at Bears in the Barn at Alcumlow Hall Farm in Congleton
PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 November 2013
Collectors and childen love the furry friends made and repaired at Bears in the Barn at Alcumlow Hall Farm in Congleton
If you go down to the Barn today, you’re sure of a big surprise.
Gail Cotterill, resident teddy bear maker at Bears in The Barn toy shop, Congleton, certainly has some surprising tales to tell with regard to her furry creations.
‘This one started out his life as a fake fur waistcoat,’ says Gail, referring to a handsome grey rabbit with a purple bow tie. ‘He’s a bit insecure about his ears, though, because they’re a bit small. The waistcoat was only a child’s, you see, so I had to work around the lack of material!’
The rabbit is not the only one with a interesting past life, however.
‘These bears,’ says Gail, gesturing to the rabbit’s companions, ‘were made from fake fur coats, and this other one started out as furniture fabric. I’ve got some more bears here which came to me in a dreadful condition and I restored them to their former glory.
‘As well as providing a teddy bear hospital service, I also make bereavement bears. If someone has passed away, I can make a bear from their fur coats, blankets, clothes. Any sort of material, really. I can also design bears if someone has a specific idea in mind. All they have to do is come in to the shop and have a chat about what it is they want.’
So, transformer of soft furnishings, rescuer of battered bears as well as designer of dream teddies? ‘Yes, I suppose you could say that!’ she laughs.
Gail’s magician-like skills in turning pieces of material into creations that wouldn’t look out-of-place in a Steiff shop window are not the only surprising, and possibly unique, feature of this little toy shop.
‘Only a few months ago, our shop was no more than a big, empty barn,’ explains the shop’s owner and Gail’s sister-in-law, Susie Cotterill. ‘Now, after a big redevelopment, we’ve got lovely little premises, and we’re surrounded by a whole host of other shops filled with antiques, jewellery, toys, home interiors and much more.’
Alcumlow Hall Farm recently opened as a retail space, and it feels like the perfect place to locate a handmade toys shop. There’s a children’s play area, a seated courtyard complete with a large water feature and stunning views of Mow Cop castle over the hills, and - perhaps most importantly - every flavour of Snugbury’s ice cream in the shop next door.
Susie says: ‘It began as a side-project of my husband’s decking shop at Glebe Farm in Astbury. We had success selling the bears in the decking shop so we decided to open another shop just for the bears in January 2013.
‘I now own the shop with my aunty, Ann Balderson. The name was based around our original location in one of the barns at Glebe. The reason we eventually left Glebe and moved to Alcumlow was because we were moved out of the barn and into smaller retail units. It just wasn’t right for us as there wasn’t enough room for the children to dive in and play about.’
So, given this, is it a fair assumption that most of the shop’s customers are children?
‘Not at all,’ says Susie. ‘We get both kids and collectors coming into the shop. Gail’s pieces are collectable and heirloom bears, but we also stock other teddy bears and eco-friendly wooden toys which are great for kids.’
‘In fact,’ adds Gail, ‘it’s the adults who seem to get more precious about their bears! That’s one of the reasons I love making them, though, because of the sentimental aspect and the attachment people have to their teddies. I’ve been making bears since 1975 and I’m still not fed up!’
Given these sentimental attachments, Gail has some interesting stories to tell.
‘I’ve recently worked on bears from the 1950s, and the oldest bear I’ve ever worked on was from 1912. I’ve had a lady who asked me to make her a bear from a fur coat her mother gave to her when she left Berlin during the War. I’ve also worked on bears with no heads that I’ve had to identify and fully repair.’
The most touching story, however, involved a forlorn-looking panda which almost became a teddy bear tragedy, had it not been for Gail’s handiwork.
‘One lady came into the shop and was so desperate to see her beloved teddy transformed,’ says Gail. ‘It was virtually unrecognisable as a panda, but I restored him to his former glory. When the lady came to collect him and was reunited with him, she burst into tears of joy because she’d had him since she was little. It was lovely to see that.’
Tears, teddy transformations and touching tales - it’s all just a day in the life of a teddy bear maker. n