Location: Penpol Terrace, Hayle, Cornwall
Date: 14 December 2010
SiB Team: JR and SB
Image: Dynamite boxes
One of the first things you notice about the interior of Biggleston, besides the faint aroma of mothballs and paraffin that infuses all proper and longstanding hardware stores, is the vast array of boxes. Wooden and cardboard boxes of various sizes, containing all kinds of hardware necessities, climb up the shelves that cover the far wall and line all sides of a small room beyond. The most striking of these are the substantial wooden boxes, covered by a flakey, goose-shit-green paint, that sit at head height. The fronts of the boxes carry specimens of hardware as well as hand-written, brown paper labels which hint at each box’s contents: ‘Glass plates’; ‘Rack pulleys’; ‘Fancy Hinges’. The boxes were salvaged in the 1920s after the closure of the National Explosive Works at ‘Dynamite Towans’ on the edge of Hayle, which had employed over 1500 local workers at its height in WW1. The peeling paper labels were written and affixed by Mr Hodge, a previous proprietor of Biggleston. They don’t always predict accurately the box’s contents and some (‘D6’, ‘E3’, ‘F4’) are written entirely in a lost language of stock and storage. Even Ray Wyse, the present proprietor, is uncertain of their meaning. But, as Steve and I discover from our stay in this store, this hardly matters. These boxes, like the shop they fill, are valued less for their utility than for their significance as historical artifacts and carriers of collective memory.
Biggleston was built as an ironmongers shop in 1894 in the front garden of one, and later two, terraced houses in Hayle, a peculiar location caused by the monopoly of the Harvey Emporium on local trade until the late 19th Century. The double-fronted, single storey building is now Grade II Listed. ‘1894’ is marked in discreet ventilation holes under the doorway. Although most visitors probably don’t notice this detail, the building, inside and out, conveys an unmistakable aura of ingrained memory. Ray, who has run the shop for the past 18 years, has built the business and cemented its place in the heart of the local community by amplifying its reputation as a source of both essential products and necessary knowledge. He has maintained the shop’s original interior design and large stock range because he, and his customers, like it that way. The shop provides a hub for loyal customers and a productive facilitator for local makers and menders. On the day we visit, our conversation is disrupted regularly by phone calls and a stream of customers who enter the shop seeking things (some natural putty; some T-lights; a sanding belt; a galvanized bucket) and, more often than not, advice. Customers invariably discuss local issues and leave with a copy of the Hayle Pump Newsletter in their hand. Biggleston’s front windows frequently carry displays of local historical interest. Ray’s shop counter facilitates the exchange of useful knowledge as much as objects and money. As its proprietor, Ray knows where everything is and his expertise is distributed throughout the store’s architecture and ambience. Biggleston has something of the archive about it; with Ray its affable curator.
Looking at Steve’s photographs of Biggleston sometime after our visit to the shop I am struck by how the colour and texture of the images reminds me not only of the cluttered charm and archive aesthetic of this place, but also its more-than-visual qualities; how cold it was that morning, despite the efforts of winter sunshine streaming in through the double-front windows; Ray’s kind interpretation of its interior landscape, to us and his customers. Looking at the photograph of the store shelves with their green, dynamite boxes, I recall the aroma of the store - and can, for a moment, smell the Swarfega hiding in the bottom right corner in its vibrant red and green pots.
Image © Steven Bond/University of Exeter