Westbury WI

Report of Zoom Meeting 23rd March 2021

Our speaker for this Zoom meeting was John Barkle who spoke about his book – Memories of a Village Grocer, which had recently been published.

Sue welcomed 23 people to the meeting and extended a very warm welcome to those joining us who were not regular members, including visitors from Wookey and Wookey Hole. We were delighted to welcome John to our meeting.

John began by saying that he was thrilled to publish his book which he had been intending to write for the last 20 years! Lockdown does have its uses! John also thanked everyone who had bought his book – he had originally ordered 400 copies but only 50 copies were left so he has put in an order for another 250 copies as it was due to be advertised in Mendip Times. All the profits will go to the Children’s Hospice care.

John outlined his life growing up in rural Ditcheat, in his parents’ grocery shop, in the 30s,40s & 50s. Life was, of course, extremely different in those days long before supermarkets came on the scene. His shop sold everything from bacon and cheese to paraffin and candles! As a small child he was expected to help by filling up shelves with new stock. They cooked their own ham and as produce was not prepacked, the smell of ham, bacon, cheese as well as paraffin and soap powder pervaded the shop. Other smells lingered outside the shop especially when one customer brought her goats along when doing her shopping – not a sight seen these days outside Waitrose or Tesco’s! As the counters were made of polished oak there was also the homely smell of polish. There was plenty of time to pass the time of day with the customers who were all known to John and his parents.

All the accounts had be added up and checked at the end of the day – the book keeping was a huge task especially when the bills did not tally which was often the case. Much of the produce like sugars, flours and dried fruit was bought in bulk and had to be weighed out and put into bags. Even spices were weighed out in tiny amounts!  A plastic – free era!

John, who has a great sense of humour and relates so wonderfully with people, loved engaging with the public and peppered his talk with amusing incidences concerning local “characters”. On one occasion when John’s toddler daughter Sue had wandered into the shop she was found sitting with one eccentric lady who was eating an ice cream but sharing it with her dog and Sue – each taking a lick in turn!

The shop also housed the Post office and the switchboard for the telephones as few people owned their own telephone then. John recounted the fun it was for a youngster to man the switchboard and connect people and of course to keep up with all the local news – listening in whilst holding one’s breath!

As many of John’s audience were “of a certain age” it was also a trip down memory lane as we could all remember going shopping in similar shops when items such as camp coffee, lifebuoy soap, angelica, butter being patted, cheese cut to order and loose items weighed out were the order of the day.

Julie Romeo gave the Vote of Thanks speaking for all of us by saying how delighted we all were by hearing John talking about our memories too. He was just such fun to listen to. Julie rightly called John “our village treasure!” -which is quite true.

Now that we are nearing the date when restrictions will start to ease and groups will be able to meet outside in groups of 6 once more we might be able to have small groups meeting outside for social chatting. Hopefully normal meetings in the village hall might resume in September. Until then we will continue to have meetings by Zoom, with a speaker on the 2nd Tuesday of the month, our normal meeting day.


The next talk will be on 13th April  – when we are delighted to welcome Tessa Munt, our former MP, who will talk to us about her experiences. Please do join us for this as she is a really good speaker.


Our branch will hold its AGM by Zoom on May 11th.

Sue ended the meeting by thanking everyone for attending the Zoom meeting.