Why you should visit Sudbury in the Derbyshire Dales
- Credit: Archant
Nigel Powlson visits Sudbury where a shopping courtyard is attracting even more visitors to this quintessential English village
THE former estate village of Sudbury might be a tourist honeypot but it’s still easy to miss.
Situated at the southern tip of the Derbyshire Dales the busy A50 runs parallel to the village and intersects with the A515, which means you can travel to Derby, Stoke, Lichfield, Ashbourne or Burton leaving Sudbury undisturbed.
Those who do venture off the main roads are largely drawn to the grand 17th century stately home of Sudbury Hall, built for the wealthy Vernon family between 1660 and 1680 but these days run by the National Trust after being gifted to the charity in the 1960s.
It’s famous for its Grinling Gibbons carvings and Laguerre artwork and has a wonderful Long Gallery. It was used in the 1990s’ BBC TV version of Pride and Prejudice that turned Colin Firth into a star, and still draws Jane Austen fans as a result.
Sudbury Hall also houses the Museum of Childhood, a unique look back at what it was like growing up in years gone by.
Unlike most National Trust stately homes, the grounds aren’t extensive, but the village centre is right next door and is well worth exploring in its own right.
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The 17th century Vernon Arms still bears the name of the family who dominated the village and you can still imagine mail coaches pulling up outside this waypoint. The pub has a large beer garden for the summer and warming open fires in winter.
Sadly, the Post Office and village shop closed down recently and was still vacant when Derbyshire Life paid a visit – but the long-established butcher’s on School Lane is happily still thriving. Allan Wild has been running the family business for 42 years and has a loyal customer base who return time and time again because of the quality of his meats.
‘I was already in the business when this shop came up for sale,’ he says. ‘My aunt lived on the estate and rang up to tip me off that it was available. I came to see the owner Mr Merry and my wife had a look around the village and she thought it was beautiful – so that was it and we came.
‘We didn’t know whether we would make a go of it or not – but all this time later we are still here.’ Allan’s son Steven is now involved in the business.
Wild’s has an enviable reputation, so what is Allan’s secret. ‘It’s because we still do everything ourselves,’ he says. ‘We have our own slaughterhouse and we make all our own pies and cakes – my wife and my daughter-in-law. That’s why people shop here, they know it’s all done by us, that nothing travels all over the place and that it is all done properly.’
A much more recent addition to the village’s attractions is Sudbury Courtyard, which has transformed derelict buildings on the Vernon Estate into a visitor destination in its own right, with a range of specialist shops and in Sweet Little, a popular café with indoor and outdoor seating.
You can still see traces of what used to be the estate offices, the foundry, the chapel with its stained glass window, the staff billiards room, the gardener’s bothy, and the place where they kept the ambulance for the estate.
Inside the courtyard you can find a diverse selection of businesses including Sticky Fingers, which occupies the beautifully renovated, beamed Bothy unit and which offers a range of designer giftware.
Sudbury Toys and Collectables also offers antiques and vintage amusements in what used to be Lord Vernon’s offices
Sweet Little – the homeware and café business – is at the heart of the courtyard offering a place to stop and enjoy delicious homemade cakes, real Italian gelato and barrista coffee.
It’s run by Ali Fleeman, who swapped career paths to start her business first in Barton-under-Needwood and now in Sudbury.
Ali was in insurance for 21 years but decided to ditch what she knew well to forge her own path. She took a lease on a shop in Barton and got a friend who knew retail to run it on a daily basis for her. The shop was named Sweet Little after Ali’s pet cat. She says: ‘She was a rescue cat and when I found her I used to say “come on little cat” and the name stuck. When she was elderly and poorly I would sit stroking her saying ‘you are sweet Little’. My friend said that it would be a good name for a shop – Sweet Little curtains, Sweet Little furniture, Sweet Little cards. She told me that everything was Sweet Little to me – and so that’s how it started.’
And that became the ethos behind the Sweet Little brand.
Ali says: ‘I have been very fortunate in life to have very nice things – whether that’s linen or chocolates. I had a period when I couldn’t drive and so I couldn’t get out of the village, so my idea for the shop was for nice things that people would otherwise have to go out of the village to get – you couldn’t get a pretty tea towel, a nice tin of paint or lovely wrapping paper in Barton until we came along.
‘We wanted to move the business forward in 2016 and I always had a tea room in mind but in Barton there was Skinny Kitten and I didn’t want to tread on their toes so it had to be elsewhere. Out of the blue, Savills, who used to manage the estate in Sudbury, wrote to me asking me if I would come and view the courtyard. It was completely derelict, but I still fell in love with the place. It was the working yard from the estate (my building was the joinery shop) but I could see what it could become.
‘When Lord Vernon’s daughter, Mrs Howard, decided to develop it she had a definite idea of what she wanted. She was very particular, and it took me three months of putting business plans together and then there was a tender process.’
Ali was given the go ahead in late summer 2016 but didn’t get the keys until 2nd October and was told she had to open on 22nd October.
‘And the building was completely empty,’ says Ali. ‘No kitchen, serving area, table, chairs or anything. With only 20 days to go it meant working through the night but we were ready the day before. At times I had to sleep on the settee in there that was still covered in plastic but it was brilliant and from day one I loved it.’
Since then Ali has added the outdoor seating and the ice cream parlour – something she is very proud of. ‘It’s real Italian gelato – the difference between that and ice cream being the dairy content and how they whip it. The flavour is far richer and it’s about the texture and the taste. It’s imported directly from Turin and it’s gorgeous.’
It’s that attention to quality that is the Sweet Little hallmark. Ali says: ‘Everything is made from all fresh ingredients daily. All the sandwich fillings, such as coronation chicken, are all homemade. It’s much easier to buy in but making it here means that I know exactly what’s gone into it and how well it is made. The salad here is freshly chopped each morning, the soups are homemade from scratch. It took us 18 attempts to get the coffee perfect – it’s my biggest vice and I was determined to get it right. I have had fresh ingredients all my life as my parents were gardeners and that’s what I like. It’s all about freshness and taste for me.’
Ali is passionate about Sweet Little and certainly wouldn’t turn the clock back. She says: ‘I always say to people, I have moved from a very lucrative career with a good pension, BUPA, nice car, and all of that to minimum wage, working all hours – but I absolutely love it.’
Across the courtyard from Sweet Little is Metwood Forge, showcasing a selection of hand-forged items for the home and garden. Blacksmith Pete Lawrie has a forge down School Lane with the shop at the courtyard looked after by his girlfriend Debbie Wyatt. Debbie says: ‘Pete has been a blacksmith here for 10 years now and we opened this as a showroom two years ago and a place where people can place orders. There’s a definite demand, although it’s more to do with interiors now – which it wasn’t when he first started. Metal bases, say for tables, have become very fashionable. He does steel work for roof conversions and things like that as well. Pete had a welding background but was made redundant and is self-taught really. He got the forge with his redundancy money and he loves it.
‘Visitors to Sudbury Hall might buy candlesticks but it’s the locals who really support us. There are a lot of restoration jobs for people living in the villages round about. The shop helps as the forge is a bit out-of-the-way and you would never drive past it.’
Next door is Boutitch – a children’s boutique selling clothes and gifts for boys and girls age from 0-8. It opened in May last year and is run by a mother and two daughters. Annabelle Meakin-Waite says: ‘Organic clothing is very good for children’s skin and it washes beautifully. We like the ethics as well and there’s a growing demand and it is quite appealing for mums. This is a good location and with the Museum of Childhood next door there seemed to be a connection.’
It’s the range of shops that makes Sudbury popular with those in the know. Ali Fleeman says that although the courtyard has a growing reputation, every day there are still people discovering it for the first time. ‘I think we have great shops here. They are all interesting and all have quality goods. Once people discover us they invariably come back.’
Please note Sudbury Hall is closed until 19th October for specialist conservation work in preparation for opening an extra 128 days in 2019. To check opening times call 01332 585337 or see www.nationaltrust.org.uk. The museum remains open.