By Hattie Ellis

Food businesses have had to adapt fast in the Covid-19 crisis and one of the most impressive stories is that of The Old Butcher’s Shop in Guestling.

Sarah Upton took on not only the business but also a new trade when she opened this year, after working in health and social care for many years. It was on 2nd March, “Just before it all went… peculiar,” as she puts it. 

The business was founded in 1932 by her great-uncle, Robert Whiteman, known as Bob, situated a five-minute walk from the family’s small farm, which still operates today. After Bob retired, the shop was leased out to Phil Button, who ran it for 30 years until he, in turn, retired. But there was nobody to take it on. 

“We sat down as a family and discussed what to do,” says Sarah. “We didn’t want our epitaph to be that we shut the last food shop in the village.” And so she decided to run it herself.

Sarah had picked up the basics from another butcher, along with sausage making from her predecessor, and was still finding suppliers. Lockdown was a shock. “It was a baptism of fire,” she says. “I thought that at first it’d be quiet and that we could build it up nice and steady.”  But now the shop was even more important to the villagers and there were queues going down the road – albeit friendly and distanced; the crisis has provided new ways for the village to socialise.

Sarah’s learnt fast. The meat is mostly local and her son, Toby works with her in the mornings. One particular wholesaler has been a great help with other supplies. Little Mill Bakery in St Leonards provides the bread and also flour for customers who make their own, and there are plentiful and colourful egg supplies from her own free-range hens. 

The learning curve has been steep but positive. “This is a shop I’ve been in all my life but until January I had never been behind the counter,” she says. “I love being here – it’s like coming home.” 

There are plans to sell rare breed pork from the family’s 30-acre farm, now run by Sarah’s brother, and also to grow some veg for the shop, including herbs that go well with the meat. 

The learning curve has been steep but positive

One especially personal product is already on sale in the shop (and also on eBay): the story of the shop itself, in the form of Robert Whiteman’s memoir, The Butcher’s Block, published posthumously by Sarah. 

There’s a story behind the story. Before he died in 2008 at the age of 95, the old butcher got fed up that nobody seemed interested in his recollections and burnt his manuscript and the cassettes he’d recorded it onto. But Sarah had a rough transcript on old 3 ½ inch floppy discs. Her friend Jake, of RC8 Computing in Rye, converted these to a CD format and luckily none of it had corrupted. Sarah was able to pull together 58 draft pages of memoir with archive photographs and newspaper cuttings. 

The booklet gives a characterful insight into the life of the area in the 20th century, starting when Bob first fell into the trade as a butcher’s boy in 1925, aged 12, delivering meat on his bicycle at a time when houses didn’t have electric fridges. 

Then came the controversial decision to set up his own business in the same village as his former employer, helped by his parents, not least his resourceful mother, who learnt the trade herself. “I thought: if my great grandmother could take up the trade in her 50s, then I can do it in my 40s,” says Sarah.

The hard times of post-war rationing, which went on until 1951, throw today’s Lockdown shopping issues into perspective: at least supplies are plentiful now. 

Life has come full circle as the pandemic has meant a revival in deliveries. The Old Butcher’s Shop has taken up Bob’s old beat and delivers free to the parishes of Pett, Guestling, Fairlight, Icklesham and Winchelsea; a much valued service at this time. 

The Old Butcher’s Shop, Pett Road: open Monday 8am-1pm, Tuesday and Thursday 8am-5pm, Wednesday and Saturday 8am-4pm; Call 01424 812148

For the full HIP Indy List of food and drink sellers that are open / deliver go to: 

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