The butcher’s shop that lasted 300 years (give or take) | News

Frank Fisher’s butcher’s shop had been in business, he liked to tell people, for more than 300 years. A while back, a signpainter was commissioned to advertise this fact on an outside wall, in case any strangers should pass through the market town of Dronfield in Derbyshire and feel compelled to stop and inspect a time capsule. When I first visited, in January 2018, I found a low, square-windowed room tiled in faded beige and blue. Most of the interior was taken up by a walk-in meat larder, with just enough room left over for a counter, a crimson-stained cutting block and Frank himself. Saws and cleavers dangled, ominously, at throat height; you had to be careful not to impale yourself on the hooks that curled down from a black-lacquered carcass beam. Frank, who was 88 that year, moved with grace around the cramped space, having first come to work here as a teenager. When I asked how much had changed over the past 75 years, he took a good long look around and said: “The weighing scale used to be over there, love.”

In some respects, Frank’s was like any number of small shops in Britain. It had once been essential to the local community, depended-on. And now it was marginal, perishing in plain sight as the people of Dronfield chose to buy their goods in one of a trio of supermarkets, or to have deliveries brought to them by van. Open at 9am sharp, Frank had waited until 11.30am for his first visitor of the day – and here I came, not with an empty shopping basket, but a reporter’s notebook. I’d read about his shop in the Yorkshire Evening Post, and about how Frank was refusing to shut, even as his strength declined and he struggled to keep the lights on. His was the last butcher’s shop in the middle of town. The last traditional shop on the main road. He was the last butcher in an ancient family of them, and he insisted that he wasn’t ready to hang up his white coat just yet.

We agreed that I would stick around for a while, to learn some more about what happens inside an old business as it teeters, a long-resisted closure heaving into view. That January, in 2018, neither of us knew how near the end really was. In six weeks’ time, the blind would be drawn over Frank’s one window, a gummed-up piece of paper behind the glass offering his apologies to passersby.

It was a chilly morning. Frank, who is narrow and ruddy, and who tended to wear a shirt and tie with a cherry-red beanie pulled low over one ear, swapped his white butcher’s coat for a puffer jacket, and led me outside to admire the shop from the road. It was like something from a children’s picture book, with a witchy roof that seemed to pitch in several directions at once, and foundations that bit into a steep hill that ran up the middle of Dronfield and counted in these parts as the high street. We peered up and down. Solicitors next door. Domino’s pizza a couple of doors up, menswear one down, a coffee shop across the road. There had been a sweetshop on that side, demolished in the 30s, now a small car park. A Victorian greengrocer had become a hotel after the second world war. Another lasted longer, touching the 21st century before it went for a pet shop that in turn went for a paint-your-own pottery. An Indian restaurant had been here since the 70s, and before that, a wool shop.

Butcher Frank Fisher outside his shop in Dronfield in 2017.



Frank Fisher outside his shop in 2017. Photograph: Alex Cousins/SWNS.com

There were no traditional shops left to speak of, only Frank’s, and in terms of his immediate rivals, this lively and watchful old man had for years kept a wary eye on Dronfield’s three supermarkets. One was an aircraft hangar-sized Sainsbury’s that had been built at the top of his hill. It was big enough to have its own butcher’s counter and an in-house Argos. As if to parry all this, Frank had had his signpainter write “ESTABLISHED IN THE REIGN OF QUEEN ANNE” on the front of his shop, the name of the 18th-century monarch picked out in an age-suggestive font. Queen Anne, I cooed, as we stepped back inside. Was that really true? Frank hesitated. And I knew we were going to become firm friends when he squinted into the distance, as if at a long line of queens and kings stretching back through time, and said: “Give or take.”

He made us teas that were richly brown and, uninterrupted by customers, Frank leaned against his cutting block and explained the surer historical facts about this shop as he knew them. His father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather had all been proprietors here, an unbroken line of Fisher butchers that went back to the 1870s. But the dynasty was in bad shape. Frank had not married. He had a couple of adult nephews who lived in cities, and no children of his own. Profits hadn’t stretched to cover an assistant or an apprentice, anyone who might be encouraged to take over as a tenant, in well over a decade. Honestly, said Frank, glancing anxiously at the street-facing window, the shop hadn’t turned a profit in about a year. He was dipping into his savings to pay the rates. He was trying to ignore the passing Ocado vans that seemed to whisper at him: “Go.”

It used to be, whenever Frank passed a rival butcher’s window (and later the curved glass of a supermarket meat counter), he would peer in unjealously, looking for the subtleties that spoke of talent with a knife. Were their fillets shapely? Were the chops cut squarely end-to-end, so that nobody would be served the last on the rack and find it meagre? Some years ago Frank was stunned when he got chatting to a white-coated butcher at the big Sainsbury’s up the hill, and learned that he rarely took a knife to anything larger than a steak. Most of the meat arrived pre-cut, pre-boned. Now, in these days of his downturn, Frank’s meat arrived that way, too. It could be a sorry sight, he admitted, the contents of his Wednesday-morning delivery from a supplier in Chesterfield, all carried in by the driver in just one crate, “a few rump steaks, half a side of lamb, bit of pork”. Even with such small weekly stocks, he wound up eating a lot of it himself.

A curly-corded telephone rang, interrupting his reminiscences. Frank reached to answer it: “High street butcher?” The world was jilting its high street shops, and in Frank’s case there had been a long, slow desertion, in train for decades. He was glad to be reminded that not everyone had rushed on and left him behind. “Yes, love,” he said, “I’m here, freezing to death. No you carry on, I’m all yours. There aren’t, uh – there’s not many customers about.” Frank scribbled down an order. Pork. About £5’s worth. It seemed to revive him, and after hanging up the phone he wiped his hands on a cloth, folded his arms, and sat his weight on the cutting block so that his legs swung back and forth. He turned his better eye on me and said: “Where was I? Teenager?”


It was the summer of 1943, and the shop had 75 years to go till closure. Frank, a teenager, arrived at his grandfather’s shop to begin work as a butcher’s boy. The job would be to bike parcels of meat around Dronfield and the surrounding countryside between the cities of Sheffield and Chesterfield, right on the county border of Derbyshire and Yorkshire. These bicycle deliveries were a delicate thing, Frank learned, and went off best if they were pitched right, packaged right, personalised a touch. At the vicarage, they liked their chops brought over in a spotless white basket, under a tea cloth. As against that, Frank was once asked to ride 20lbs of sausages over to a servicemen’s canteen in Sheffield, and after he came off his bike en route – cargo everywhere, under the wheels of cars, in the gutter – the cook accepted her ruined order without much complaint, only squinting at the soot-smeared sausages and slinging them in the oven to blacken a second time.

Not far from the Dronfield butcher’s shop, over the railway line and the Sheffield-to-Chesterfield road that divides this town in two, Frank’s older brother, Bill, was enrolled at Dronfield grammar. “Bill wasn’t going to become a bloody butcher,” was young Frank’s assessment of things, “not with his brains.” (Bill Fisher went on to become a dental surgeon.) Frank was 10, and about a year away from sitting the grammar school entrance exam himself, when reconnaissance flights came droning over Derbyshire and Yorkshire from Nazi Germany. In 1940, there were heavy raids in the district. Sheffield was bombed with special zeal because of its factories, and schools were commandeered as shelters for the displaced. Educations were interrupted. Frank failed his exam.

He thought about taking a job in one of the nearby factories and waiting till he was old enough to join the army. Instead, it was arranged by his mother that he would take a position with his grandfather, carrying on the family trade in his older brother’s place: a bloody butcher, then. Frank’s grandfather, fastidious and phenomenally moustached, was something of a figure in old Dronfield. The town hall used to be right across the road from the shop, and this end of the high street was an important thoroughfare. There were butchers elsewhere in town, at least half a dozen, each with their specialities and customs. Frank’s grandfather was noted for his Victorian manners, the way he would sweep off his hat to acknowledge the grander customers, and also his skill at pickling an ox tongue. On his death in the 50s, 25-year-old Frank and his father took over the shop as equal partners.

Frank Fisher’s grandfather, William, with his butcher’s van, circa 1930s.



Frank Fisher’s grandfather, William, with his butcher’s van, circa 1930s. Photograph: Alex Cousins/SWNS.com

It was a time of great change in Dronfield. A sweeping asphalt bypass was laid around the western fringe of the town, while Sheffield, to the north, expanded its outer suburbs at such a rate there would eventually be debate as to whether Dronfield should be formally absorbed. Enormous new housing estates, some of the largest in Europe, were built on farmland east and west of town in the 60s, expanding Dronfield’s boundaries and multiplying its population many times over. There was an influx of middle-class commuter-residents from Sheffield, some of them drawn across the border to Derbyshire for the smarter-sounding postal address.

At first, Frank and his father were beneficiaries of the growth. “There were new buildings, new estates, new customers. And no new shops yet,” he told me. Whenever an estate began to fill with residents, Frank would visit, knocking door to door to introduce himself. “We did well,” as he put it, shyly, “we got us business up.” By the end of the 60s, for better or worse, the business was about to become his alone – Frank’s.

He was in his late 30s. His entire adult life he had lived in the two-bed flat above the shop, sharing the space with his parents. Frank was in the spare room at the back. His parents had the master bedroom, with a big sash window that overlooked the high street. An ideal room for being nosy, as Frank would tease his mother – who, with a pushed-up window and a bent neck, could see up and down Dronfield high street almost as far as it went. This is a town that rises sharply from its railway station, stepped like a rockery; many of the roads are hills. On an icy morning in 1969, Frank’s father was on the slope outside the shop, “chuffing about”, as Frank put it, “waving to women across the way. And down he went.” He never recovered from the fall, and had to reduce his working hours, spending more and more time in the flat above. It was a working Tuesday when Frank’s father passed away. Frank was sure about the detail, because he remembers working right on through, serving customers while his dad died upstairs.

More and more customers were equipping themselves with freezers at the time, and the delivery side of the business boomed. People called Frank on the shop phone to register orders. Beef, beef, beef. The brains. The tongues. From time to time, people called him with more serious news. In the mid-70s, his mother, who’d also had a serious fall, was ailing in the upstairs flat, being cared for by a district nurse. When the telephone rang (“High street butcher?”), Frank was told to rush up. He was too late. Frank told me he waited “six months, nine months? I was superstitious, y’see”. And then he moved out of the back room, into the master bed. “Which is a funny feeling. To go to sleep where your parents have both died. It’s a strange one. Not everybody’s cup of tea.”

Solitude gave him focus. He would get through hundreds of delivery orders, working 12-hour days, rattling all over the district in a Bedford van. He knew customers’ names, their likes and dislikes, and he had found a nice groove for himself, working hard in the day and then playing bridge in the evenings, maybe a little poker, certainly a lot of pub, turning in for bed as late as he liked, and always up and ready to open at 9am. For decades it did not occur to Frank to worry about the number of customers who chimed in and out of the shop. They came. He served them. He chatted and gossiped with them, telling the story, given half a chance, of the day he sold meat to the actor Michael Caine. (“Breast of lamb.”) They always came back.

In the 70s, to service the town’s expanding population, a new civic centre was built on a flat piece of land just up the high street. There was a swimming pool put in up there, and a town hall with a car park that could double as a staging place for Dronfield’s outdoor market. An L-shaped parade of shops was built around the car park, with space for two dozen units, and in one of these the town got its first supermarket, a Gateway. The heart of the town moved decisively uphill, away from the high street, and Frank began to spend a greater portion of each day on his front step, chatting with the townspeople who passed by on their way up, friendly with everyone, though no longer selling them all that much meat.


February, 2018 – less than a month to go till Frank would have to close. Uphill, negotiations were underway to close Dronfield’s first supermarket. The Gateway that had appeared so triumphantly in the 70s, later becoming a Somerfield and then a Co-Op, was now surplus to local needs. They would switch up the acrylic signage and make it a Poundstretcher. The L-shaped shopping parade, which had once wooed custom away from the small shops down the hill, was on the slide, left stranded by changes in consumer habits. Footfall was down. Tenants were abandoning their units, unable to justify the rates, they said, since custom had flown to the more convenient Sainsbury’s, the Aldi that had opened in Dronfield in 2013, the home-delivery vans that gunned around day and night, the giant Meadowhall shopping centre on the outskirts of Sheffield. In time, the whole civic centre would be put up for sale. (It is currently on the market for £3.5m.) Frank’s little shop almost outlasted it.

Almost. In the pubs and the cafes, the locals of Dronfield were politely baffled that he’d managed to hang on even this long. Everybody knew Frank. Barely anybody knew anybody who shopped with Frank. If I mentioned the shop to a resident, chances were they would smile, pause, and then make a careful joke about his painted sign – its optimistic claim of dating all the way back to Queen Anne. “Now, the sausages he hangs in the window,” someone quipped. “They might be so old.” I heard several fond jokes about sausages that were past their prime.

In the shop one day, we spoke about his record on health and safety. Frank was perched next to the window, itemising a career’s worth of wounds. He held up his right-hand index finger to the light, to reveal a worn-away depression near the knuckle, the upshot of seven decades trimming meat with a narrow-handled boning knife. During the shop’s boom years, he explained, he would carry in a side of beef that was four or five feet long – and bang! Down it went on the counter, for patient bone removal that would last him a whole day. Frank had done an awful lot of deboning in his life, evolving from the practice a rough professional mantra that went something like: never overlook, never discard. He put aside the smallest thumbnail morsels for stews. Scraps and dabs for sausages. He kept in mind a picture of the wartime women of Dronfield, queuing around the corner for offal and offcuts. Under his sleeve he had a scar from that era, a gash about the size and shape of a smiling mouth that he’d got trying to properly take apart a piece of lamb.

As for modern health regulations, and the thousand exacting rules that had come in since the start of Frank’s career to smarten up the trade in fresh produce, his history was cloudier. Sanitation standards had got a touch unrealistic, in Frank’s telling, and he would sound vague and harried whenever the subject came up, suggesting that in some instances he’d made changes, and in others he’d carried on his business as always.

Frank Fisher at his shop in Dronfield.



Frank Fisher at work in Dronfield. Photograph: Tom Lamont/courtesy of Frank Fisher

Expectations seemed to have changed a lot on the other side of that butcher’s shop door, if you’d hung around long enough. This used to be a grey-lidded town of smoking collieries, shovel works and spindle factories. There were densely tenanted houses on the main road, pigsties hugger-mugger with people, fireplace ashes thrown out at night. Before Frank’s great-grandfather took it on, this shop was run by a man who killed to order. (“Notices to be sent to butchers,” a health inspector recorded in a diary of 1863, after a visit to the site. “Slaughtering beasts in the shop ought to be abolished.”) Mains water came to town in the 1870s, though human waste continued to be collected by overnight cart until the 1890s and the installation of a sewage system. An early photograph of Frank’s shop shows an immaculate display of marbled rib-racks in the window. His grandfather insisted on spotless good order, and the shop had a reputation for cleanliness, one maintained by Frank’s mum, who for years would get down on her knees and scrub out.

On Frank’s watch there were small improvements. Electricity. A telephone. There were innovations missed as well, and though he’d brought in a domestic freezer, large-scale refrigeration seemed to have passed the shop by. Meat went in the walk-in larder, a storeroom that was naturally cold – cold-ish, but not hummingly, foggy-breathed, 21st-century cold. Frank said he had calculated how many years he was likely to remain in business, and how much was the cost of a full refit (new sinks, new tiles, the works). He’d decided against.

Who were his customers, willing to overlook the clutter and the time-worn tiles? Elderly widows, as far as I could make out. A few loyal friends from the Labour club, or from his weekly golf round. There had been visits from locals, Frank said, who had moved away from Dronfield once and were returning after decades. Generally they were incredulous to find him still trading. He told me of his superstition that if he ever stopped, his health would suddenly fail. He said he felt a small but definite pressure to carry on the shop, not as a necessary service to the town, but as a curiosity, a survivor from Dronfield’s smoky past. In the tourist centre they had up information panels about Frank. He got a whole page to himself in Take a Walk Down Highstreet Dronfield, available for £5 in the lobby. I asked Frank if it was frustrating to be valued as a museum piece, and not as a viable business, and his voice rose as he said: “Just a little bit. Just a little bit.”

He continued: “Everybody tells me, you can’t close. They’ve done postcards and I’m on them. I’m all over the bloody place, like horse muck. So they say you can’t close. And I think, well, come and spend your money with me instead, then.” The worst thing Frank could say about his situation was that his trade had become his hobby. “It is! It’s a hobby. A trade pays its way. It’s become something to get up for, even if that’s only to stand here and freeze to death.” Surprisingly, his eyes were wet with tears as he spoke. This was a deeper wound, and one that Frank had not meant to bring up to the light for study. He started to shuffle off to make tea. “There we are though. I’ve had a good run. I’m gonna put the kettle on.”

I was left in the front of the shop, where, despite the dust and the discoloured tiles, I couldn’t help thinking about Frank’s old mantra, and the value of modest things that should not be too casually discarded.


Much as a single shop may pass down through the children and grandchildren of a family, losing or gaining with each generation, its fortunes and its reputation in flux, so the British high street has been improved and degraded through successive waves of stewardship. The high street was a place of utility once, with concentrated amenities. It was a place of wildly fluctuating codes of behaviour and scruples. Particular smells. Finicky proprietors. Honest johns. Crooks. When the chains and supermarkets blew in, standardisation brought reliability, convenience and lower prices, but it also generalised and depersonalised the streets. Smith’s and Boots. Woolies and Marks. Later the map was Pret-studded, Nandoed. A lot of town and city centres were partly or wholly pedestrianised, and a lot of them started to smell the same, from Aberdeen to Sheffield to Guildford, because of the pumped-out sweet citrus vanilla scent of Lush bathbombs.

One of this century’s stranger trends has been a turning-away from the chains – and a deliberate revival of the props and symbols of yesterday’s vanished high street. Ampersands. White aprons. Wax paper. As a rough rule of thumb, whenever a shop makes an overt gesture towards the past, all back-in-time vibes will be checked on inspection of the prices. The more a shop looks as though it trades in farthings and ha’pennies, the more tenners and twenties you can expect to hand over at the till. And though they must mean well, these faux-traditional shops, harking back to an era of localism and pretty clockwork high streets, can help cleave a neighbourhood in two, making very clear the difference in means of those who live nearby.

The white-coated originals – like Frank – have watched all this happen, if not with bitterness, then bemusement. Now that people were fond of the old ways of shopping again, why didn’t they return to the old shops? It took a pandemic, and the interruption of national supply lines that have long felt fixed and inevitable, to prompt any sort of shift that I could see.

In the spring of 2020, as coronavirus spread, I rang Frank at his flat. We hadn’t spoken in a few months, but stay-at-home measures were new in place, and if you knew and liked anyone elderly, they were often in mind. I asked him how he was coping. “Aye,” Frank answered. It was a customary word of his, though I knew from my time in his company that an “aye” could have any number of drifts, depending on the circumstances. I took this one to mean: I’m coping, just. Neighbours had been bringing him his food, he said. Cottage pies mostly, from the big Sainsbury’s. His health was bad, and it was tiring for him to talk on the phone, so I spoke instead, describing the view from my end.

Frank Fisher in his butcher's shop in Dronfield, circa 1980s.



Frank Fisher in his shop, circa 1980s. Photograph: Tom Lamont/courtesy of Frank Fisher

I was out on my high street in London, stood in an enormously long queue outside a butcher’s shop. Across the road, a compact city supermarket (much relied-on in normal times) had been picked almost clean by anxious shoppers: no booze on the shelves, no toilet paper, little meat, little bread. Today, the queue outside the butcher ran the length of a dozen shuttered shopfronts and even turned a corner, just as in Frank’s memories of wartime Dronfield, when people stood in line for whatever they could get. “Aye,” sighed Frank. I took him to mean: will it last though?

And it didn’t. By the end of the spring, that small Sainsbury’s near me had its shelves well stocked once more, and it was always busy. The daily queue at the butchers shrank and then disappeared. Covid ravaged the larger economy throughout the summer, and as autumn approached, it was becoming clear that one of the major structural victims of the crisis was going to be the British high street itself, as the pandemic hurried on and shored up a decline that had been proceeding for decades.

On Frank’s road in Dronfield, the pottery shop that was once a pet shop that was once a greengrocer – that went during the early phase of lockdown. In late April, residents were sent a blunt letter telling them that the town’s ancient market, which had stopped because of the pandemic, and which really did date back to the reign of Queen Anne, would be wound up.

All around the country there were proprietors, managers, stallholders, restaurateurs, publicans and small business owners of every stripe reaching to draw the blinds on their premises, and composing brief window notes that must stand in for the whole human story of an enterprise gone under. As Frank had said to me two years earlier, when he was forced at last to reach for the Blu Tack and a felt-tip pen and call time on his own little shop: “It hurts. Aye.”


Mid-February 2018 – less than a fortnight to go now. Frank had received a jokey Valentine’s card from one of his few remaining customers, and he tacked this, carefully, to a prime spot of wall above the till. He had made it clear during our long conversations that as long as I kept my swearing to a minimum, there was not a lot I could say that would offend him. “Makes no difference to me, love. No, shoot away. I got past being offended by experts.”

I asked, delicately as I could, about his legacy. I knew from his family’s page in the tourist booklet that the story of the Fishers in Dronfield had been one of wives, sons, wives, sons. Ephraim Fisher was the first to move here in the 1780s. He married a Sarah and had a James, who had a Charles, who had a James, who had a William, who had a Percy, who had a Frank. I asked Frank if he’d ever … ? Was there ever a time when … ?

Suddenly we were off, Frank talking about his love life as a younger man, the obstacles, the near-misses, “the knock-backs, knock-backs, knock-backs”. In his 20s, he was a keen dancer, he said, out two or three times a week to a ballroom where he would gather his courage and set out between the columned arches to ask one of the unaccompanied women to partner him. More often than not, their answer was no. Frank had terrible acne, these great livid patches on his cheeks and chin, all over his torso and his back as well. He submitted himself to medical trials, accepting the longshots and howling risks of 40s treatments that were at best eccentric, at worst insane.

For weeks he met a dawn appointment, down in the frigid cellar of a hospital, hoping to be cured of the acne by the rays from a giant sun lamp. There were diets. Skin ointments. As an old man, Frank still had the pink, nettled cheeks that were testament to a failed experiment with heat cream. (“You’d have sued today.”) Once, he was put on a course of potent hormone pills, coming off them when he woke up one morning to discover he was budding breasts. Later in life he visited a skin specialist who advised Frank he might try the seaside. Or marriage. Both were said to help.

Frank was in his late 30s when his skin finally cleared, and he had lived with acne for so long that he had stopped expecting women to find him attractive. He was resigned to bachelorhood, calling this his “position in life”, and he hardly questioned it until, one day, quite unexpectedly, he fell in love with a customer. “Copped for her,” was how Frank put it.

In the shop it was midday – time to tug down the window blind and close for lunch. Given the general want of customers, this daily closure was a gesture of Frank’s as much as it was any practical halt to trading, a habit from a busier era. Upstairs in his flat, while Frank had a bite to eat, I was allowed to look through his archive of yellowing accounts books, each of which recorded in a neat hand the joints and cuts that had passed in and out the shop on any given day, back to his grandfather’s time. There was an entry for the family who saw in the Queen’s coronation with mutton and bones. An entry for the hotel that bought a heavy beef joint the morning after the moon landing. Frank also kept a tin box of old photographs, and out of this he passed me the picture of the customer who became his girlfriend.

Pat was widowed, Frank said. Clever and good to talk to. When he suggested they went dancing together, she said yes, and at last he was able to put his ballroom skills to proper use. In the late 70s, after they had been a couple for five or six years, never living together, but known as a steady pair, Pat began to have difficulty keeping up with him. “Not being able to dance at first, and then needing to hold my arm when we walked.” She was diagnosed with a motor disease.

Over the next 15 years there was a slow decline. “She had a walking stick. Then crutches, then a wheelchair, then bed. Sad business, mate, I’ll tell you.” In 1992, Frank was working in the shop when the telephone rang. (“High street butcher?”) It was news he’d been expecting, but even so. Frank had stood on the same patch of shop floor and been told about the death of his father, then his mother, now his girlfriend. Pat was 52.

So the shop wasn’t only a place of business, Frank said, as he took back the photograph. It wasn’t only a local curiosity. That little room down there was the staging place for almost every major event of his life, and he could not bear to think of it being shuttered, cobwebbed, uncared-for. He told me he’d decided that it didn’t need to carry on as a butcher’s shop after all. It could be a deli or an antiques shop. He would cut a tenant a deal, he insisted. Though he couldn’t explain exactly why, Frank was keen for a person to be down there if he was not. He wanted somebody filling the space.


Late February, 2018 – days left. Frank’s spirits were low. He had a driving test due, and with his eyes in such poor condition he knew he wouldn’t pass. He still drove deliveries for a handful of customers, trundling over parcels in his Ford Ka after hours, mostly to those who were housebound. “I’ve been the errand boy here, the deliveryman, the managing director, the butcher, the salesman, the accountant,” he said. “And now I’m on the downs. I haven’t got the strength, love, I really haven’t. You’d have to be a miracle man to carry on.”

On a Monday afternoon, 26 February, Frank was taking empty tea mugs from the shop to the upstairs flat when he fell backwards on the staircase, landing awkwardly and hitting his head. Neighbours ran to help him, and he ended up in hospital that evening, for X-rays. Discharged, and told he would be alright, Frank was up early on the Tuesday morning to open as normal. He carried out his daily tasks – some prep, some knife-sharpening, some cleaning – taking each activity slowly to fill the time. There were teas to brew, and chats with customers by phone, some of them calling to see if he was OK. Before closing, he sold £15’s worth of chicken to a friend who came by every Tuesday. After that, he shut as normal and went upstairs. He had just locked the front door of the flat behind him and moved into the front room when he felt dizzy and collapsed.

The way he’d fallen, face down, Frank couldn’t see the clock. He could hardly move: the muscles in one arm had gone, and the other was too weak to lift his body. The shop could only have been closed for half an hour, he figured. So it was 5.30pm. He lay on the floor for another 14 hours, awake, and thinking over his life, thinking: “Hell. Oh, hell.” His father had fallen and died. His mother had fallen and died. So, of course, there were morbid reckonings. What he knew for sure was that this meant the end of his business, and he tried to use the hours to make peace with that.

At 7.30am the next morning, having only succeeded in crawling a few feet towards the window, Frank heard the sound of a van idling on the road. It would be the Wednesday-morning meat delivery, his 10lbs of stewing steak and his half a side of lamb. Something about the irrational thought of the delivery driver smashing in to search for him gave Frank new resolve. He hauled himself, one-armed, to the sill. Somehow he got the sash lifted and shouted out. A neighbour came with a ladder.

Dronfield high street in August 2020



Dronfield high street earlier this summer. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

I visited Frank in his flat when he came out of hospital. His white coat hung in the hallway, a pristine walking stick propped beneath it. He wore a shirt but no tie, and he looked a little stunned, as though still adjusting to the unlooked-for leisure of recuperation. I guessed that I was standing in as a surrogate for his few remaining customers (or maybe the local history people) when he tried to apologise for closing the shop. “I’ve said I’ve had to do it because of ill health. I can’t see me going back in there, can you?”

In the kitchen he made us teas. There were signs of recent roastings and fryings, and Frank explained he’d been eating pretty well, making his way through frozen stocks from the shop. Ox kidneys. Beef burgers. Lamb and chicken. He’d not yet tucked into the fresher stuff, in case there was some amazing reversal and the business could reopen. His handwritten sign in the window, downstairs, allowed for that slim chance. “UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE”, it read. “LOVE FRANK.”

Casually, while we sipped our teas, he repeated his question: “Should I try to open up again?” He seemed to be testing the idea on himself, keeping the possibility alive, as much as he was asking my opinion. I hedged and said something about him being due a rest after all these years. Frank looked disappointed. This wasn’t rest. “Let’s go down,” he said eventually. “Let’s pay her a quick call.” Before we left, he went to put on a tie.

Downstairs, in the empty shop, letters had piled on the doormat. Cobwebs were gathering in the corners after all. Frank’s shop is still that way today, two-and-a-half years after his fall and the forced decision to retire. Having failed to let the premises as a butcher’s shop, or an antiques shop, or a deli, Frank had hoped to find a tenant who would use the space for jumble, storage, anything. But nobody wanted it. The last time I tried to call him at the flat, in late spring, there was no answer. His health had worsened and he was in a care home.

I’d wanted to tell him about a weird thing that had happened in my neighbourhood. A longstanding butcher’s shop had closed – a place very much like Frank’s, in that it was minimally modernised and much-neglected by locals, run by elderly brothers in whites who hung red-and-white plastic ribbons in the doorway to deter flies, and weaved artificial grass around the sausages and steaks in their window. When it was emptied out and gutted, passersby wondered what popular modern service was about to replace it. Nail bar? Vapery? In fact, it has reopened as a butchers. The incoming owners have fitted smarter shelves and angular glass and painted everything a Farrow-&-Ball-like teal. Prices are way up. “Traditional Butchers,” reads the new sign outside.

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Source: The Guardian

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