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I don’t know if you are like me but I am getting more than a little tired by the all-encompassing news of Brexit. Without getting into the arena of the politics of our withdrawal from the European Union I have to say that the conduct of my 5 year old grandson is infinitely more mature than the behaviour of many of the politicians and bureaucrats in the UK and in Brussels.

As a nation we are performing remarkably well, in spite of the inevitable uncertainties that exiting the EU was bound to create.

Every week I have proposals and contracts put on my desk for new investments being made by a wide range of businesses throughout the UK. A significant proportion of those contracts are for new-start businesses.

Whether it’s for leisure operations, the hospitality or retail industries, manufacturing or construction, we constantly are being asked to fund assets required to run a new business or for an existing operation wanting to expand.

In Devon alone there has been two stunning hotels opened recently, any number of new restaurants trading in Exeter and since Christmas I have visited two uber smart new pubs as well as many existing ventures investing in major refurbishments.

Now I don’t know about you or your locality but does any of this speak to you of recession? Does the performance of the Stock Market indicate that the country is sliding to disaster?

Whilst the entrepreneurs are busy creating wealth and new jobs – oh I forgot, there are now more people employed in the UK than ever before – the politicians, the media and analysts appear to want to create a climate of chaos and depression that is wholly at odds with what is required for a successful, sustainable economy.

It is in the British nature to be entrepreneurial and I have spent a lifetime working with them and studying their successes and their failures.

In order to continue to support the long-suffering, uncomplaining British business sector can I put in a request to send all our politicians, bureaucrats and media on a 5 year extended holiday. I would then make John Timpson autocrat-in-chief and wait two years for the UK to be the strongest, most dynamic nation in the World.

We can but dream!

I arrived home on Friday night with no plans for the weekend other than to see what fate had lined up for us. I didn’t have to wait long before a tornado seemed to rip through our valley, followed by torrents of rain. Someone upstairs appeared to have turned on the heavenly bath tap and left it running.

Saturday morning and it was apparent that gardening was off the agenda for the day. The family default setting, when rain stops play, is always, ‘Let’s go out for breakfast’.

A couple of Americanos accompanied by scrummy, sticky pain au raisons later and it was ‘What now?’. The boss said she needed a joint for the weekend and I immediately wondered how long she had been smoking pot. ‘No, a joint of meat for the pot, idiot. Now drive me over to Ilminster and I’ll get some pork from Bonners.

Dutifully I parked the car in the centre of this delightful old market town which was once a staging post between London and the South West. Now its main purpose is to be a dormitory town to Taunton and other exits on the M5.

Fortunately for Ilminster, many years ago a By-pass was constructed, leaving the centre uninterrupted by through traffic. Now, if you are in town it’s for a reason.

When we parked the whole place was abuzz with happy, relaxed, friendly folk going about their Saturday chores. The two pharmacies were busy, as was the newsagents. The garden shop and the interior design emporium with its life-size Father Christmas in the window were trading well. Obviously the card shop was packed with wrapping paper and card purchasers and the Kitchen Café was full of caffeine addicts waiting for dead men’s shoes.

Like so many towns in the UK, Ilminster has one or two of everything needed for a thriving community – even a really charming florist, festooned with festive wreaths. All this but a short walk from your car.

After a coffee and choosing a few more Christmas decs from Weave & Wood Interiors it was time for the Duchess to throw herself on the mercy of Clinton Bonner and his team.

As per always, I stood back and watched as the Bonner brigade went about their work, giving advice on which sausages would suit Mrs Roberts, made some fresh burgers while you wait for the duchess and took the trouble to walk around all the serve-over counters to gently put the change into the hand of petite, frail Peg.

All this commerce, advice and friendship (all the customers were referred to by their Christian names) overseen by the towering, smiling generalship of Clinton Bonner himself.

From time to time, Clinton would throw a glance to the open entrance of his adjoining deli, with all its westcountry cheeses, pies and pickles, in fact all that you might be offered in Fortnum & Mason or Harrods Food Hall.

A thriving country town, a significant selection of shops and one of the finest, most successful, award winning butchers and deli’s in the South West. WHY?

When the column fillers of Fleet Street are telling us our towns are finished and not fit for purpose, why should towns like Ilminster be bucking the trend? Who says the doomsayers of the national press are right? Let them tend to their falling circulation figures and stop putting hard-working retailers down.

The reason for the success of Clinton Bonner and the other small British retailers is easy to see – THEY CARE.

They take enormous effort to create quality products that the public want to buy, they work long hours (often way past when you see the doors close) and they care about their customers and take an interest in them. As I learnt at prep school, QED.

While our towns are filled with traders like Clinton and his staff I have no fear of Brexit or the future of our High Streets. Yes, change will happen, some will fall by the wayside and may deserve to do so, but quality and care will overcome all and prosper.

 

 

Yesterday we had the opportunity to get some Christmas shopping under our belt and we were prompted to drive to Sherborne in Dorset, a town we know well and always enjoy. This historic market town would not be everyone’s first choice for a serious shopping trip but its history and beautiful mellow stone buildings create an atmosphere which is hard to beat.

As you stroll down the centre of town you know you are walking in the footsteps of Sir Walter Raleigh, or as us westcountry boys call him, Walt. Bringing tobacco and potatoes back from the States may have brought him fame and wealth, with which he bought Sherborne Castle, but it didn’t give him street smarts. He only went and married one of Lizzie 1st’s ladies in waiting and got sent to the tower for his temerity. Lost his castle didn’t he, silly Elizabethan.

Sherborne also boasts an abbey and two public schools, Sherborne Girls School and Sherborne Boys School, which was the alumni for Sir Christopher Chatterway M.P. (pacemaker to Roger Bannister, him of the 1st four minute mile), Cecil Day-Lewis and Hugh Bonneville, later to be ennobled as the Earl of Grantham. For my younger readers Sherborne School was the educational springboard for a young Exeter boy called Chris Martin or otherwise known as Mr Gwyneth Paltrow or Mr Coldplay.

A very long preamble but it does set the scene for our shopping expedition. When you first arrive at Sherborne you are immediately made to feel wanted and welcome. Loads of cheap parking immediately behind the shops so you’re not worn out before you start and not far to carry all the packages back to the boot. So concerned are the locals to make you feel welcome that they name the main shopping street after the parking charges, Cheap Street and that’s where you need to start.

More thoughtfulness by the locals, most of the day they close Cheap Street to traffic, so you can relax and let the children off the leash. First decision you need to make, which of the many coffee shops is going to take my groats today? At the top of the street is Oliver’s, which is meaningful to me as the originator, John Oliver, was a friend and client for many years.

Two Americanos down and time to get serious with the shopping. Although tucked discretely behind Oliver’s is a Waitrose and there is a Boots, Smith’s and Fat Face in town, the majority of the shops are owner operated, giving much greater choice and variety to your purchases.

If you have an artistic leaning, when you come out of Oliver’s cross the road and entre the Little Art Shoppe, which is full of parchment, canvas and tubes and brushes to suit all.

A few steps down the street and you can’t help to be enchanted by the exterior of The Circus, a shop packed with gifts downstairs and upmarket ladies fashion appropriately upstairs.

Cilla and Camilla Cookshop will spoil you with the range of kitchen gadgets and Almondburys will amaze you with their choice of lighting. While you are absorbing this array of quality wares send his lordship into Abbey Décor, an old fashioned hardware shop. Every tool he needs for his shed but has never found or bought – that will keep his quiet while you sneak into Biggie Best and the Abbey Pharmacy & Perfumery. See if he catches you up before you get to the Melbury Gallery (no, not more canvases, Oska clothing and jewellery) and the Pear Tree Café and Deli.

Rather than going on and on about the individuality and choices of Sherborne why not click onto Google Street Maps and see for yourself.

Cheshire Oaks, The Trafford Centre and Cribbs Causeway etc. all have their place but they can’t compete with the charm and relaxed experience of a Sherborne, Altrincham, Topsham or a Burford.

Whatever the media might write about the demise of town and city centres, believe me, where the public are made to feel welcome, there is the beating heart of British retail.

For over 40 years Armada has been financing the fitting out and the equipment needed to run retail enterprises. Whether it’s flooring, shelving, alarm systems and signage, every day we are supporting new retail ventures across the UK.

Long may we continue to be a nation of shopkeepers.

 

With all the invasive media information pouring into our lives through the iPhone, iPads, newspapers and television, we are rightly being made very aware of the growth of mental illness in the UK.

Unfortunately this is frequently not a degenerative disorder brought on by old age but is effecting people of all ages.

I, myself, have been saddened to have a number of middle-aged friends whose lives have been blighted by what we used to call ‘breakdowns’. I count myself extremely fortunate to have not suffered from any mental issues, although not all my chums would necessarily agree!

There was a period, many years ago, when personal tragedy touched my life and appeared overwhelming at times. I would climb the hill outside our house in the Devon village where we lived, until I could see the entire village laid out in front of me.

Knowing some of the traumas taking place amongst our neighbours helped me to put my circumstances into perspective, as I looked down on the homes and people below me. My issues seemed to lessen as I considered the health and family problems ‘down there’.

These days I no longer need to go climbing hills but if I am troubled by life, which fortunately is a very rare occurrence, I simply go straight to the Armada Pinterest board entitled ‘Inspiring People’.

A few minute contemplating the creators and achievers on this board always puts me in a positive and admiring frame of mind. I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that this is a cure for mental illness.

For me, another way of keeping my spirits up is to dwell on the disabled achievers in life. Folk like Jonnie Peacock, the Paralympic sprinter who is currently appearing on Strictly Come Dancing or the army of Paralympians and Invictus Games athletes who never cease to amaze and inspire me.

It is my total admiration for these people that causes me to be excited whenever the Help for Heroes catalogue drops through our letter box, as it did last week. I couldn’t wait to open it, knowing that any purchases will contribute to this great charity, helping disabled service men and women.

At the back of the catalogue I found a new range of clothing and accessories, celebrating the charity’s 10th Anniversary.

In no time I had selected various items and ordered them on line. Three days later I picked up a large carton from our local Sainsbury store and hurried home.

Rather like Ian Waite, I whipped out my trusty penknife and began emptying the box of goodies. A couple of hoodies, polo shirt, T shirt, socks, ladies’ scarves and two teddy bears for the younger members of the family.

I was super impressed by the speed of service and the care taken to pack the box. Maria was so proud of her work she even put her name on a card to tell me it was all her own work.

So far so good, but what was the merchandise going to be like? Doing a Benetton shake of each item, her ladyship and I were gobsmacked by the quality of the clothing. The sizing’s, the vibrancy of the colours, the intricate embroidery of the crests and the amazing softness of the bears (one has already been christened Jonnie by our grandson). Everything was sooo much better than we had hoped for.

Before the box had been put to one side we were already making a list of family and friends we have who will be delighted to receive a gift from Help for Heroes for Christmas.

I can’t recommend too highly how you should look at their web site and spoil yourself. You can, like us, make Christmas shopping so stressless by pouring a beer or glass of wine, sitting back and having the festive shopping delivered to your doorstep. At the same time you can help those who have had life changing injuries whilst they were fighting to protect us.

Go on – take a look, you know it makes sense!!

In the meantime I’ll sit here snuggle in my new hoody – very hygge !

 

A couple of weeks ago we threw a bag in the boot and headed off to deepest rural Dorset, to celebrate a rather special anniversary.

Dorset is a county I know well, having spent many happy years visiting clients throughout this enchanting but largely overlooked part of the south-west. One day I might be in Wimborne financing scaffolding equipment and funding the fit-out of a restaurant in Swanage, the next day I could be at a nightclub in Blandford Forum or a gym in Bournemouth.

The rolling hills and deep valleys of Dorset fold in on themselves as if they are wanting to protect their villages and folk from prying eyes.

We meandered through the lanes before stopping and parking in the village square of Beaminster. Down this way you need to remember not to pronounce the ‘a’ or the locals won’t understand you.

Although Beaminster is little more than a village, it still boasts of a renowned restaurant on the square, together with a decent hotel and many delightful shops, such as Cilla and Camilla. This gift shop, coffee shop and ladies trendy boutique is a regular haunt of ours.

After coffee and a mooch about we drove off to investigate some of the other local gems, before travelling down another memory lane, arriving at The Summer Lodge Hotel in Evershott.

Although now owned by the Red Carnation Group of hotels, Summer Lodge was for many years owned by our good friends, Nigel and Margaret Corbett.

This Relais & Chateaux hotel continues to offer 5 star luxury in comfort, service and dining, much as it did in Nigel and Margaret’s day.

As we were shown to our room or seated in the drawing room my thoughts kept slipping back to the days when I was there on business. “Was this one of the bedrooms where we financed the furniture and fittings? Were these the sofas I paid for? Is their kitchen the one we financed and do you remember the trouble they had with the flooring in there?”

Tearing myself away from the past and happy memories so that I could give my full attention to the gorgeous wife I have been married to for so many years, I beckoned one of the attentive staff to add champagne to our tray of tea.

During dinner that evening my focus was reserved for my wife so I have little recollection of the food we had. Suffice it to say, I do remember a few ooh’s and aah’s that evening. I know that the sommelier gave us his undivided attention and the outcome was a very fine bottle of Californian chardonnay.

Looking back over 43 years of Armada has given me a lifetime of happy memories and great relationships with clients but enough of this reverie, there are hotels and restaurants needing our attention today. More funding for equipment, furnishings and fit-outs.

Must get on.