In March last year, in those early days and then weeks of lockdown, as many of us were worrying about businesses and family and life generally, Natalie Biggs took a leap of faith when she decided to turn a long-held dream into reality and launch her own artisan homewares and lifestyle business, Village Green. Based in East Lothian, Natalie had long recognised the potential to have a business that would showcase the incredible craft and design talent that is available both locally and across Scotland.
From handmade skincare to art prints to homewares, every item has an independent maker and story behind it, and this was an important factor for Natalie when considering Village Green. These homewares are the antithesis of ‘fast interiors’ and throwaway trend-led culture as each piece has been designed and made to last. From the outset, Village Green has held sustainability as a core ethos, and this is evident in every aspect of the business, from the makers Natalie selects – who embrace sustainability themselves – and the materials used, to the way that each order is packaged.
We caught up with Natalie to chat about what inspires and guides her when choosing products and the artisans to work with, and also about the challenges of setting up your own business during a pandemic. And Natalie also offers some great recommendations for other independent businesses you might enjoy checking out in East Lothian.
Thanks so much for chatting to Paton & Co, Natalie. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to launch Village Green?
I live in Haddington in East Lothian with my husband Alistair, children Madeleine and Oliver,
and dog Bertie. We’ve been here 9 years. Previously we were in the Scottish Borders for 5 years and Edinburgh before that, but we have both moved around a lot, living overseas and across the UK.
I’d been thinking about creating a shop for years that would be filled with products made by creative artisans that were beautiful to look at as well as use. Our home is filled with objects we’ve picked up along our travels, and treasure hunting in new places is one of my favourite holiday activities. It can be as simple as the wooden spoon I picked up in Italy or a plant pot from the Lake District. I love when objects are of their place, have a story behind them, and a connection to the maker. While I would seek out these sorts of shops, I couldn’t find the shop that I was looking for here in East Lothian, so I created it instead. The long term plan is to have a bricks and mortar shop as Village Green currently exists online.
In March 2020, when national lockdown was announced, my husband and I were very worried about our family income. Alistair runs his own business in sports broadcasting and, of course, all sporting events were cancelled. It was a worrying couple of weeks before we learnt of the furlough scheme but, in those few days, we realised it was the time to make my business idea a reality. It was actually the push I needed to create Village Green.
How do you select the makers and the products to feature in your shop?
With great difficulty! The Lothians are very rich with creative output so there are some incredible products available locally. When I was planning the initial line up of products it was important to me that they were to be made locally and sustainably, and that they were useful as well as beautiful. I wanted the customer to really enjoy their purchase; to enjoy the way they cradle a mug or even wash their hands. I choose products to stock that I would love to have in my own home and I do have many of them in my house. Without realising it, I’ve noticed that the products are all made from natural materials, have a similar colour palette, and have a link to the natural world.
How has the area you live in influenced your business?
The influence of the landscape and the coastal location of East Lothian is really apparent in the products stocked at Village Green. This hadn’t occurred to me until all the products were out on display at my first event at Fringe by the Sea. The coastal influence was there in the ceramic mussel shells, the mermaid design on the water bottle, and even the sea creature illustrations on the soap packaging. The muted heather tones of the nearby Lammermuir Hills are echoed in the colours of the ceramics and the use of local wildflowers in some of the decorative items.
What does a working day look like for you?
Every day is different. I work from home and am able to structure my day around homelife, which, as for many people, has been very demanding over the last 18 months. As such, some days I am able to spend hours on the business and other days I have no time.
Once the children are up and about, I head out for a walk with Bertie, which is where I gather my thoughts and plan the day ahead. I’ll then respond to emails, check stock levels, and reorder products if needed.
As Village Green grows, I’m expanding the range of products available so I’m always alert to new makers and products and will email them if I think there’s a good fit. I often get approached by makers to stock their products which is so lovely, but it can be tricky as I don’t want to duplicate the products on offer and am trying to expand the range.
I have a summer house in the garden which is where the products and the packaging materials are kept. Ideally I’d have an office set up there too but the WiFi doesn’t reach that far so I do all the online work at the kitchen table. There’s no commute and it’s handily close to the kettle and biscuit tin.
An app alerts me to sales so when one comes through I get it parcelled up. Local delivery is free so I could be out making a delivery if I’m not heading to the post office. As most of the producers live and work locally, I am often collecting stock from them too, which has the added bonus that I can order and collect stock quickly.
I spend some time on social media connecting with the customers and makers. As I work alone from home, I tell myself this is my office chat – always with a cup of coffee nearby.
Having started the business during the pandemic, have there been specific challenges – or unexpected positives as an online business?
Village Green was one of 100s or 1000s of new businesses that launched during 2020 so although it was joining an already crowded marketplace, it was during a time when more people started shopping online with confidence. I had hoped to have a launch event or pop up, or to attend markets, but that wasn’t possible.
On the whole, launching Village Green has been a hugely positive experience. One of my favourite things about setting up Village Green is that I get to meet and work with lovely people that make the products. It’s not something I had considered when planning the business but I love the doorstep chats I have when out delivering to customers or collecting products from makers. Plus, during lockdown, it was a legitimate reason to see people.
As we’ve all been staying closer to home recently, what have been your favourite places to explore?
East Lothian has miles of beautiful beaches and lovely woodlands but when we were limited to the local area, we’d head out the front door and just follow our nose. Haddington is surrounded by farmland and country estates so there are lots of lovely walks to be had. The daily dog walk takes us along the River Tyne, where I spotted my first otter during lockdown.
When we were able to travel a bit further, I made a beeline for Gullane beach and would swim there whenever I could. It felt so freeing after lockdown. We had a long list of places we always meant to visit but had never got round to, so we visited Binning Woods for the first time, and this walk then became quite regular when we got into the habit of picking up some pastries from Bostock Bakery in East Linton.
Where are you most looking forward to visiting again?
There are so many places but mostly Italy. My mum and her new husband (they married last September) have a house in Italy where they usually spend a lot of time. Thankfully they were in Scotland when the lockdown was announced.
My husband’s family are in Australia and we had hoped we would have been able to see them but that will have to wait. We’ve always had an idea of when our next trip will be so it’s been difficult not knowing when we’ll see them again.
We’ve got a weekend booked away in Pittenweem later in the year which is an area of Scotland I’ve never been to, although I’ve heard wonderful things so am looking forward to exploring the area.
What are your favourite local businesses?
Lewis & Clarke is a super café in Gifford. Both Kate (Lewis) and Veronica (Clarke) have backgrounds in Michelin-starred restaurants and they bring their experience and expertise to this wee village. The cardamom and pistachio bun is one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted. Across the road is Beech and Birch, a lifestyle shop owned by the lovely Helle who has a fantastic eye for beautiful products influenced by her native Denmark. There’s also the nearby Gifford Community Woodland and Broadwoodside estate to walk around to work up an appetite.
Haddington has some great foodie places too and one of the recent arrivals is Minato Sushi. I’m trying very hard not to visit every day. The Cheese Lady has a beautiful shop and has a wonderful range of cheese, accompaniments, and wines. On a nice day, there’s nothing better than walking along the river and ending up at The Waterside Bistro with a glass of wine and looking across the river to St Mary’s Church.
When I’m buying flowers, I always go to Debbie at East Lothian Flower Farm. She grows her own flowers just outside Haddington and creates beautiful naturalistic bouquets.
Down the road in East Fortune, there’s a terrific farm shop, The Brand Family Larder, which stocks lots of local produce as well as their own.
What’s next for Village Green?
I’ll be at Presents Galore at Springwood Park in Kelso on the 11th and 12th October. There are a few new products going to be added to the website, some of which are from a small mill in the Borders, and, of course, some Christmas products too.
I’d love to hold a pop up and am on the lookout for the perfect venue but as it has yet to appear. So if you’re reading this and know of a great venue, please get in touch!