While the majority of us hid away in the depths of Covid lockdowns, taking to gardening, baking banana bread and bingeing on the latest box sets, for others, it was a period of action.

Alongside health workers, carers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers and many, many more, there was a quieter faction, squirreling away in our villages and hamlets.

An army of staunch volunteers who, despite many unknowns, dedicated their time to keeping their communities ticking over.

They work tirelessly in the shadows, in tiny rooms and halls, vacant Post Offices and long-abandoned village shops, taking daily bread and milk deliveries, checking in on the vulnerable or observing their absence – often necessitating a call to ‘make sure everything’s all right’.

These are the merry band who fuel our community shops.

And they need your support. So next time you’re passing by and need a loaf, a paper, a block of Cheddar, a cool drink or an ice cream...make sure you stop and say hello – they're a friendly bunch.

Here we visit two in Norfolk.

‘We were being rung up from literally all over the world’

“We made a conscious decision right at the start of the pandemic to stay open full hours,” says Andrew Purdy, managing director of Ryburgh Community Enterprise CIC.

Ryburgh Village Shop and Post Office opened in 2009 after the villages of Great and Little Ryburgh, near Fakenham, lost four of their community amenities in quick succession.

“Taking away the shop, the church, the pub, the school, our village was becoming a dormitory,” says Andrew.

Not willing to sit back and let that happen, with help from the Norfolk Rural Community Council and the Plunkett Foundation, the villagers banded together to form a Community Interest Company to give the village back its shop and post office.

They sold shares to the villagers themselves, and with further grants from the Co-Operative Fund and the Esmee Fairburn Foundation the villagers bought premises in the Old Granary building.

Following refurbishment, the new village shop was opened by their then-MP, Norman Lamb. And the achievement sparked national interest – their story was featured on The One Show and might even have inspired a storyline in The Archers.

“Being on The One Show was fantastic publicity and the BBC took away quite a lot of information, all the details of how we’d done it and they ran a story on the Archers soon after that. There were an awful lot of parallels, so although they haven’t explicitly said that, I’m pretty confident that they’d based it on what we’d given them in terms of information,” says Andrew.

And re-opening the shop and post office proved to be the catalyst for revitalising the village.

“The one thing that I’m most proud of is with having pulled together to get the shop, we had a new rector arrive, someone bought the pub and reopened that, the school reopened as a kindergarten – we also had a fish and chip shop open, a bed and breakfast open, a butcher open, a gardening club, a table tennis club set up, all sorts of things set up, all because people had got to know each other,” says Andrew.

Their hard work has won awards - in 2012, Great Ryburgh was named the winner of the under 1,000 residents category in the EDP Pride in Norfolk Awards, celebrating the county’s vibrant communities.

And in 2017 they were visited by two academics from Japan who were researching the Community Interest Company structure.

When the pandemic hit, in March 2020, the shop and post office became a lifeline for the rural communities they serve – and they worked quickly to adapt and provide additional services.

“We set up a delivery service during Covid for all those people who couldn’t get supermarket slots,” says Andrew.

“We were being rung up from literally all over the world. It started off from Cornwall and Scotland, then went to Ireland and France and then eventually Australia – people were ringing in because they couldn’t get supermarket slots for elderly relatives nearby and they rang us and said would we deliver and we said alright, yes, and so we were doing many, many boxes - every day there were about 20 or 30 boxes of food going out.”

When their main wholesale supplier said that they would no longer be able to deliver, Andrew would literally go the extra miles and travel over to their warehouse in Norwich to pick up the stock himself so that their customers could get their store cupboard staples.

“I was camped outside at half past six in the morning for three mornings a week for the next three months,” says Andrew. “And we got what we could, I was going down the shelves, I was allowed one ‘outer’ of anything, so we had one of everything, and everything they had, we put it on the shelves and we managed to sell it.

“We were very well supported by a lot of the small local suppliers who we turned to and they were delighted to have an outlet,” he continues.

Their flour comes from Letheringsett Mill, they stock local cheeses, including Baron Bigod and Mrs Temple's and Norfolk apple juice, they use CC Wells in Dereham for fruit and veg, sandwiches are made by Norfolk Catering in Norwich and Barnies in Watton and their pork pies come from Roger Holme Foods just down the road outside Fakenham. And with Crisp Malt right next door, they have a rotating supply of local brews.

“There wasn’t a shortage of food, there was a shortage of food in retail packaging. So, we were buying in 16 kilo sacks of flour and 25 kilo sacks of sugar and decanting them and bagging them up and buying catering blocks of cheese and slicing them up. The only thing we couldn’t get hold of was yeast,” says Andrew.

While the shop’s turnover is now lower than it was during the height of pandemic, Andrew says that it is still above where it was before Covid – and that the cost of living crisis could be playing a part in that. They will also feel the impact of the rise in energy bills, despite using solar panels, and inflation.

“Turnover went up 100 per cent overnight, and it stayed up for most of that year,” he says.

“It's tailed off a bit now, we’re about 50 per cent above where we were pre-pandemic, but because of the cost of fuel I think we’re seeing people carry on shopping locally.”

Andrew says that the pandemic was a great show of what communities can achieve.

“We had huge numbers of people volunteering to help during Covid, we were run on volunteers anyway, we’ve got a full-time manager of the post office and a full-time manager for the shop, then we fill the rota with volunteers and we’ve got a couple of part-timers who fill in around the volunteers.

“A lot of them are older volunteers, who stopped helping during Covid because they were all shielding, but we had a lot of younger people who were on furlough and came and helped,” says Andrew.

“And we sent about three quarters of a tonne of food to the food bank during that period. We have a basket beside the counter, so that when people do their shop, they buy an extra tin of beans or an extra packet of pasta or whatever and donate it to the food bank. People were very generous.”

Ryburgh Village Shop and Post Office is on the lookout for volunteers. If you’re interested get in touch via their website, ryburghshop.co.uk

‘I think that a lot of people who volunteered found it a lifesaver’

“October 2020 was an interesting time to open,” says Andy Carty.

Andy is chair of the management committee of The Walled Garden, community shop and café at Little Plumstead, near Norwich.

The project to restore the Victorian garden and create much-needed community amenities had been three years in the planning, and opening during the pandemic, when restrictions were in state of flux, presented them with unprecedented challenges.

“Opening right in the middle of meant that we didn’t really know what normal is, and we probably still don’t, because we were constantly having to adapt and modify how we could operate, within the rules of the pandemic,” says Andy.

The Walled Garden was originally in the grounds of a manor house.

“It was then part of a mental health facility and then the facility that was there now sold off a lot of the land for housing,” says Andy.

But the Walled Garden had been designated for community use and couldn’t be built on, and with the villages having lost their shop and post office around eight years ago, a number of people got together to form a group to set up a facility that would benefit residents.

“It was about trying to create a hub for the community, so not only a shop, but also a café and we were hoping a garden that would grow produce and flowers and hopefully pay for itself – and allow people to volunteer and get locals involved in that way as well,” says Andy.

“We were very lucky, we got a number of grants, the parish council put in a significant amount of money to repair the walls - they still formally own the site and we pay a pittance rent. Broadland council has also been very helpful and we got a major chunk of funding from the EU," says Andy.

“So we actually got the facility, the shop and café, built without any debts, and we’ve got to effectively cover our operating costs.

"The idea of the garden and the shop and café was there would be a symbiotic relationship between them that each would attract different people.”

A team of volunteers, led by gardener Richard Hobbs and his partner, Sally, have created an outdoor haven in the Walled Garden, which is thought to date back to around 1850.

“Literally everything in there has been planted and looked after and grown by volunteers. And we’ve just got up a Victorian-style greenhouse now as the last piece of the jigsaw,” says Andy.

“We did a review and the volunteers said that they found it incredibly helpful for their mental health as well as their physical wellbeing.

"I think a lot of the people that volunteered found it a lifesaver just to be able to get out and do things, and do something in the community, at a time when it was so difficult. And to be able to come to such a gorgeous place and be part of a community.”

At the shop, you can get your everyday essentials such as washing up liquid and cornflakes, but the focus is firmly on supporting as many local producers and suppliers as they can.

“We found over time that the local goods are what people like and we have something like 50 different local suppliers – it means we have handmade soap from somebody in Cromer, we have locally made honey, we have local chocolates, we stock Yare Valley oils,” says Andy.

And that local ethos extends to the café too. Cakes and scones come from Kelda’s Kitchen, just down the road in South Walsham. One of the favourites on the menu, Guinness cake, came about after they accidentally over-ordered the amount they would need for St Patrick’s Day.

“Unfortunately we got 10 times the amount we thought we were getting, so we had a surfeit of Guinness. Kelda had seen a great recipe for Guinness cake – that was March 2021 and it’s never been off the menu since, it’s been so popular,” says Andy.

They also do light lunches, such as quiche and platters, and their hearty soups are a hit in the winter.

And customers can’t get enough of the sausage rolls, which come from award-winning local family butchers, Archers.

“They seem to disappear as soon as they’re baked,” says Andy. “I think we’re going to have to start baking more.”

They also host events for local groups. There are monthly art classes and outdoor yoga sessions – and on Woolly Wednesdays crafters meet up for coffee and crochet. They also hope to have a dementia café up and running towards the end of the year.

As well as being there for the community, giving back is a big part of what they do.

During local charity Nelson’s Journey’s Purple Picnic campaign they contributed 20% from their sausage roll sales to the good cause, which supports bereaved children.

They also sell books for and have a recycling scheme with the local school.

And they have put sustainability at the heart of what they do. They have tanks to harvest rainwater for the garden and have photovoltaic cells on the roof which produces virtually all the electricity they need.

“We hope that it’s going to be there for the community for hopefully another 150 years,” says Andy.

Anyone interested in volunteering at The Walled Garden can get in touch via the website, thewalledgardenshop.co.uk