Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Economic mutations show off our entrepreneurial spirit


Mario's - Credit: Archant

It recently struck me that we’ve all been reeling so much from changes wrought by the internet and banking crises this past few years, that many of us have failed to see some of the strange mutations quietly springing up along the verges of our commercial highways.


Mario's - Credit: Archant

Farms shops, for instance: the two nearest to me are Mitchell’s at Elmstead and Carpenter’s at Aingers Green. If you don’t wish to go the supermarket route, the farm shop can often provide another prettier way. Despite what used once to be said, they aren’t always that expensive either. Twenty-five or so years ago, the phrase ‘farm shop’ usually meant a draughty outbuilding selling bags of spuds or onions, bedding plants, a few muddy root crops and trays of eggs. Nowadays, a farm shop can be a hybrid of delicatessen-cum-convenience store selling herbs, spices, luxury foods and very often, fish and meat products from local producers.

In the case of Carpenter’s Farm Shop, they’ve recently converted a barn into a pleasant restaurant-cafe, which seems to be thriving. Over at Tenpenny Hill, Thorrington, just before the Brightlingsea turn-off, for decades, there used to be a proper old greasy spoon café. I daresay one or two truckers shed a manly tear when it finally closed. You should see what’s replaced it.

Mario’s Place is a top notch roadside diner. The décor is smart and modern with a sly nod to American/Italian retro-chic. They do a great breakfast – including on a Sunday. I walked into the place last weekend just after 9am and within a few minutes was eating perfect scrambled eggs on smoked salmon. Mario’s sits prettily on Tenpenny Hill halfway between Colchester and Clacton. They’re open seven days a week 8am to 11 pm and Sundays 8am to 5 pm. They do proper coffee, the service is great and the prices are very reasonable – breakfast especially.

A third example of a successful commercial mutation is On The Corner in Wivenhoe High Street. The business is now five years old. Nigel and Lisa, the proprietors, initially tried making a go of it as a coffee shop, but struggled somewhat with the space in which they had to work. Some hard thinking and few tweaks later, it’s a popular tapas bar, open Wednesdays to Saturdays with occasional Sundays for private functions. The thing that’s really put the cherry on the cake is the fact that it’s recently become a micro off-licence. With the help of an independent wine merchant, On the Corner now sells a small selection of good-quality wines to take away. This is quite handy, say, for a peasant such as myself who knows nearly nothing about wine. It means I don’t have to chance buying something which later turns out to be, essentially, paintstripper with a pretty label.

Another thing about wine is that when you drink it in a pub, it may be good, bad or indifferent to taste but one thing’s for sure: nowadays two medium glasses of pub wine won’t give you much change from a tenner. How handy therefore, on a quietish night to be able to get a bottle of something quite reasonable for about eight quid.

The high street, the village shop, the pub, the roadside café – life as we once knew it in fact – has changed beyond recognition. Yet, it’s not all bad news. That small entrepreneurial spirit which was once famously the province of our ‘nation of shopkeepers’ is not quite dead. In addition to the commercial changelings which I’ve mentioned, there are now pop-up shops, galleries, cafés and restaurants – I even heard the other day of a pop-up pub in Peasenhall, Suffolk. There’s no doubt about it, something’s out there stirring about under the rubble left by the recession. Businesses such as our local farm shops, Mario’s Place in Thorrington and Wivenhoe’s On the Corner are just a few examples. They exist, not because of the bad behaviour of banks – or sundry politicians’ clumsy efforts to sweep the fragments of a broken economy under the carpet.

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Our new economic mutations have sprung up despite these obstacles, not because of them. They’ve probably done so, too, because with the prevailing circumstances, they couldn’t move forwards and there was little point in going backwards. So they moved sideways and diversified.

What this nascent sub-economy needs now is the sunshine of a tax break. On the 25th of September, this year there will be a promotion-cum-protest event called Tax Parity Day. Pub and restaurant retailers will reduce their prices by 7.5% for one day, in order to demonstrate how consumers would benefit from VAT parity with the supermarkets. Small businesses, such as the ones which I’ve mentioned, pay 20% VAT on food, whereas supermarkets pay nearly nothing. With alcohol, supermarkets do pay VAT but astonishingly, they can claim it back if they sell it at cost – or below cost. Tax Parity Day in the UK has been spearheaded by Jacques Borel, a Frenchman who by employing similar campaigns has already successfully negotiated VAT reductions in four other European countries.

This has reportedly increased trade and created many jobs in the hospitality sector. The clamour in our own country is growing. You might think that our current rulers, allegedly the ardent champions of free enterprise, would lend their considerable weight to the Tax Parity campaign. Let’s hope so, shall we?