As the world shut down, Real Bread Campaign ambassador Helen Underwood reopened her bakery.
On 23 March 2020, the UK Government announced the country would be going into lockdown. We had been expecting it, of course, but had imagined London would be first. Our youngest, an arts undergraduate in Brighton, was already ensconced at home and our eldest had scurried back to our south Cambridgeshire village, rather than risk being trapped in the capital.
That week, as the reality of this announcement sunk in, we found ourselves in a hive of activity. My two daughters and I signed up for volunteering wherever we could be useful, but it didn’t seem enough. I’ve run my own business (albeit with a child-rearing hiatus) since I was 23 years old. I had to be able to do something more.
A trip to the supermarket provided the spark I needed. In those early days of lockdown, as the supermarkets struggled to keep the shelves stocked and sombre faces passed each other in hushed, empty aisles, it became clear what I needed to do.
It had become increasingly difficult to juggle both parts of our business and two years ago we finally closed the doors of our wholesale bakery to focus on our baking school full time. Now I would brush the dust off the bannetons, fire up the ovens and re-open as a village bakery.
Doing this during lockdown seemed the perfect solution: People in our local community needed bread and we had both the skills and the equipment to provide it. Now all we needed was flour. This was a little trickier than we had imagined but the wonderful people at Shipton Mill and our local miller, Jon Cook at Fosters Mill, could not have been more helpful. People needed bread, they were millers: Somehow, they would make it happen.
At the end of March I sent out a tentative email: White Cottage Bakery was back in business. Within 48 hours, we had more than half of the local households on our mailing list. Some were already keen Real Bread lovers, but many (including some who were shielding or otherwise vulnerable) were just avoiding too many supermarket trips. We laid out the scheme: We’d bake twice a week, offering a range of sourdough and yeasted white, wholemeal and malthouse loaves, rolls and baguettes. People could come to the cottage door to collect and make contactless payment. The old pushbike also got dusted off so that we could deliver to the doorsteps of people who needed to stay isolated at home.
Every week for the past two months we have baked Real Bread for people in our community. We’ve even branched out into the sweet treats – filled brioche doughnuts and muffins – that so many were desperate for as the period of lockdown stretched out before us. Without a pub or shop in our little village, for a short while our bakery became the (socially-distanced) social hub where people could chat, check up on each other, catch up on news and even gossip for a few minutes in the queue. We even managed to treat staff at the local hospital with hot cross buns for Good Friday. In for a penny…
We had no need for social distancing stickers as everyone took it upon themselves to observe the two metre rule: One person at the door, another at the end of the drive, a third across the road by the church, the next further down the lane. It must have looked so curious to an outsider – everyone chatting away at a respectful distance. An old student of ours cycled through the village and guessed immediately what all the villagers were queuing for and emailed me with all the details of the fabulous homebakes he and his family were enjoying.
As word spread, so did our email list. It became a social highlight of the week, a safe space, which felt really important to us all, especially me. Not someone who can sit still for long, I don’t think I would have fared well during those months without the bakery. This was something productive and useful I could do at a time when it was so easy to feel helpless. Helping other people empowered me and did wonders for my mental health. I couldn’t do much, but I could do this.
And now? Well, with lockdown gently easing, we have just finished the last village bake – about 80 loaves off to be cradled, sliced and shared. All made with gratitude that my lockdown was made just that little bit better with each and every loaf.
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