Chris Upton discovers an extraordinary family business still going strong after 120 years.
The little town of Montgomery stands at the very edge of the county of Shropshire... in the area we call Wales. I think we can take these boundary lines with a pinch of salt. Only in more recent, settled times have such borders been anything less than negotiable.
Traditionally, a ford on the fledgling River Severn – at a point called Rhydwhyman – served as the dividing point between the Welsh and the English folk, and this is no more than a stone’s throw from Montgomery. Offa’s Dyke, too, is only a mile or so to the east.
Perhaps for that reason the town feels considerably more Saxon than Celtic. Certainly on my couple of visits to the place Welsh accents have been conspicuous by their absence. Is this a case of late colonialism or re-occupation ?
It is not simply the accents that make Montgomery feel English. This was an assize town, a frontier garrison and a county town, and all the paraphernalia of English social control is there in force. The ruins of the Norman castle peer down from above, and the square in front of the town hall suggests a planted town.
English justice has always had its winners and losers. The Georgian houses of the lawyers reflects the wealth and status of the former, while for the latter there are memorials a-plenty. There is the house of correction on Pool Road, the old county gaol (built in the 1730s) on the hill, and down in the valley its magnificent replacement, constructed in 1830. The building has now been taken over by a housing association.
If you want a tangible and physical sense of what law and order, crime and punishment, once meant, there’s probably no better destination than Montgomery. But that’s not the reason I’ve brought you here. Nor the medieval church, with its lavish tombs of the Herberts. Nor yet the fine little museum, occupying an old temperance hotel in Arthur Street.
No, it’s a shop I want to take you to.
Such is the shop’s fame and fortune that Ann and John Welton (the couple who, as it happens, run the museum) have devoted a whole chapter to it in their excellent history of the town. The museum almost faces it, just a few doors further down Arthur Street. They call it Bunner’s.
There’s an early indication that this is somewhere out of the ordinary. One of those old petrol pumps, still in perfect working order, stands outside, still supplying the juice as it did when Austin Sevens tootled past.
But go inside and an extraordinary world unfolds. Bunner’s is a hardware store, but one that reaches down to us from the golden age of hardware stores. In its cavernous interior – two floors, one a basement – you can find practically anything. Every kind of screw (sold loose) and light fitting, tap and gasket. Not to mention dolls houses and cutlery and coffee-grinders and buckets and tea-pots and plant seeds and bicycle repair kits.