Rebecca Bishop: The rise of the star baker 

Rebecca Bishop of Two Magpies Bakery

Rebecca Bishop of Two Magpies Bakery - Credit: Charlotte Bond

I last saw Rebecca Bishop ‘in real life’ in 2018, as she prepared to open Two Magpies Bakery’s second site in Aldeburgh. Fridges were being delivered out back. Menus being finalised. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air as the fledgling businesswoman anticipated not only this, but the promise of another site opening in Darsham – incorporating her “dream” bake school. 

Fast forward four years and Rebecca, co-owner Steve Magnall, and new managing director Carl Stock, have just opened their seventh location in Woodbridge, together overseeing branches that span Norfolk and Suffolk – including Southwold, Holt, Norwich and Blakeney. 

The business employs 150 staff, has been feted by publications including Observer Food Monthly, and has tucked multiple World Bread Awards under its wings. 

All incredible achievements, especially as Rebecca claims she was renowned for her rubbish birthday cakes and cooking while bringing up her children. But we’ll get to that later. 

Rebecca BIshop

Rebecca Bishop - Credit: Rufus Owen

The paint is still drying (metaphorically) on the newest Woodbridge bakery and already, such has been the momentum of the business, Rebecca and Steve are on the hunt for new sites – seeking “substantial investment” to grow further. 

“Steve says he wants 20 sites,” Rebecca laughs, almost at the absurdity of the prospect, recalling how she started out 10 years ago in Southwold on a ‘folly’ having fallen in love with the baking world. 

“Bury St Edmunds is somewhere we’d really like to be,” she says. “We’re looking at nice, regional town centre locations.” She cites Sudbury, possibly Hadleigh, maybe Dedham as possible new spots for the expanding indy chain. 

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And tells me how exciting it is to be growing at a rate of knots. “We’ve just taken on the old Marybelle Dairy site in Walpole. It’s 11,000sqft and will be our main production site. We thought Darsham would be big enough...but we outgrew that over a year ago. Then we took on a production site in Halesworth six months ago...and it still wasn’t enough space.” 

Does it feel scary to be so big now, after starting with a teeny tiny bakery on the Suffolk coast? Did she ever imagine she’d be in this position? 

The queue outside Two Magpies Bakery in Southwold on its opening day in 2013

The queue outside Two Magpies Bakery in Southwold on its opening day in 2013 - Credit: Two Magpies Bakery

“If I’m honest,” Rebecca says, “what I wanted was to sell great products and to have a great customer experience. It was all about the look of the place. The way it made people feel. And we’re now giving that experience, doing what I wanted to do, but in a LOT more locations.” 

Just as Two Magpies has grown over the last decade, so has the nation’s appetite for ‘slow food’. For real food, provenance and traceability, which Rebecca says is so key to everything she and her team do, baking from scratch and working with small local suppliers who share her ethos, from Hodmedods, to Fen Farm Dairy, Clarkes of Bramfield and Nurtured in Norfolk. 

“I think people appreciate, especially since Covid, the pleasure of little treats in life. Rather than going out on Saturday, hitting the shops and spending loads of money, more people want an experience and I like to think we’re part of that. They come to us for a lovely lunch and go home maybe with a bag of pastries. We’re not the cheapest, but I do think people are prepared to pay for quality.” 

Covid was, as with all food businesses, a difficult time for Rebecca and her team who were forced to retreat to the Darsham site, with workers on a furlough rotation, and six key staff kept on to manage the mammoth task of keeping the brand alive. 

It was, says Rebecca, a huge learning curve. Rebuilding the website, changing it from a marketing to a sales tool, and working out how to become a click and collect outlet. 

Inside one of Rebecca Bishop's bakery masterclasses at Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival

Inside one of Rebecca Bishop's bakery masterclasses at Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival - Credit: Bokeh Photographic

“Suddenly we were selling all sorts of stuff,” she jokes. “We had fruit and vegetables from our suppliers. The weirdest things were chickens and sausages. Our Darsham site looked a bit like an Amazon warehouse. We had all our racks set up and we’d go along with a picking list packing orders. 

“It was surreal, but it felt like we were fighting for our lives.” 

Everyone chipped in during lockdown, even Rebecca, but today she’s less hands on than she used to be on the actual baking side of the business, with her role involving testing, trying and signing of recipes, teaching in the bake school, and....excitingly, writing her first book. 

“I’ve been doing it for a while now and have a publishing deal. It should be finished by the end of March and we’ve got a photographer, India Hobson, booked for 10 days this year to take pictures! It’s going to be a Two Magpies love story. How we started and how it’s developed, how my own confidence has grown, with recipes interspersed.” 

Rebecca says she’s writing it for all those fellow cookery book lovers out there, admitting she spends a lot of her spare time (when not exploring the Suffolk or Norfolk coast with her schnoodle puppy Wilson) devouring food books from back to front. 

Rebecca Bishop holding a demo at Latitude Festival

Rebecca Bishop holding a demo at Latitude Festival - Credit: Chris Young

I’ve already mentioned Rebecca hasn’t always been a foodie. As a youngster who moved around a lot with an army family, she didn’t spend a great deal of time in a kitchen learning from a kindly aunt or grandparent. Most of Rebecca’s childhood memories of food involve domestic science classes at boarding school. 

“I really started to think more about food when I was in Hong Kong. I lived there from when I was 13 to when I was 21. Everyone ate out all the time. Until then, we’d only go out for birthdays or something, but in Hong Kong it was just what you did. The culture there turned me on to really good food. That you could eat out cheaply and well.” 

Having begun to foster a fascination in food, you might think this is where things took off for Rebecca in the baking arena. It is not. And she chuckles as she tells me she actually went to uni in Staffordshire, taking up a degree in sport and recreation management. 

“I didn’t know what to do after school,” she explains. 

“I thought I’d do an art degree and had a place to study that, but I got cold feet and took a gap year. I got into working in gyms teaching aerobics and thought that’s what I wanted to do. 

“I lived in a house with two other girls, both vegetarian. I’d not made vegetarian food before, and we did a lot of fun cooking...Rose Elliott recipes, that kind of thing. A lot of experimenting.” 

Soon after completing her degree Rebecca was married, swiftly having children Faith (32), Jimmy (30) and Betsy (27). A period in her life where she says she did a lot of ‘mum cooking’. 

“My children will tell you I was rubbish at birthday cakes. They were always bad. They’d hold up the cake and a picture of it in the book to compare. My classic was that hedgehog cake – basically where you disguised a lump of chocolate sponge with icing and Matchmakers. 

“It was more icing than good cake.” 

Later on, after gaining an art degree, and going on to teach, Rebecca found herself leaning towards the kitchen more and more. 

“I bought a Jane Grigson book and have this fond memory of falling in love with her Tunisian orange cake with semolina.” There was more to baking than fashioning disastrous hedgehogs out of chocolate. 

“I just started to get more and more into cooking, especially after my first marriage broke up. My kids were a bit older at that point and I remember going on a School of Artisan Food three-day course where we made sourdough bread. I went on a food smoking course, learning how to smoke cheese. My life was,” she says, “becoming all about food suddenly.” 

The cookbook collection was growing. “Recently I had to make a whole wall of cookbooks at home. I tend to read them like a book – literally all the way through, cover to cover – and that’s something I’ve really taken into consideration while writing my own book.” 

Favourites in her collection include Tartine, anything by Ottolenghi, Nigel Slater, and The Flavour Thesaurus by NIki Segnit. “Tartine was a massive inspiration for me bread-wise. They really understand bread not just as a product, but as a living thing you have to interact with. 

“As for The Flavour Thesaurus. I was looking at that last night, holding a celeriac in one hand and the book in the other getting ideas. I always dip into that.” 

As Rebecca’s curiosity and passion for cooking and baking grew, so did her generosity. She found herself frenziedly rustling up bread and cakes at a pace not even her friends, family or students could keep up with. She would peek into the engine room of cake shops and bakeries, longing to be back there, caught up in the action of a professional kitchen. 

The idea to start her own bakery?  

“It was a huge folly, I mean, it’s not now, but back then...I didn’t know a thing about running a business.” 

Rebecca started Two Magpies Bakery with then-husband Jim Bishop, with the shop name coming from her love of collecting things. “It was this idea of taking a little bit of this and that from around us, and bringing it all together. So many recipe writers come with heritage that is their calling card. I’m just a very ordinary person whose grown up around the world, and that has informed my food. I’m definitely a magpie. I’ll take one idea and think about how I could apply it in other ways. That’s what cooking is, isn’t it?” 

It was almost by happenstance the bakery found its roots in Southwold. Rebecca and Jim were searching all over the country for a location, using their own little algorithm. They sought an upmarket town where there was a high-quality butcher and greengrocer but, crucially, no bakery. 

They visited Rye, Whitstable, Berwick-upon-Tweed. And had little knowledge of the Suffolk coast, apart from a visit Rebecca had made to Southwold many years before. They decided to take a look, and liked what they saw. 

“We registered our interest with an agent while we were there, and as we were leaving Katie Mantin, who worked at Jennie Jones, ran down the high street after us. She was so entranced about what we wanted to do, and it turned out she knew a couple who had a shop for sale. Luckily they’d been thinking of having a restaurant, and they already had planning permission for it. 

“It was tiny. We just had the front part, and had to build out the back, living in the flat above.” 

That was in Easter, 2013. There was a lot of love for the bakery, with customers queuing down the street on opening day. 

“There were just four of us in the kitchen. We were having to pull people from front of house in to help us because we couldn’t make things fast enough.” 

It was a scary, but positive prospect...being that busy. 

“People could see how tired we were. We were on our knees! But, at the same time, it was great. They supported us and I made so many friends. I still have a meal twice a month with a gentleman called Cyril who I met through the bakery. We’ve been through life together. He’s on his own. I’m on my own. We always eat at The Swan in Southwold. I could tell you the menu backwards!” 

Two Magpies quickly became part of the furniture of the town, and a signal of growth on the high street, encouraging others to set their stalls in the upmarket coastal spot. 

Rebecca also became part of the town herself, taking on the role of chair of the Chamber of Trade and fighting tooth and nail alongside shops not only in Southwold, but up and down the country, against rate rises in 2014 and 15. “The whole thing about business rates going up was going to affect small businesses everywhere. I ended up being in The Times and The Guardian. I was a kind of spokesperson for how terrible it was, and how the life would be sucked out of town centres. There were a lot of people around the UK like me who got featured, and I do think we were instrumental in making a challenge on the rates. It’s something I’m really proud to have been involved in.” 

After Southwold, Two Magpies in Aldeburgh was to follow in 2018, then Darsham, Norwich, Blakeney, Holt and Woodbridge. 

Perhaps one of Rebecca’s most favourite achievements is setting up the bake school at Darsham, which has grown to be so busy she’s taken on chef Emma Crowhurst to teach more of the pastry and cake courses, and admin and assistant staff so she can focus on classes showing people how to make bread. All in a new dedicated building (naturally they outgrew the Darsham kitchen). 

As we talk, the baker tells me about the class she’s taught the day before. Scandinavian baking. A flour-fest of Danish pastries, cinnamon swirls, bear claws, rye bread, flatbreads and cardamom buns. 

“What I really love to teach is sourdough. I could do that every day,” she says. “So many people come on the course who’ve had a go and can’t do it. They find their bread is inconsistent. That’s so relatable to me because I still remember myself in that situation. That frustration, but desire to do it. “It’s so palpable when I get questions in class. There are loads of lightbulb moments where people say ‘ah, why didn’t it tell me that in my book?’. “ 

The key to great sourdough, Rebecca divulges without giving too much away, is thinking about temperature. Of the water. Of the dough itself. “Our bakers take the temperature of everything they’re working with and treat the dough as a living thing. There’s no one magic formula in a book.” 

Two Magpies has two starter yeasts or ‘mothers’ for its sourdough loaves – one rye and one wheat – the latter (named RB after you know who) given to Rebecca by a friend of a friend who had a bakery. It’s 100 years old and still going strong. 

Inside the bakery itself, Rebecca has a lot of favourites to choose from. Too many in fact. Each location’s counter bursts at the seams with delightful confections. 

She adores the signature Magpie Sourdough – a blend of different grains, rye, wholewheat and white flour – either buttered, or topped with avocado, poached egg and a peanut and chilli filled hot sauce she was given as a gift. “It’s so good.” 

The bakery’s cheese straws are a “shattering” (in a good way) experience, constructed of layer upon layer of lamination, speckled with caraway seeds. And the Marmite and Cheddar swirls, Rebecca adds, “are too good!” 

“At the moment we’re also doing an amazing Amaretto cherry chocolate cake. It’s our take on a Black Forest gateau, with layers of mousse inside. And I have a real fondness for our amaretti biscuits too. When we were really trying to hit the vegan market I spent a long time experimenting with those. They’re made with aquafaba (chickpea liquid) but have that fantastic chewiness and real almond taste – you'd never know they were vegan. I love them for dessert, crumbled with ice cream and Pedro Ximenez.” 

Beyond the counter, nearly all the Two Magpies Bakery locations have a café, serving breakfast through to lunch and, at Holt, Darsham and Southwold, pizza –  thanks to a chef who worked at the Southwold branch many years ago. 

Just as she collects ideas, Rebecca says she’s also collected some fantastic staff along her journey, and says wants to pay homage to their hard work. 

“I’ve been so lucky to have people come into this business, bringing their skills and passion – like our Italian baker who shared his brilliant way to make pizzas. I’m forever grateful for what he brought to Southwold and how that idea has progressed. 

“At Darsham we have some amazing pastry chefs who work on our wedding cakes and retail offering. Our celebration cakes are a big part of what we do. And on the retail side we’re now making all our own jams. That’s been amazing to have and I can’t take the credit for any of that. It’s people coming in and really wanting to bring what they know and love to our business and make it special.” 

Has it been a struggle to get staff? 

“Oh yes. But we have a number of people coming through the apprentice route, and we’re hoping to create some kind of academy. That’s something we’re really keen to do. It would be fantastic not just for us, but for other businesses. 

“We don’t need people to be trained bakers. They just need to have the desire for it and to understand what it’s like to work in a kitchen. We’ve got delivery drivers who’ve worked for us, shown an interest, and have now come into the kitchen.” 

There are perks of course to working in a bakery. Offcuts to nibble. The chance to be creative in the six annual team tasting sessions. The morning after we speak, Rebecca says she’s taking key members of staff to London on a café and bakery tour to try out the competition! “We want to be great not just here, but on a national level,” she tells me. 
“I never could have dreamed Two Magpies would be where it is today. There’s so much opportunity to develop and push further. It’s amazing!”