Mike Hughes goes down to street level to look at the flooding crisis with Neil Armstrong, chairman of Pickering in Business.
Boxing Day is a favourite day for many people. The mayhem of the big day is 24 hours behind you, the heating is turned up, the TV is usually OK and there are the turkey and sprout leftovers to contemplate. Perhaps a walk with the dog, and then an icy-cold plunge waist deep into dark waters trying to rescue as many people as you can as they shout from upstairs windows.
That last bit may seem out of place, but not for Neil Armstrong. The plunge is how he spent his Boxing Day, as part of a mountain rescue team called out to help save residents trapped in their flooded York homes.
So he doesn’t need any advice on the hazards of being an entrepreneur in Yorkshire’s flood zone. His attention is more on the cash flow than the water flow. Neil runs Trailblazer Outdoors, a clothing and kit shop on Pickerings Market Place, just across the street from his Toy and Book Warehouse.
“My mum and dad have had a business of one sort or another as far back as I can remember,” he told me. “When I was a factory manager in Suffolk I had had enough of working for other people and I think mum and dad were struggling a bit to cope as the business expanded, so I said I would come and give them a hand. That was 16 years ago.
“Mum was running a dress and shoe shop, but the rag trade was drying up and the lady who ran this shop was retiring and so we took this on as a mix of clothes shop and outdoors shop.
“I don’t think I was ever sure what I was going to end up doing. I enjoy working for myself, but it could have been anything. I didn’t have a passion to be a retailer, but I found great satisfaction in something that worked because of my own ideas.
“Maybe it is just something in someone’s personality that makes people do this. It would certainly make no odds to me what I was doing – as entrepreneurs we are always looking for the next angle.
“Then I got a bit older and marriage and kids came along and movement within businesses became a lot harder. I’ll never be a rich man, but I live in a beautiful town in a beautiful area. I walk to work and my wife and kids see me every morning and every night. And I can walk out of my front door onto the North Yorks Moors National Park. What’s that worth?”
But Neil isn’t trying to deny his entrepreneurial spirit. He thrives on the business and the need for his mountain rescue skills. Perhaps for some people being an entrepreneur comes at a certain phase of their life, but being entrepreneurial lasts forever.
“Working for yourself gives you an outlet for your mind and you get to see so many interesting people. Retirement can be boring when you have to fill 40 or 50 hours a week. My retired neighbour’s car is immaculate, but that’s hardly living a life, is it?”
The story of the toyshop over the road proves the entrepreneurial spirit. Neil tells me: “I had a small unit there that I let from a Pickering business to use as an office. He relocated and the landlord said either take all of it or none of it. So we put some tents up in there and had it as a tent showroom.
“But then the bottom fell out of the tent market, so we started with remainder and discount books, which went OK, so we got a few toys in as well and they went even better.
“We got an account with Lego by joining the Toymaster buying group. Best business decision I ever made, because of the power it has. Lego is now 50% of the business.”
The outdoors has always been a part of Neil’s life. He has never lived in a city and intends to keep it that way. So the chance to help protect his county and its people with Mountain Rescue England and Wales was a natural one. “The Scarborough and Rydale team is on call covering the southern moors 24 hours a day, 365 day a year,” he tells me with great pride.
“We get a text message via our mobile phones, but it is completely voluntary so there is no obligation to turn up. The team costs about £40,000 a year to run and every penny of that is raised by its members, along with an £80 a year subscription we pay and we get all our own fuel, food and kit.
“I try to keep some of that from my missus because there is an old joke that goes ‘when I die, don’t let my wife sell my outdoor gear for what I told her it cost!’.
“In York there were 20 teams from all over the country, some of whom had only just been stood down from flooding in their own towns. But that shows how quickly the conditions can change in Yorkshire.
“I love it. I get off on the thrill of it and the service to the general public. Voluntary work is just so rewarding and the camaraderie means we are all a big family.”
The team’s services may be in demand more and more as the freak weather becomes weekly weather, bringing danger for residents and a financial hazard for businesses.
“It’s not that we’ve had one 24-hour or 36-hour period when the floods came, but we have had day after day after day of steady rain on the back of a damp second half of the summer.
“August was one of the worst months for us as a business simply because of the wet and the chill. There were days in December which were warmer.
“This area depends a lot on the camping and caravanning trade and it was very difficult for those people – particularly the campers – to get out. Then September tends to be the month when the older people come away on holiday. They don’t have their kids around anymore and they take advantage of the good weather and better prices.
“But they didn’t come this time, either to here or around our concession shop in Dalby Forest. They just weren’t there.
“Pickering was flooded in 2007 and I never thought the water would enter my premises, but the river at the back of the shop came up a couple of metres and I was knee-deep. After that happened, the council decided to manage the water before it got into the river. They felled trees to create dams, planted trees to open up the ground and allow the water to run into the land rather than off it.
“They also dug an underground reservoir just north of the town to hold back the flow. I watched this being put into place and have seen the river rise, but to nowhere near the heights of 2007.”
That highlighted the community feel about the town and the enthusiasm with which businesses and the people joined forces to do what they could to help.
“Me and a few others wanted to make sure the Pickering businesses knew they were stronger together, and shared ideas to improve things in the town.
“The first thing was to build a website, www.welcometopickering.co.uk, which was a year of hard work that is paying off now, particularly for accommodation businesses. Retail is tough, but this little town has everything you need and a lot of the businesses here today were here when we started 16 years ago.
“But I also bet as many as 200 businesses will have come and gone in that time, some without the people of Pickering knowing they were here at all. The challenge towns like this have is to get the message out about what businesses are here.
“Loyal shops with loyal customers become part of the furniture in a good town. The independents have a uniqueness because some cities are getting stale, with all the same shops. There are some here that in their third or fourth generation, but some kids nowadays will be attracted by e-business, but not necessarily want a shop.
“I wonder where the high street will be in 10 or 20 years, but hopefully you will always want to see a product in front of you. Who’s going to buy a pair of walking boots without trying them on?”
His passion for the town and pride for the part he plays in it is obvious, and thankfully long-lasting. “I have no wish whatsoever to move out of Pickering, or even move out of my house,” he says. Good news for his town..... and for York if the waters return.
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