Exeter's hidden shops that dare to go against the mainstream
Bakers Yard in Exeter has been a favourite for generations - but not everyone knows where it is
Keith has a simple explanation why people visit Bakers Yard. "It's because we're different," he says. According to the sign out front there are 21 independent business operating from this corrugated warren of units at the Alphington edge of Marsh Barton in Exeter.
The people who visit Bakers Yard know that it is good to be different. If you want packs of ten go to B&Q. If you want self-assembly with a colour palette to match your mood then visit Ikea. If you favour bespoke, specialist, restored to former glory, urban-edged, imperial, flat head, countersunk, where the hell can I find one of those, then go to Bakers Yard.
Being different is what has kept the place going for decades. It has a character of its own. Part throwback grandad's workshop, part street retro. Speaking to the proprietors, both young and older, reveals they all get along and enjoy mixing the traditional and modern.
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Though each business offers something different - an art gallery, antiques, upholstery, bicycle repair, stoves and chimneys - the mix of units in the relatively small space seem to rub along together as one.
"And our prices are good," adds Keith Pearcey. He has been the owner of Exeter Surplus for the past 18 years.
He tells me that at one time many of the buildings here stocked army surplus. After the war and National Service there seemed to be a glut. You know the sort of thing. Woolly socks, built-to-last boots, waterproofs, camouflage and ammo boxes. There's also quality hardware items scattered along the aisles.
Exmouth man Keith is ex-army himself and spent a few years running a decorating business before going all-in with his friend. It's now a Pearcey family business.
"Lots of people in the area know Bakers Yard," he says. "Everybody's father or grandparent used to come here." His typical customer today is a tree surgeon or scaffolder looking for weatherproof, hard-wearing attire.
He shows me some of the more unusual items for sale. A scarlet tunic hangs from the ceiling. I ask who would buy that. Keith tells me it's an officer's mess dress. There is always a buyer and in this case it might be a musician in a regimental band.
Outside he shows me the helicopter. It's actually just part of a miniature chopper and was once in regular use training engineers the mechanics of rotorcraft flight. Keith tells me a bit about the history of helicopters, displaying the sort of knowledge and enthusiasm you wouldn't get on the till at Wickes.
Paul Brook is another who left one type of life behind for another. In his case it was redundancy from a business down the road more than 20 years ago.
He started Brook's Basics with his father David back in 2000. His son Ash is working behind the counter when I visit. The family gathers for a photo behind the counter.
Brook's Basics sells general hardware - everything from garden products, screws, nails and paints to kitchen utensils and clothing. A sort of Aladdin's cave of broom handles and colanders where you leave having bought much more than you came in for.
"We sell the bits and pieces what people want," Paul says. "If they want a couple of screws they can get them here. They don't have to buy pre-packed."
Bakers Yard is a place where memories linger. Nobody here today remembers who the original Mr Baker was but by all accounts he started out in army surplus. More than once I'm told about a Mr Phillips who made wrought iron fencing where Brook's Basics now stands.
Angie at Exeter Stoves and Chimneys says she and husband Richard have been here for nearly 30 years. The family company is a specialist in its field. Many customers travel miles to get here because of the service and expertise. The relative obscurity of Baker's Yard is no issue as they have little need to advertise. A wood-burning Field of Dreams 'If you build it they will come'.
There is nothing uniform here. Signs with arrows pointing this way and that, units of different sizes, some up a flight of stairs, others round a corner. Delivery vans roaming in and out from Alphin Brook Road.
An architect would not design a retail park this way. Too many nooks and crannies. Bakers Yard is what happens when you let people get on with it. It's more like visiting a overgrown yard sale. Another reason to like it.
At one time many of the units sold antiques. Today there is only one. Babs Hale-Westcott is originally from Birmingham but bought The Attic six years ago. "I love it," she says. She tells me that antiques and collectibles come in and out of fashion. At the moment there is particular interest from young people in the vintage line.
On the floor below is Exminster-born Jake Scoynes who started his bicycle repair and maintenance shop Silk Cycles eight years ago.. "It is perfect for me here," he says. "I think because we are on the outskirts of town people don't have to venture into the centre with their bikes."
Jake tells me everyone in the yard helps one another. If you need a welder or just cables ties somebody in one of the adjoining units will have the know-how. A former manager of Sidwell Cycles his small bicycle workshop grew from what his website says was "a love for dirt jumping and tinkering with my mates bikes."
He combines a love of bikes and music. His workshop even has a DJ deck. I've no idea idea how this works for him but that's because I'm old and wear a corderoy jacket.
A few steps away from Silk Cycles is another hidden gem. Mike Purwanan runs Devon Picture Framer and Get Lost Gallery. This is a great space. The gallery stocks some imaginative and quirky pictures inspired by all aspects of modern culture. Think acid house Willy Wonka sprayed onto canvas. He runs the space with business partner Duncan Bowring-Park.
"We work with local artists," he says. "We are a bit on the wild side, a bit out of the norm." They make picture framing of all kinds and to all tastes. Traditional wood, metal, anything you like. The frame side of the business has been operating for more than 15 years and counts as its clients artists like Steve McKracken and LP-Edits.
Mike says I should speak to Fred at the furniture restoration unit. He tells me how he tapped into Fred's knowledge of fabric and shows me a section of bespoke frame he wrapped in material for him.
Parkhouse Furniture Restoration and Upholstery has been here for more than 30 years. Fred Wakefield took over the running of less than decade ago.
"So many people walk through the door and say 'I didn't even know you were here', he says. His main line is in insurance work. A cherished family sofa or cabinet damaged in fire or flood can be restored to former glory by his small skilled team. Fred moved down here from London with his wife Eva and wanted a change of direction.
His specialist restoration business now caters for the whole of Devon and beyond. Chisels, vices, and pieces of furniture jostle for space, the odour of wood oil hangs in the air.
"We have one or two extremely rich clients but the business is not really about that," Fred says. "Most people want one or two items restored to how they used to be. They want to keep it in the family."
Bakers Yard might have had a few chips knocked out of it over the years but that hasn't held it back. In fact, it's probably why people like it so much.
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