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St. James Church, Hemingford Grey

St James Church, which has a strong evangelical heritage, is part of the Huntingdon and Wisbech Archdeaconry in the west of the Diocese of Ely. Sixty per cent of the congregation live in the village; the others are drawn from St Ives the nearest small town, and from many of the surrounding villages. In 2003, the village post office closed and since then St James’ has taken over running the post office and, more recently, opened a community café. The main leadership in these developments came from the Vicar, Revd Peter Cunliffe.

What drove the development of the Post Office?

The closure of the local Post Office in 2003 due to inability to sell the business presented an opportunity for the church to fulfil part of its vision to serve the local community. St James Church, through its administrator and Vicar, approached the PO Rural Development Office about the possibility of creating a PO counter in our Parish Centre building. The lack of a Post Office in the village was an obvious need, especially amongst the older members of the villages. Hemingford Grey and Hemingford Abbots have a combined population of approx. 3,100. We determined to replace the existing business on the basis of a not-for-profit organisation to serve the community.

Post Office

A single counter full-time Post Office opened in November 2003, supported by a small retail business in stationery. The Church administrator had business experience in the pharmaceutical industry and gave his time voluntarily to set up the business and became our first sub-postmaster. The PO helped us recruit an experienced counter assistant; thereafter the administrator trained additional counter assistants all of whom worked part-time.

With the success of the business, the PO approached us to run a mobile PO service to other villages. This began in June 2009. It runs five mornings a week to the village of Over and four afternoons a week to the village of Holme.

Funds were available through a government initiative to carry out the necessary building work for the post office. The team consists of a part-time manager and five part-time assistants/drivers (four female and one male). Salaries are provided through the PO retainer. St James’ Church provides the premises rent free and the utilities. After several years when it was difficult to handle the income and separate it from personal income, we established a business registered as St James Church Community Interest Company (see Box below) and the PO income is paid into that.

The development of a coffee shop

Until the Post Office was introduced, the Old School House Café had run in our Parish Centre. This had dwindled in use to only one day a week and was informally run by volunteers. A survey was carried out in the village in August 2007 before the economic crisis to ask ‘what should the church be developing next?’. It showed that many people were using the coffee shops in St Ives and would appreciate such a facility on the village. The PCC set up a sub-committee as a Coffee Shop Working Group in October 2007 and in January 2008, a village fundraising brochure was sent out. Between February and May 2008, there was a consultation period for talking with all parish centre users, getting letters of support and preparing grant applications after which a business plan was written. From then, it took until May 2010 to obtain planning permission and a further two months to get building regulation approval for the drawings and start work on site. During this time as well, preparatory work was done, such as making contact with suppliers, getting pricing information and getting catalogues for fixtures and fittings.

People in the community were asked to sponsor the coffee shop and donations were made. Some sponsorship came from a waste recycling organisation, WREN, but the largest proportion of the budget was given by the church members. The initiator of the original Old School House café had a grander vision of a professionally fitted coffee shop of high standards. Those who converted the Parish Centre years ago did not hold the same vision of high standards, but want this to be a place of welcome in the community. The vision for a complete refit was shared by several members of the church and the project driven by our Parish Evangelist (a volunteer lay role in the church). Part of that vision was to provide a familiar contemporary space in which to have different expressions of ‘church’ that would be used for events outside the normal coffee shop opening hours. Opening hours would provide a natural means of getting to know more of the community already coming to the facility for the PO and other events.

One of the Working Group members worked part-time in another village coffee shop in Cambridgeshire with a similar vision and also had her own retail businesses which she had recently sold. We drew on others’ experience in the restaurant trade, the charity sector and accountancy. We invited a Project Manager (recently retired) to manage the project.

Hemingford Garden Room opened in June 2011 providing good quality coffees, teas and soft drinks, simple meals and commissioned good quality homemade cakes. The coffee shop uses ethically traded products. Our chosen coffee company, Kingdom Coffee, source all their coffee and tea from fairtrade and ethical suppliers and give away 10% of their profits to charities. Kingdom will also supply much of our food, drink and consumables. It is a place of welcome, a space to meet, and has free WiFi, magazines and books to relax with, as well as art and gifts for purchase. Children are welcome and we have toys, games, books and colouring sheets to keep them amused. Through the use of our media screens we would like to advertise, celebrate and promote all village clubs and activities.

Hemingford Garden Room is a separate Community Interest Company incorporated in March 2011. Two ‘managers’ job share a salaried position; all other staff are volunteers from the community. The management team consists of church members who manage the business and mission aspects of the ‘coffee shop’ which are in an early stage of development. There are several active 30/40 year olds in the church who wish to be involved in the outreach ministry of the coffee shop.

Resources for the coffee shop

We already had the Parish Centre, which is the old school – an adaptable Grade 2 listed building – owned by the church in what would typically be described as ‘the church halls’. St James’ Church provides free rent, free facilities and utilities to the business. Other sources of development funding were:

Beatrice Laing Trust                   £ 1,000
WREN                                     £25,000
St James PCC                           £35,000
Village Fundraising Account         £17.500
Large anonymous gift                 £50,000
Gift aid on large gift                   £12,500
TOTAL FUNDS AVAILABLE          £141,000
Surplus /Contingency                  £9,115

Now that it is operating, the coffee shop will rely on the income generated through its trade.

St James Church operates on a balanced budget with sufficient funds to cover our costs and pay three months notice to salaried staff should the funds dry up! We budget to carry over a small maintenance fund for the church properties. The Post Office maintains a workable balance and the CIC made its first gift to the church in the last financial year. It is not expected that the Hemingford Garden Room CIC will make a return to the church for at least two years.

Profits will be used to support local and international mission charities. Mission Possible-UK is to be the first beneficiary.


Although all the staff in the Post Office are paid, many hours of volunteer time are regularly given in the coffee shop. There are typically three volunteers on duty from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 3pm on Saturdays. In addition, there are all the cake makers, who both bake and bring their products to the coffee shop. One of the directors does a weekly shop for produce and ingredients. My best guess is that cooks and servery assistants give in excess of 120 hours a week which, costed on the basis of the minimum wage, amounts to £720 per week. We have also had secondary school pupils on work experience and we are working with the local College to provide placements for students undertaking courses in hospitality and catering.

This calculation of the value of volunteering does not include the time and skills given during the development phase of the café when, for example, an interior designer, a PR consultant, a web designer and an accountant were all involved as well as the members of the Working Group.

Other types of support

There has been support from the PO for training in the Post Office, but no technical help regarding the setting up of the business. As the PO took more than 6 years to accept the church as the business operator, this made my personal income situation very difficult. Community Interest Companies provide the best route for this sort of business now, but were not available when we first set up the PO.

Most if not all support for the coffee shop has come from church members. A friend whose firm gives professional personnel support and training gave me general employment support.

It would be good if there were some co-ordinated help for PCCs wishing to set up businesses or employ staff to save the angst of reinventing the wheel.


Running the PO has helped bring the church back into the centre of the life of the village alongside our children’s ministries. The turnover in the Post Office has been sufficient to enable us to fulfil our aims of serving the community. The confidence of the Post Office has been demonstrated in asking us to manage other offices and provide mobile services to other villages.

Key success factors

Success factors were God’s timing, flexibility with the use of space and the creative use of employed ‘ministers’:

· Taking the initial steps of faith – not having the plan worked out as fully as one might expect, but being prepared to take risks for the benefit of the local community whatever the final outcome.

· The support of the service from the village and the support of the church to allow the administrator to set up the business.
It is without question that the provision of personnel, willing and able to work a few hours a week, is God’s perfect provision and timing. The PO loan was conditional on running the business for a minimum of two years; it now almost 8 years.

The main barrier was getting the vision across to church members. Appeals for funding to the wider Church of England for this type of mission failed because this is not a deprived area.

Challenges and opportunities

One challenge is to keep the vision in focus so that making money is not the driving force for either initiative: remembering that these are Community Interest Companies here to serve the community and using them as a tangible expression of God’s love for the community through the church. A more mundane challenge is the retention and recruitment of staff.


Community Interest Companies (CICS)

CICs are limited companies, with special additional features, created for the use of people who want to conduct a business or other activity for community benefit, and not purely for private advantage. This is achieved by a “community interest test” and “asset lock”, which ensure that the CIC is established for community purposes and that the assets and profits are dedicated to these purposes. Registration of a company as a CIC has to be approved by the Regulator who also has a continuing monitoring and enforcement role.


 Revd Peter Cunliffe