Thirty years ago, after spending many years travelling, Louise and Nigel Johnson set up the Burford Garden Company in the premises of Nigel’s family’s garden nursery. Uninspired by the bland, identikit garden centres that were selling mass produced, industrial goods and fluorescent coloured bedding plants, they wanted to create a very individual and inspirational centre for eclectic, artisanal, tightly edited collections in food, drink, horticulture and homewares.
The shop is a retail experience that is a cross between Liberty’s, Anthropologie, The Chelsea Gardener and Petersham Nursery, all under one roof and spread across land that sits on the outskirts of the pretty market town of Burford. You approach along a very stylish, private driveway replete with sculptures and trellises, and from the lights flickering through the windows you can feel a great sense of anticipation and excitement. If you love shopping then this may well be your nirvana. Be prepared: schedule a good part of your day here as that is how long your visit may well take. To rush through it is to miss out on the skill and hard work it must take to select, buy, merchandise, display and arrange the 50 000 different lines that are for sale here. The stylists are very, very clever: old is arranged next to new; there are white and neutral corners juxtaposed with bright, bold, colourful ones; antique furniture, modern paintings, retro blankets and shiny enamelware come together as if they all belong in the same room. It’s World of Interiors magazine meets 10 Corso Como with a dash of Speck, Couverture and Pedlars thrown in.
The business now employs 120 staff, some of whom have worked here for decades. There is also a sister shop at Burford House, between Tenbury and Ludlow.
“We never really set out to be this big department store,” Louise told me. “The business has grown organically. Nigel and I both love art, we have degrees in both the Arts and Literature, and we are both quite creative. We love good design and good styling, and wanted to create a retail environment that was not at all like the high street, with handmade, artisanal goods. We have no intention to be everywhere. I think customers appreciate coming here, they love the locality, they love Burford and they love to shop in an independent family business.”
These ideas are very much in keeping with the current consumer mood: during tough recessionary times we are all concerned about provenance and quality, preferring to buy fewer items, but better quality, from sources we know and trust. There are some big brand labels around the shop, but, particularly in the food section, I spy a number of small, family owned food producer names such as Womersley Foods vinegars, Peter’s Yard sourdough crispbreads, Hobbs House Bakery breads, Kelmscott bacon, Matthews Cotswold Flour, Compass Brewery beers and Benson’s fruit juices.
“We are not driven by sales per square foot, like supermarkets. Our products are handpicked and tried and tested in our own kitchens in our own homes. We work really closely with all our suppliers, and we pay particular attention as to where they source their raw materials, making sure the whole supply chain is ethical and sustainable. We dig about, we spend a great deal of time researching, and if the story of the producer matches our aims and visions then we will stay with them,” Louise explained.
The catchment area is enormous and many of the Burford Garden Company’s customers have second homes in the Cotswolds for the weekends and holidays as well as a main residence in London. They come to buy their Avoca, Emma Bridgewater and Orla Kiely wares, but are also drawn by the number of small, artisanal potters, glass blowers, blacksmiths, weavers and painters that the business showcases alongside the big names.
“We have never lost our passion, even after all these years, when it comes to finding really talented, skilled artists who have no route to market. Many of them produce quite a small volume, their pieces are very personal and unique. Some we find through word of mouth, some through fairs and others just come direct to us,” she said.
Lunches are served in a very large dining room which has spacious wooden tables where you can see business men spread out their computers and mothers parking their baby buggies in rows. There is even a special Café range for “Little Burford” customers once they have finished perusing the Aladdin’s cave that is the toy department. There are huge Mediterranean bowls of freshly made Ottolenghi style salads, soups, fresh breads, hot pies, cakes, pastries and puddings that are presented on canteen style buffet tables.
The food is served on beautiful handmade pottery made by Russel Collins in Hook Norton. There are tall vases of flowers, bountiful dressers filled with painted porcelain and the bohemian feel of a buzzing community hub. Come early or you will struggle to find a seat.
There are plans afoot to open and expand the kitchen, currently run by Head Chef Diarmuid Rogan (originally from Daylesford Organic Farm in Kingham), and to create a new bakery so that they can make and sell their own artisanal breads. The head Patisserie Chef is Eric Schroeder who worked at Browns and Maison Blanc, and tea time at Burford Garden Co. is legendary.
It is in the newly planted kitchen garden, however, that Louise’s pride really shows. On one side of the garden centre there is a newly planted fruit and vegetable plot, which is being used by a charity, called Aspire Oxford, of whom Nigel is Chairman. Established a decade ago, Aspire helps homeless people, ex-offenders, people with substance misuse history and mental health issues regain a foothold into society through work, learning and training. Two acres have been designated for the organic cultivation of flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables and one of the acres will become a scented garden. All the produce is either sold in the shop or used in the café.
“Working to change lives” is the charity’s motto and as I look out on the immaculately planted beds with rows of cavolo nero, peas, beans, lettuces and marigolds, I can see what an enormous difference this initiative must make to the lives of under privileged people at the margins of society. It is a calm, contemplative space, bordered by hedging, buzzing with wildlife and so well thought-out and executed I am tempted to draw it on paper to reconstruct it in my own garden. Budding kitchen garden designers would be very inspired here.
By providing a scheduled structure to the participants’ days, they are given a sense of purpose and a skill to use in the future. Charities like Aspire need many more benefactors like the Burford Garden Company, all over the land. Gardening has long been recognised as a very therapeutic and restorative aid to people who have suffered or are grieving, providing a link with nature, the seasons and continuity that many disadvantaged lives have never experienced.
Looking to the future of the business, Louise and Nigel’s three children, now aged 17, 20 and 24 are not yet showing signs of wanting to enter the family business. One is a film maker, one a photographer and one is at art school. The creative and artistic DNA has definitely passed through the genes, and Louise is very adamant that the work ethic is never forgotten.
“We have always taught our children the value of money, and the fact that they need to work hard, spread their wings and apply their skills to further themselves. We are hugely proud of them, and maybe, who knows, they might come and join the business. Working in retailing is a labour of love, especially during difficult economic times, but, you know, even after all these years I still love it so much!”