The Old Smithy: past and present

Nothing about The Old Smithy in Godshill is as you’d expect. There is no blacksmith, for starters, though of course there once was, and you can see the original smithy from the newly enlarged Coffee Shop. What the Old Smithy is today is a relaxed place to browse for out-of-the ordinary gifts and clothes. But the surprising thing is that it thrives as a business because it does more for its customers than it asks of them. Its story is about the foresight of one family and its effects on a village.

It was the village butcher Reg Andrews who, way back in 1948, bought up the blacksmith’s premises, which by then was a print shop, to sell postcards of the picturesque church and thatched cottages, and miniature lucky horseshoes. He had spotted what would today be called a marketing opportunity. “Godshill had been known since the 1800s as a place for visitors,” says his daughter, Diane. “People came out from Ryde in horse-drawn coaches and later charabancs for cream teas – I’ve got a photo somewhere of Queen Anne coming for a trip out here.”

At the time Reg’s cattle would graze on the land currently shared by the conservatory and car park. He would cut up the meat in the morning, take it on his rounds, then be back to serve in his little shop in the afternoons. “Dad was a real character, always laughing and joking with people and generally drawing a crowd. Having read about Gretna Green, he decided he could ‘marry’ people over the blacksmith’s anvil. He had fake marriage lines printed and would hand these out with his ‘lucky’ horseshoes, creating a party atmosphere in the old forge.”

He watched the growing popularity of the motor car, and with the foresight of a natural entrepreneur decided to cater for them. He applied to have part of the marshland next to the Smithy filled in for a car park for 30 or 40 cars. “It helped Godshill become one of the Island’s most visited villages” says Diane.

So now when you come to the impossibly pretty village of Godshill with its thatched cottages, church, traditional pubs, tearooms and quaint shops, the natural place to stop is The Old Smithy. Diane and her elder sister Rosemary began helping out in the shop when they were around 16, and although they both went on to have other jobs – Rosemary worked in a shop in Newport and Diane in a bank – they joined the business when their father talked about retirement – “he’d never have retired though,” muses Diane. “He continued to come down to the shop every day until his 89th year”. After running her own jewellery shop in Newport Rosemary’s daughter Jane joined the firm in 1986, and after her marriage her husband Steve left BP to take over the day to day running of the business.

Just as Reg predicted, more and more people came by car, and the business reacted by increasing the size of the car park and shop: the storeroom for the original shop is now the main business. A patio was built outside to make the most of sunny days. Over the years the range of goods expanded, from postcards and horseshoes to pottery, and then Scottish woollens and Welsh tapestry. “It was seasonal at first, but eventually we realised we were selling not to visitors but to locals,” Diane smiles. “Of course, once they’d got one kilt and a tapestry coat they weren’t really going to buy another! So we thought we’d better broaden our appeal, and started to go into the fashion side. And we carried on doing that more and more.”

The clothes they stock are not run-of-the-mill high street brands but wearable fashion for the over 30s such as Avoca, Bianca and Gerry Weber, and are intended to appeal to the local discerning shopper, rather than the visitor. “We do sell to holiday makers, but our main customers are locals so we try to have things they’re not going to see anywhere else,” says Diane.

By reacting to a perceived need rather than anticipating the market the family have steadily grown their business. The modestly-named coffee shop is a case in point. “We weren’t going to do teas and coffees at first,” says Diane. “Godshill seemed to be awash with them, but we realise that during the winter months there was very little open in the village. If we wished to encourage all year round trade we had to make Godshill an attractive venue for off-season coaches and visitors as well as building on our local trade.” She admits it was a bit of a steep learning curve at first, but the coffee shop steadily expanded from its early basic form to its newly enlarged incarnation as visitor numbers demanded. “We are very lucky to have a large number of Islanders who have become regular and welcome customers throughout the year. Under the management of chief cook, Jackie King, the kitchen produces irresistibly tempting cakes and gateaux, sandwiches and full meals. Parents always welcome the children’s platter, cut-up apple, cheese and squares of bread, which makes a refreshing change from the usual kids’ fare on offer. There is a specials board each day, and Sunday roasts are available too. “The queues go out the door sometimes, but we can cope with volume.”

Coaches, which can be the bane of some businesses, are welcomed at The Old Smithy. “They only have to book if they want a set tea, otherwise they just turn up – and we don’t pay them to come!” says Diane. She says it is a bit of a juggling act to ensure those with more time feel relaxed, while those on coaches are keeping an eye on their watches. “They know they’ve only got 20 minutes sometimes. The coaches tend to park here and the people walk up the road and come here last. You often see people wishing they’d left more time to look around!”

A recent addition is Style Interiors, which the family moved from up the road to the site, in a building designed to complement the rest. Like the gift and clothes shops it stocks accessories for the home that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere on the Island.

You reach Style via a pleasant wander through the cottage garden at the back of the main shop, a quaint meander which leads to an exhibition of photographs of the village in times gone by. “The garden was Dad’s pride and joy”, says Diane. “We used to charge for entry, but now we just ask for a donation to the hospice or other local charity. We raise two to three thousand a year for them.”

You can’t help recognising that quality of forward thinking in the current generation which began with Reg. The garden and exhibition are available to people without making any demands of them. But the contentment engendered is likely to pay dividends. And it’s that car park, the result of that amazing foresight on the part of Diane’s father which he knew would be good for Godshill, that enables visitors to have the run of the village. But where it might be good for everyone else, doesn’t the family resent it when people use it without visiting them?

“We want visitors to feel Godshill is a nice place to visit, and that they’ll come back two or three times in a week’s stay,” says Diane. “So we make it easy for them.”

Sociologists would call it ‘deferred gratification’: your granny might call it a sprat to catch a mackerel. But having a free car park which is used by people who don’t always come first to their own business, creates a pleasing feeling of trust and contentment which can only be beneficial to the business. Diane admits it is “quite an expense to keep up, with daily maintenance, repairs and rates”. The family recently had to pay £250,000 for the right of way to come into it.

Yet she is sanguine about people wandering all over the village after parking on their land. Indeed it is this ungreedy approach that is so surprising in a business.

“The secret is to let people come and enjoy themselves” said Diane. “You could come here and not spend a thing.” And when you look at the sheer numbers of people who come through their door, who have lunch, who buy things from the not the run of the mill gift shop, or who just wander through the garden at the back, you realise that this refreshing approach to business actually works.