Why is Whalley one of the 50 Best Places to live in Britain?

Whalley Arches

Whalley Arches - Credit: Archant

Just why was this Ribble Valley town deemed to be one of the top 50 places to live? Writer Mairead Mahon and photographer Kirsty Thompson went to find out

Jen Nott at The Whalley Wine Shop

Jen Nott at The Whalley Wine Shop - Credit: Archant

When a village is surrounded by glorious countryside, is home to a Countess and a group of Lavender Ladies and has passed muster with designer Vivienne Westwood and movie star Sam Neill, you just know that it is going to be a special place.

We didn’t really need confirmation but, just in case there was any doubt, Whalley made it on to the Sunday Times 50 Best Places to live in Britain. It was the only Lancashire village to do so.

In order to gain its top place, Whalley had to meet some testing criteria which came under the general banner of ’offering the best quality of life’ and included good local shops and a positive community spirit. This last requirement, Whalley has in spades - or should that be in buckets! They were certainly out in force when the floods hit the village over the Christmas when that tremendous community spirit swung into action.

We decided to spend a day in Whalley to try to find out what makes is so special. Apart from its history and the attractive location, it scores highly when it comes to independent retailers. For such a small place, it has to possess one of the most vibrant shopping centres in the north west.

Whalley In Blooms 'Lavender Ladies' in the grounds of Whalley Abbey; Anne Marie Watson, Wendy Leach,

Whalley In Blooms 'Lavender Ladies' in the grounds of Whalley Abbey; Anne Marie Watson, Wendy Leach, Jennie Stanley, Rose Dykes, Kath Bowen, Ellen White, Val Clark and Petrina Connor - Credit: Archant

Virtually all are independently owned by local people who have built up a national reputation. The Wine Shop at Whalley is a prime example. Sam Neill, star of Jurassic Park, popped in to say hello and was so impressed, he asked if they would stock some of his wines. Yes, Sam has his own vineyard! The shop has won more awards than you could shake an empty wine glass at and runs regular tasting events. For those who want to toast Whalley, there are bottles from a few pounds all the way up to over a thousand, and there is even some locally-made gin.

People travel far and wide to Art Decor, although the quality of some of the artworks means that you do have to press a discreet buzzer to gain entry. Chris McCabe who owns and runs the gallery is an expert in picking out just who will be a big name of the future. He also takes pride in stocking local painters and even runs a framing service that is guaranteed to make that watercolour you produced last summer look even better.

Fusspots and Flowers is an award-winning florist that looks just like a flower shop should with bright blooms and fragrances spilling out on to the pavement and just over the road is Warm and Dry, an outdoor clothing specialist, run by Jon Smith and his family. People travel hundreds of miles, sometimes on the advice of their medical professional, to have their feet specially measured by a device that can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about your feet and a lot that probably hasn’t even occurred to you. This year, they are celebrating 15 years being in Whalley in a shop that you stroll down a garden path to enter.

Sometimes though, cagoules and boots just won’t cut the mustard and something a bit dressier is needed. There are several independent clothing shops including a gorgeous children’s wear specialist, Hansel and Gretel. Owned by Denise Heap, it was a victim of the flood, not that you’d know it today. The shop is bright and fragranced and the only thing it is awash with is colourful children’s clothes.

Liz Holgate and Jon Smith at Whalley Warm and Dry

Liz Holgate and Jon Smith at Whalley Warm and Dry - Credit: Archant

Seasons is a one of several delicious ladies’ wear shops. This one is owned by Nikki Hutchinson and it has customers coming from all over the North West. Nikki is delighted with business in Whalley, as the village is fast gaining a reputation as the place where fashionistas go.

Of course, there is also the famous Maureen Cookson shop - an oustanding name in fashion and now with its own coffee shop attached. Benedict’s, the dream of Hilary Cookson, is full of tempting things, much of it local including the eggs from the hens in Hilary’s garden. You would certainly never go hungry in Whalley with Food by Breda Murphy, winner of a top title in the Lancashire Life Food and Drink Awards, and Cucina 73 which served the UK’s best pasta.

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So, what does the fashionista of them all, Vivienne Westwood, think of Whalley? We know because when the family owned jeweller’s, Sarah Layton, wanted to stock her products they had to send details of not only their own shop but every shop in Whalley to make sure it was stylish enough for her ladyship!

It was and now it is one of the exclusive brands that they carry. Of course, they are respected gemmologists and goldsmiths in their own right, designing and making jewellery that is in high demand.

Our verdict? Whalley fully deserves its place on the Best Places list. Visit today and you’ll see ribbons dotted along the high street: they’ve been put there as sign of hope that Whalley is over the terrible events at Christmas and they’re right - it is back to its best.

Pulling together

Many flood super-heroes came to the rescue when the river burst its banks and the main street was engulfed in muddy water. One of them was Gillian Darbyshire, a local business woman and President of Whalley and District Lions Club. She made sure the Village Hall was opened as a crisis centre and she and The Lions were involved in the clean-up operations. They also gave help when people had to make complicated insurance and grant claims. As a result Gillian and another local, Kellie Hughes, have been asked to meet David Cameron.

‘We are really going along on behalf of all the villagers who helped,’ says a modest Gillian. It’s thanks to efforts like hers that the village is almost back to normal but that doesn’t mean that the sense of community has ebbed away.

Some of the grounds at the historic abbey were damaged by water but thanks to The Lavender Ladies, they’re ready to welcome spring. They’re a wonderfully cheery bunch of volunteers who look stylish even in their gardening clothes but why The Lavender Ladies? That’s the colour of their wheelbarrow. As well as looking after the grounds, including the important Gertrude Jekyll border - local gardening lore says she planted it out - they are also restoring the gardens of Whalley to glory.

They have a community garden in a corner of the Abbey and are organising villagers to bring along cuttings, so that those whose gardens were damaged, can come along and help themselves.

The Village Hall continues to be at the heart of the community hosting all sorts of events from music to origami. In fact, one lady, Edna Clarkson, held the very first class there years ago.

‘It was a keep fit class and I was very excited to hold the first class in what was then a sparkling new hall. Nowadays, I don’t give a keep fit class but I still go to one. It’s a great place to meet friends and neighbours and after all, Whalley is all about community,’ says Edna.

Another long term resident who agrees is Joyce Holgate, MBE, who ran the village sweet shop for many years. She’s also known affectionately as The Countess of Whalley, a title given by locals in recognition of everything that she has done for the village, including founding the Chamber of Trade.