How shops-on-wheels bring nostalgia (and essentials) to isolated rural communities.
It’s a sky blue, 1973 Citroen H Van named Claude, and its route through Norfolk's winding country lanes heralds the arrival of ripe strawberries, asparagus, eggs, pastries, sourdough starters and smoked salmon. As well as the fresh, local produce for sale, The Village Van has been bringing daily essentials, magazines, toilet roll and cleaning products to remote villages surrounding the market town of Holt – parking up outside the pub, beside the church, or "next to the phone box" at each location, for residents to come and shop.
The owner of the vintage vehicle, 26-year-old Tom Neall, launched his roaming business in response to lockdown measures, to support small food producers but also to help the communities surrounding his family home in Edgefield – where a high percentage of elderly and vulnerable people usually rely on public transport to get to the shops.
Much of the produce he collects to fill his van (Pointens Farm yogurt, Marsh Pig charcuterie, Staithe Smokehouse shell-on prawns – even bags of in-demand flour from nearby Letheringsett Watermill, and pre-ordered veg boxes) would normally have been sold wholesale to restaurants, now closed.
Neall thought of the idea when he found himself at a loose end in March, when all the bookings for his street-food businesses Quack N Mac and Neall’s Kitchen (which serve duck confit burgers and mac ‘n’ cheese at parties and events) were cancelled, and he could no longer trade.
He didn’t qualify for support via any of the Gorvernment's furlough or self-employment income support schemes, since he’d only been operating them for a short time. Luckily, ‘Claude’ had just been fitted out and freshly-painted. He already had a storage unit in nearby Melton Constable with fridges, so he was able to adapt his plans quickly to put his resources to good use, and launched at the start of April.
“I’d heard all these stories of gluts of produce going to waste, shortages in supermarkets and people being unable to access the online shopping slots. Having grown up in Norfolk, I know that many traditional village shops have disappeared over the past few decades,” Neall explains. Unsurprisingly, he has received a warm welcome from the villages he visits. “Many villagers tell me this feels a bit like going back to the good old days,” he says. “They reminisce about the old bakery van, the fishmonger van and the milk float from their childhoods.”