PUBLISHED: 10:20 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 17:50 20 February 2013
Sarah Hart discovers a treasure trove of traders both traditional and trendy in Oswestry
All kinds of everything
Sarah Hart discovers a treasure trove of traders both traditional and trendy in Oswestry. Pictures by Anna Lythgoe
David Joness tiny leather workshop in the centre of Oswestry is a time capsule. Its almost as it was when his grandfather moved his family saddlery business to the creaking old building over a century ago.
David still works with the same well-worn Victorian tools that his grandfather used to make the heavy harnesses for the working horses that once ploughed the fields around Oswestry. He still has the same gnarled, wooden work bench, its edges worn smooth with age; the same majestic pre-war Singer sewing machine; the same British United treadle machine, made in 1917.
But thats not all. Whats so remarkable about the street where Davids traditional saddlery and leather goods shop can be found, is that its also the base for other rare, dying breeds of craftsmen a traditional cobbler and a craftsman tailor.
Once common to every town and city they have almost all faded away, replaced by cheaper products, cheaper labour, mechanisation and mass production. So Leg Street, this tiny corner of Oswestry, is special, at least for the moment. But sadly, when these three craftsmen put down their tools for the last time, there will be no apprentice or family member waiting to carry on their tradition.
The times are changing elsewhere in Oswestry too, but with brand new, creative, independent shops and businesses run by inspiring women. And, just like the traditional craftsmen, quality is the cornerstone of what theyre trying to achieve.
David Jones saddler
You never know everything, youre always learning, says David Jones, despite the fact that he has been making beautiful leather horse
saddles and bridles and repairing all manner of leather goods by hand for the past 34 years.
Hes standing at a huge battered old workbench piled high with cuts of leather and bags hes repairing. It fills half the tiny lean-to workshop on the side of his enticing old world leather goods shop, in Leg Street. Bundles of horse bridles dangle from hooks on the workshop ceiling. Theres a shiny chestnut saddle here and there. Antique sewing machines. An array of Victorian tools, with smooth wooden handles, line one of the walls.
Theyre older than my grandfather, and theyre far far better than anything modern, comments David who got his first taste of leatherwork when he was just five years old.
The shop, occupying the ground-floor of a former Georgian townhouse, stocks leather bags, wallets and hats as well as
equestrian goods, and from the outside looks straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.
Lots of people wander in off the street just to take a look, says David.
One chap from London couldnt believe it when he discovered there was also an old fashioned cobbler and tailor in the same street. He was walking around taking photographs!
The words T. Jones & Son hang above the door. T. Jones was Davids grandfather, Thomas, who at the age of 14, was apprenticed to the original owner who founded the business in the late 1800s. Thomas took over and moved it to the current premises at the advent of the last century, specialising in heavy horse harnesses.
Davids father, also Thomas, joined the business straight from school in the 1930s. By the late 1940s the advent of the tractor saw the Thomases turn predominantly to saddlery.
David joined in 1976 after studying a degree in geography at Southampton University.
There was never any doubt Id go into the family business. I enjoyed it so much I didnt seriously consider going into any other line of work,
His father retired in 1999 at the ripe old age of 78.
He was still coming in every day. He loved it. It was his life.
David himself has no children to carry on the business, but at 55 he has a long time before retirement.
Robert Doman craftsman tailor
British cloth is the best in the world, muses Robert Doman, his bespectacled eyes flitting in the direction of flat rolls of beautifully woven suit fabric, neatly stacked on a shelf in the corner.
Its traditionally made and made properly. The British climate is particularly good for making cloth.
Robert sources his fine woollen fabrics from mills in Scotland, Yorkshire and the South West. He is a traditional craftsman tailor in every sense of the word. His bespoke suits are measured, made and fitted by him, from top quality cloth selected by the customer. Its all done here, in this unassuming little shop in Leg Street. And to this shop come discerning professional customers who want a proper bespoke suit, unlike many mens outfitters who advertise bespoke suits and send clients measurements away to be made up somewhere else, often abroad.
Robert has regular loyal customers from across Shropshire and some from as far as New York and Zurich who make special trips for their fittings.
He began his six-year apprenticeship in 1955 in Cardiff. His work later took him to Chester, Liverpool and Wrexham, before settling here in Oswestry 26 years ago, ably supported in his business by his wife, Margaret, who took on the book-keeping and administration.
So, whats special about a properly-made bespoke suit?
If it fits better, it lasts longer, and its usually made of better cloth, says Robert in his modest, quietly spoken manner.
Now 70, hes planning to retire in the New Year. Well, hopefully, he quips, if he can tear himself away.
Roger Clegg traditional cobbler
Well-made shoes, looked after and mended properly can last a lifetime, according to Roger Clegg, the last of three generations of cobblers to have worked under the name of H. Hughes & Son, in Leg Street, since 1907.
I have shoes that come in to be repaired that are 30 or 40 years old, some older than that. Ive seen some dating from the Second World War.
H. Hughes was founded by Harry Hughes, continued by his son Jack and in 1972 Roger bought the business after been meticulously trained by Charlie Wills who worked for Jack for most of his life.
Im still learning now, comments Roger, echoing the sentiments of David Jones.
Rogers repairs are a work of craftsmanship, using quality soles, mostly leather, that he stitches onto the base of the shoe. His stitching machine is 60 years old, its stitching pad only recently refurbished for the first time. Hes not afraid to turn away shoes that he regards as too cheap a quality to repair.
H. Hughes no longer makes shoes, but Roger sells some of the best handmade British mens shoes on the market names such as Loake, Crockett & Jones, Alfred Sargent, Cheaney, Regent, Church, Sanders & Sanders.
Customers come in from all around the country and all over the world, he says. Some come from Australia and Canada. One man from Zimbabwe comes in twice a year.
And the secret to shoes that last?
Obviously buy quality, and never have just one pair. Have a few pairs and apply plenty of good quality polish!
From old to new head to Church Street to discover some of Oswestrys inspiring new shops
One of the towns most exciting new shops celebrates its first birthday this month. Booka is a bright and modern independent book-sellers come quality bijou gift shop and coffee shop run by Carrie Morris, a former assistant headteacher, who says she wanted to try something new after reaching the end of what she wanted to do in teaching.
Oswestry had just gone through a period where a number of shops had closed down and people thought we were a bit crazy, she recalls.
But we saw an opportunity to start up something that Oswestry hadnt got and what we thought it needed.
With the full support of husband, Tim, Carrie left teaching and spent a year doing her research and attending book-sellers courses. The perfect shop location cropped up in Church Street.
I wanted to create a relaxed atmosphere and something a little bit different, she says.
Hence the gift shop section and caf. Hours can be spent in here browsing the well-stocked bookshelves, drooling over the lovely book-related gifts, artistic cards and stylish designer wrapping paper and enjoying a homemade cake and a freshly brewed coffee served in a cheerful spotted mug.
The wonderful cakes are conjured up by Tims cousin, Helen, and Tim himself sometimes helps out in the shop while on a break from his usual job as a town planner.
Booka regularly organises evening events, such as book launches, author signings and themed nights. A number of events and special offers are being held to mark its birthday on October 2.