One of my favourite books when I was younger was Nevil Shute’s “A Town Like Alice”. Almost none of the story is set in the eponymous Alice Springs in Australia, but to the central characters it represents the ideal small but prosperous town with good amenities and a strong community spirit. Growing up in a sprawling suburb on the edge of a big city, I always had a sense that any Alice-like qualities of my hometown were gradually being eroded, as new edge-of-town housing developments and the increase in car ownership meant that people no longer lived and worked in the same tight-knit communities. Consequently, the idea of a self-contained and sustainable small town has always had a wistful kind of appeal for me, as something I’ve only ever read about, but never experienced.
I get a taste of small town life on our regular visits to Reepham in Norfolk, where Husband’s mum resides. We’ve just got back from a weekend there, and I’m feeling decidedly jealous of my mother-in-law for having such a fantastic selection of local shops on her doorstep. We had a family pootle round the market square on Monday morning, to stock up on some things for the journey home, and ended up spending quite a lot of money. In addition to a well-stocked greengrocer’s and a fabulous shop called Diane’s Pantry which seems to sell just about every home-baked or organic or otherwise environmentally-friendly product you could ask for, there’s also a butcher, a post-office which has a great selection of small toys (v. difficult to get 3YO to leave!), and a very friendly and helpful pharmacist (who once let us in just as he was shutting up shop on a dark night over Christmas so we could buy some emergency flu remedies). And for all those boring essentials and branded goods, there’s a Spar, which for the purposes of my Lent challenge, I don’t class as a supermarket. Another great feature of Reepham’s market square is the Bircham Centre which is part charity shop, part community centre, part library – making the town feel like a community as well as just a shopping centre. We had a browse around after we’d done our shopping, restrained 3YO from buying toys (again!) and then wandered home along quiet alley-ways and side streets, kids jumping in puddles all the way.
I imagine it would be VERY easy for a Reepham resident to take on a daft challenge like giving up supermarkets for Lent. Granted, the produce on sale in a small and relatively upmarket town is probably not as cheap as one of the budget supermarkets which we have access to in big cities, and I can well imagine that living in a small town with limited public transport has its drawbacks, especially if you’re on a low income. But to an outsider – particularly a big city girl like me – it’s just lovely to see a range of small independent shops all within walking distance of each other. I’m looking forward to my next visit – and would thoroughly recommend a Reepham shopping trip to anyone visiting Norfolk.