A Life in Flowers
Susan Wills-Pope’s day starts with a heady waft of perfumed air as she enters one of her three delightful flower shops in Torquay, Brixham and Paignton. Anita Newcombe drops by to smell the roses.
Today I’m visiting The Flower Corner in Wellswood, one of Susan’s successful florist shops, all located right here in the Bay. The damp, fragranced air is warm and reminiscent of a tropical holiday. Susan tells me that she opened her first shop in Paignton in 1972, an incredible 46 years ago. But she didn’t always want to be a florist. As a youngster she loved farming, animals and the land. But her father didn’t think it was worthwhile for her to train at Seale-Hayne as he felt that she was probably going to marry and give up her career. Instead, after leaving Marist Convent School in Paignton, she took a job at a local garden centre & florist shop called Irelands. She was employed as a trainee florist and her first job was mossing wreaths; this being the medium used to hydrate the wreaths before foam became an option.
Over the years Susan learned all about the plants, how to make beautiful arrangements and how to design and tie bouquets. She soon started doing competition work where she gained lots of new ideas. Then a big break happened when she won an area competition for the South West. She’d created a large, special occasion arrangement that caught the eye of the judges. Although she wasn’t placed in the final, she received a phone call asking if she’d like to exhibit at Chelsea Flower Show. Susan recalls how nerve-wracking and exciting an experience that was. She tells me, “Chelsea was absolutely wonderful. Heaven for a florist.”
By now, Susan’s father had taken note of how well she was doing in the world of flowers and suggested opening a florist shop. He hoped to run the shop himself, with Susan doing the flowers. The plan came to an abrupt halt however, when soon afterwards her father became poorly and died. Susan was back to square one. Then, along came an opportunity to buy an existing florist’s shop in Hyde Road in Paignton. Susan didn’t hesitate. Managing to borrow money for the venture from her mother, she bought the shop. The existing owner stayed on to help her for just a week after which the business was all hers. She remembers, “A family friend taught me how to do the books; of course it was all manual then.” Her late father’s accountant and bank manager were both very helpful with advice as she scrambled to learn business processes - and clearly managed it pretty well.
Susan set to work to update the shop she had bought and put her own stamp onto it. Initially it was just Susan plus a lady who’d worked with her in her previous job. She explains, “We did everything ourselves; we bought flowers from local nurseries and wholesalers, we arranged them and we delivered them too.” At this time, enormous Dutch lorries used to come every week and to Susan it was like an Aladdin’s Cave of treasure with a huge variety of exotic flowers inside to admire and buy. In those days florists bought and sold far more locally grown flowers than they do now but it became difficult for the local and regional growers to compete with the Dutch lorries. Susan remembers, “We’d sometimes have three Dutch lorries parked up outside the shop at once.”
However, Susan did source roses from Jersey and the Isle of Man, freesias from Guernsey and narcissi from the Isles of Scilly. She says, “Flowers were much more seasonal then and flowers are better in their natural season. Spring flowers are breathtakingly transient and I rue the day that we totally lose our seasons.”
After her opening of the Paignton shop, Susan opened and traded in Torquay’s Abbey Road for about 20 years before moving to Wellswood. She’d had her eye on the Wellswood shop for ages, having met the owner at Torquay railway station when collecting early morning deliveries. She reminisces, “I used to love looking in his shop window; it just exuded luxury and beauty – I simply had to have it when it came on the market.”
The Brixham shop then opened about 11 years ago, making a trio of outlets right across the Bay.
Susan tells me that bold floral colours are ‘very in’ right now but customers all have their particular favourites. Some love the simplicity of white, some don’t like ready-made bows, some want flowers with a very strong fragrance. Growers are bringing back perfumed roses again and Susan adores the white Norma Jeane, highly scented with lovely furled petals. She says, “I do all the buying – this week I’m going to a show in Birmingham to meet growers and suppliers and to see all the new ideas.” The business currently employs a team of about 16 or 17 people. “We’re a great band”, she says. “People are the joy of it. They have interesting special requests and fascinating stories.”
But she explains that it’s not all glamour working as a florist. There are lots of buckets to be washed out plus heavy pedestals and arrangements to heft and deliver. But the good very much outweighs the less good; florists are very friendly and help each other out generously.
The year after the Falklands War, Susan travelled down to the islands with families who had lost family members. She produced all the funeral tributes for the at-sea services and at San Carlos; funeral tributes have always been a speciality of the business.
Susan also contributes a good deal in the wider flower community. She’s a national floristry judge for Chelsea Flower Show and other shows and also judges floristry for World Skills. She tells me that the creativity she sees is simply fabulous – especially at Chelsea, which has become ever more sophisticated with new styles and techniques being added every year. I ask Susan if she foresees any supply difficulties from Europe after Brexit. She laughs and tells me, “Flowers are a big thing for the British. The Dutch love us and we’ll get them supplying us even if they have to come in a pony and trap!”
When Susan met her husband Brian, he was already working in flowers so he “was quite a catch” becoming a partner in the business and managing most of the accounts and administration. When the couple are not working they enjoy eating out and favourite restaurants include: Number 7 Fish Bistro, The Waddling Duck Bistro, The Orange Tree and Amici. They also love visiting National Trust Gardens. Susan has a taste for sea swimming although she’s “got a bit lax recently!” She also sings in a local choir and loves meeting new people.
With the festive season and Christmas approaching I ask Susan what sort of arrangements people order. She explains that many people like to make their own arrangements and come in to buy the flowers and accessories they need. Susan runs classes every November to show people how to make Christmas wreaths or welcome rings as she calls them. Lots of businesses have Christmas displays in their windows – in fact many of them have floral displays all year round, which Susan’s team provides. Susan prefers the natural look for her festive arrangements although she’s happy to add glittery items if people like them. She tells me that she regularly uses berries, pines, naked holly (lots of berries, no leaves), ivy, variegated holly, red carnations, roses and poinsettias and amaryllis. Poinsettias are marvellous with red, white and variegated options (like the peaches and cream varieties). It’s going to be extremely busy as the festive season gets going.
Finally, I ask Susan for her top tip on running a flower shop (I’m feeling rather inspired). She tells me, “Don’t buy too tight – have lots of flowers around – a flower shop should look beautiful at all times with lots of variety and colour.”