Sandridge village store celebrates 10th anniversary
- Credit: Archant
Ram-raiders who slammed into a historic shop in the heart of a village left a buckled mess in their wake but 10 years later, the independent convenience store is a beacon for visitors and locals.
Looking at the attractive Darby’s The Old Village Stores in Sandridge, decorated in colour-coordinated heritage shades of moss green and white, it is hard to believe that a Range Rover was deliberately driven into the building.
David Hearn, who bought the shop a decade ago, recalls: “It was back in November 2005, and it was the first year I had the store. They rammed it in the early hours of a Monday morning with an old Range Rover. The driver hit the post by the front door, but they couldn’t get in.
“They nearly brought the building down. It was a crazy time as I came down and the police were everywhere. The door was twisted and jammed, so I had to crawl in and turn the alarm off.
“Everyone was standing in the street looking. I was totally heartbroken, because it was my shop and I had just bought it.”
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Although a police helicopter scoured the area for the offenders, the culprits were never caught - but the vehicle was found abandoned in nearby Nomansland.
Shaken by the incident, particularly as a family had been renting accommodation in the floor above the shop at the time of the ram-raid, David set about restoring the store to its former glory.
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He said: “We had to put support rods in because it was at risk of falling down further.”
Yet it was a long, hard slog as while insurance money was approved for the Grade II listed building, which dates back to 1670, it could not be reopened until February 2006 because extensive repairs were needed.
David said: “The store had always been busy but during the refurbishment many people went elsewhere to shop as their daily routine was upset. It took a long time to build the customer base back up.”
With the emphasis on convenience, Darby’s sells everything from Belgian waffles and frozen vegetables to Lotto tickets, alcohol, hot and cold food, along with jars of locally produced honey.
When the Herts Advertiser visited the store in the High Street, there was a steady stream of customers.
Some stop and chatted for a bit, while others were in a hurry, grabbing something hot to eat before dashing to their bicycle or vehicle parked outside.
Asked why he supports the store, customer Nick Bareham, of Wheathampstead, replies: “It sells the best pasties around, and it saves me having to go to Cornwall.”
At the time of this paper’s visit, no one seemed to notice the window packed with balloons celebrating David’s 10 years’ ownership.
In between serving customers, the 50 year old said he decided to take the plunge and run an independent store after being in charge of petrol stations in Ware and Luton.
He explained: “I wanted to do something independent because with Esso holding the garage franchise, they were becoming more controlling.
“This place was for sale as a convenience store so I approached the sellers as it had so much potential and character, even though it was run-down.”
Over the years the store has been an inn, a butchery, bakery and, more recently, it has been in the Darby family for about 100 years.
David has maintained close ties with one particular member of that family, ex-shopkeeper Eric Darby, who lives next door to the store.
Ironically, even though he initially faced stiff competition from supermarket chains opening stores nearby, including a Tesco Express in neighbouring Wheathampstead, this has actually encouraged people to support his store.
David said: “People crave tradition and the personal touch which you cannot get at the multiples. We do things like keep people’s newspaper for them. The increase in multiples has had a positive effect because customers are supporting me more and more as an independent.
“Grandparents bring their grandchildren down and say ‘this is how shops used to look’.”
One local addition which has had a major - albeit positive - impact is the recent development of visitor drawcard Heartwood Forest, with David saying, “we are getting lots of walkers in here.
“It has really put Sandridge on the map. It was a sleepy little village 10 years ago, but it’s so vibrant now. It’s been transformed by dog walkers and cyclists.”
Given the steady boost in patronage, David is opening tearooms next door by the end of this year, offering a wide range of locally sourced refreshments.
He said: “I love a challenge and I think this is a unique village shop.”