As commutes go, Laura Hepburn and Matthew Pugh’s is as enviable as they get. A bracing walk that starts cliff-top then ambles down weathered cobbles to an ‘office’ with the sea breeze for air-conditioning.
Their workplace is the sweet-sounding Berties of Bay in the heart of rugged, historic Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Yorkshire coast. It’s a lifestyle store housing a carefully collected, curated and hand-made range of items all intended to make life a bit nicer.
Things that give the home some heart, such as gorgeous jumbo merino wool throws and scarves knitted by Laura and Matthew’s mum Barbara using their arms as giant knitting needles.
Things that are made to make you smile, such as vintage telephones and typewriters (which still work) or flickering filament bulb lights.
And things to make you warm and cosy whilst at the same time paying homage to the heritage of the village’s fishing community.
We’re talking ganseys. Laura, Matthew and Berties have launched a collection of fishermen’s jumpers using the traditional knitting patterns of Robin Hood’s Bay.
Each piece in the knit collection is named after a fishing family from Robin Hood’s Bay, where Laura was herself brought up – a relative of hers once ran the shop which is now Berties – so life has come full circle for her.
Laura went to art college and then gained an MA in photography and graphic design which was the springboard to launch her into some huge projects specialising in marketing and branding.
Matthew’s career after art college took him to the fashion world with Crombie as a menswear buyer, then into retail management with Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar Land Rover including a short spell as a bank manager.
Then they had a lightbulb moment, recalls Matthew.
“Laura was doing a lot of consultancy for other people but there came a point where we thought we could make our own brand and create something we enjoy. I was able to make the numbers fit while we built up stock.
“We had been to Holland and come across so-called concept stores selling a little bit of everything – I suppose in this country we are keen to pigeonhole, but we thought we would sell the things we love, things we make and that make people happy”, he adds.
The coastal location and lure of Robin Hood’s Bay to visitors meant that weaving the heritage of the place into the store’s collection was of paramount importance.
The Bay’s starring role as a location in this year’s Oscar-nominated film Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day Lewis, is likely to lure still more visitors to the much-loved coastal village.
Laura had some involvement in the film working with the locations team to help direct and ensure everything was in place and ready to roll. This has led to other exciting opportunities working on films due to hit the big screen soon.
Visitors lured by the stylish film will no doubt love Berties, “we find that we get people coming to buy when the school holidays are over and the place is quieter – the ‘silver pound’”, laughs Matthew.
The knitwear collection is set to grow this spring with a gansey dress for women and continuation of the so-popular fishermen’s sweaters.
The history of the gansey is a fascination for Matthew and Laura.
The hard-wearing woollen jumpers, usually navy blue, are each given their own design which is unique to their fishing fleet or family.
If there was a shipwreck or accident the bodies washed up on the shore could be identified by their gansey as being from a particular village and family. This meant the fisherman could be returned to their family for burial.
It usually takes around six weeks to knit a gansey and patterns on them might include symbols of fishing life – cables, anchors or even ladders.
They were usually made by mothers, wives and sweethearts with patterns were passed down the generations.
Matthew and Laura headed to the history books and museums to get the precise patterns for their gansey range.
“We’ve done our homework”, says Matthew
“We also discovered that the fishermen would have a different gansey for Sundays – in a grey colour to wear for church – so our grey gansey represents this.
“The represent the village’s heritage. People buying them are so keen to know the history of the item they are spending their money on so that it means more. The ganseys are designed to be timeless and they work for every occasion – lounging about on a Sunday or I’ve worn mine with a crisp white shirt, jeans and brown brogues to go to a nice restaurant”, he adds.
The spring range will also feature cotton fishermen’s smocks and, alluding to the village’s past as the site of an allum mine, a workman’s jacket inspired by old photographs of workers on the mine’s railway.
Both Laura and Matthew scour places they visit for inspiration for Berties, proud to bring the work of other makers to their coastal showcase.
Bath House in Cumbria a case in point. They came across the bodycare brand on a visit to Ambleside.
“We liked their ethos – we also have a men’s grooming brand called Captain Fawcett which has a vintage feel that work well with us.”
Their own brand chunky throws and knits are made with merino wool from Huddersfield and their own-brand candles are made by Laura based on scents with a story relating to the locality.
It seems people are buying into the Berties ethos:
“We had 136 orders for ganseys in a couple of weeks leading up to Christmas”, says Matthew.
“We want to offer hints of happiness to fill people’s homes.”