A CENTURY-OLD ‘treasure’ is still providing a lifeline for older generations, retirees and the socially isolated.
The Country Market in Bentley Heath is one of several co-operatives operating across the country whose historical roots lie in wartime Britain.
The markets are an offshoot of those launched by the Women’s Institute in 1919 – shortly after the movement reached England.
Women from rural communities were encouraged to bake and sell leftover produce from their gardens to boost the limited food supply across the war-torn country.
And a century later, despite its disassociation from the WI in 1995, the co-operative continues to work as its forefathers did in the early days – as a community hub and a not-for-profit organisation promoting homegrown and homemade produce.
Some traditions have remained the same, including a 5p joining fee, while others, such as an online order platform, aim to move with the times.
The Bentley Heath market began life in 1974 and was originally held in Dorridge. Others have since sprouted up in the Solihull borough including in Balsall Common and Wythall.
It sells everything from baked goods and preserves to handmade quilts, bags and jewellery.
Organisers described how some customers ‘literally push at the door’ of the village’s community centre, queuing up to half an hour early for the popular event.
Customer Jean Shearman, who is in her 80s, is usually among the first there and has been since its launch 45 years ago. She said: “I enjoy the fact everything’s not all factory made. It is real food with real ingredients. And the same with veggies.
“It’s a lovely atmosphere and just as far from supermarkets as you an get. It becomes more and more of a treasure as I get older.
“Cooking and growing are all traditions which need to come back.”
And it is not just customers who cherish the weekly market in their golden years.
At 89, Eleanor Browne is the market’s oldest producer. The keen baker has been a familiar face to customers since its beginning, often with her children and grandchildren in tow.
She said: “I came on the first day and I’ve been coming ever since. I used to come with the family and they used to help put the tables. You could say I’m a founding member.
“I like cooking, it was something I could do with the family. Thursday night was always a busy night.
“I do think this is very good socially. A lot of people on their own come now and sit and have a coffee and a cake. It gives a purpose to the week.”
Eleanor is often joined by fellow producers Jean Carter and Margaret Humphries. All three recount their children and grandchildren living on ‘misfits’- the nickname cooks gave to cakes which did not make the cut. Despite their dubious title, so-called misfits made the bakers popular with grandchildren and their friends, along with any unsold cakes from Friday’s market – a tradition which has continued long into adulthood.
Jean said: “It’s part of my life. It’s good for you as we get older you’ve got a purpose in life. I know so many customers and producers. I’d hate to give it up. I just love the whole atmosphere and we all get on.
“Right from a little girl I wanted a sweet shop but I decided it just wasn’t the done thing after grammar school. I hate shopping but by coming here I am fulfilling that dream.
“I think our age group are doing more than our mothers did because you can do so much more now. Ladies started doing things like making jam in their own homes. It keeps you busy.”
Charlye Woolman has been a fruit and veg producer for some ten years. He is also responsible for the online ‘hub’ which allows customers to make orders to collect at the market venue.
He said: “A generation ago the producers and customers tended to be housewives who were at home and that’s not the situation any longer. Now people are living a long healthy active life after retirement. Probably one of our targets for producers and customers is going to be the newly retired.
“You can’t make a living but useful income supplements not quite a job but there is a strong social side. It came out as a top reason on a survey we did about why people are here week after week; it’s a nice social thing to do.”
Bentley Heath Country Market is hosting a centenary celebration at Broadacre Gardens on Sunday July 21.
Visitors can enjoy homemade cream teas served on vintage china to enjoy on the lawn.
Tickets are £10 and are available from the market at Bentley Heath community centre which takes place Fridays from 9.30am to 11.30am.
Visit www.countrymarketshub.co.uk for more information and to browse products.