A guide to the thriving community town of Castle Cary
PUBLISHED: 15:31 01 April 2019 | UPDATED: 15:57 02 November 2020
There are big things happening in the Somerset market town, but there’s always been a strong independent spirit in Castle Cary, as Catherine Courtenay discovers
There’s a palpable sense of excitement running thorough the market town of Castle Cary.
Everyone’s talking about Hadspen House, the 17th century mansion on the edge of town which was bought by the owner of Babylonstoren hotel and estate in South Africa.
What will be one of, if not the, biggest country house hotel openings in the UK this year, will see Hadspen transformed into a hotel with spa, visitor centre, restaurant, kitchen garden, café, farm shop and cider mill – not forgetting the restoration of the historic gardens.
It’s a huge project with a knock-on effect of drawing attention to its neighbouring town – which, incidentally, is also seeing further development with 500 new houses.
“There’s a new feel to Cary,” says Tanya Levant, vice chairman of the Castle Cary Chamber of Commerce which was set up last autumn in response to the developments.
With lots of new businesses opening in town, she says the aim is “communication and spreading word”, making both new residents aware of what’s in town and flagging up Cary’s status in the county. Tanya runs Levant Catering, a restaurant with Airbnb accommodation, in Station Road. She runs cookery classes too, all themed around her speciality of Middle Eastern cuisine (the child of Egyptian grandparents, “I was doing it long before Yotam Ottolenghi”, she tells me). Chatting to her while overlooking Levant’s outdoor dining terrace, where the tumbling River Cary cuts through a little woodland beyond, she remarks that the new Hadspen will be a huge local employer.
But this is no sudden rise to fortune; Castle Cary was already a thriving community town, packed with individuals making their mark and bringing life and inspiration to its streets. How many small towns do you know where an independent bookshop has been running for more than two decades? Keeping up with new publications and trends, adapting to suit customers and a next day delivery, has helped the Bailey Hill Bookshop keep its place, when so many other independents have fallen by the wayside.
And how many small towns can boast two wine merchants? Peter Law at The Wine Wizzard has had his shop in the town for 23 years and has been in the trade since 1962. He sends wine all over the country – and even by courier to Paris on occasion. Starting out in Sixties’ Swinging London he was a truck driver ferrying wine across the city before becoming number two at a new company called…Oddbins.
He reports having his “best Christmas for a decade” – and that’s with the added competition of the Somerset Wine Company, run by Camilla Wood who joined forces with The Deli owners, combining the two shops on the same site. Situated right in the heart of town, little rooms are packed with edible goodies and every wall is lined with wine bottles.
“We want to be a really good food destination,” says deli owner Charlie, as he dashes around the shop serving customers. Looking around, shelves are stocked with the kind of things you may struggle to find in a supermarket – like a great range of Thai ingredients, along with local cheeses. “Someone even comes up from Devon to buy our gorgonzola,” he reveals.
Enjoying a coffee while perched in the window, looking out over the historic Market House, it’s striking just how many people are wandering around, even on a midweek winter’s day.
What’s also quite remarkable is just how many shopkeepers live on site, something that surely must help generate the friendly atmosphere.
John and Ally Lawrence are long-running traders in the town, with two shops, both called Needful Things on either side of the street. One sells fabrics, and offers an onsite curtain making service, the other shop, where the couple live, is packed with gifts and clothing. A glimpse through a window at the back of the shop reveals a pretty courtyard, the door to which is opened during the summer, I’m told.
One shop, created from a front room, is Apothe-Cary. Opening the door reveals a dark wooden cabinet-lined room filled with potions. It’s like stepping back in time; but don’t let the décor fool you, owner Nell has filled the place with very modern, beautifully packaged concoctions, including Somerset’s own Mary Temperley and Priestlands Birch products, and every brand is cruelty free.
Another couple living above their shop are Nick and Ange Crowley. They run the Wonderful Garden Company, a treasure trove for anyone with green fingers – or who wishes they had. It sells a range of unusual and bespoke tools and implements including sieves and riddles made in Taunton and bronze tools made for the couple in Slovenia – there’s even a children’s tool section, watched over by Nick’s 55-year-old teddy bear.
Sally Burgess moved to the town four years ago, taking over a prominent town centre building and creating The Gallery – an arts, food and music hangout. There’s a ‘front room’ restaurant, then a courtyard with pizza oven and, in the vaulted basement, a cosy bar where you’ll find live music nights at the weekend. Her background in art dealing has influenced her latest project, creating a highly individual Airbnb out of the main rooms in the historic property – there are artworks everywhere. As with everything in this town, it’s a creative and highly individual project.
Another newish couple in the town are Luke and Jackie Doig at Home Café, serving fabulous coffee, cakes, lunches and afternoon tea; they took over the business, having moved from Kenya to be near their children at school in Bruton.
Reflecting on their time in the town, Peter says: “It’s very easy to live here. It’s got everything you need; you can be here all week and get everything done.”
It’s a familiar refrain; and makes sense when you see that the town has bakeries, fruit and veg shops, a grocers, a hardware and DIY and electrical shop. You can source all the services, except banks - the loss of which is a sore point in many towns
Garden shop Nick describes Castle Cary as having “a committed community”, which explains why support is there for the high street and many seem to back up the comment made by Wine Wizard Peter who says: “I have a feeling that Castle Cary is going to boom.”
5 reasons to visit:
It’s a delight exploring the town’s many shops, find unique presents at The Gifted Company, clothing at Oxford Mill and Chinns Clothes and Accessories and there’s lingerie at Secrets of Castle Cary. The Old Music Shop has an intriguing array of antiques and vintage items.
The team behind the successful Somerset-based eat: Festivals is launching a new event in town. eat:Castle Cary takes place on May 4 and will see over 75 local food and drink producers descend on the town. There will also be the chance to take part in a free cookery school, watch demos from barbecue supremo Ben Forte and there is even a special version of Gardeners’ Question Time with local experts.
Borrow the weighty keys from the local information office in Market House and head up the hill behind to find the Round House. A tiny, tiny cylindrical building used to house miscreants. There’s another prison cell right next to the info office desk as well. For more on the town’s history there’s a fascinating museum, housed in the Market House, which is open from April.
Castle Cary is justly proud of its autumn carnival. Originally started in 1919 to celebrate the return of the soldiers from the First World War, the Castle Cary and Ansford Carnival is now part of the Wessex Carnival Circuit with spectators flocking each year to see the incredible illuminated floats.
The Market House
The stunning building at the centre of town has been carefully renovated and is well worth exploring. The Shambles section with its archways and stone flag floors is now a beautiful location for events or weddings, as is the covered outdoor Undercroft which faces onto the street.