With a population of just 300, Somerleyton village is the perfect place to get away from it all and be part of a close-knit community. Which is exactly what Lynne Homer and her partner Ron Tatton wanted when they returned to England after 30 years in Zimbabwe.

Lynne and Ron began running Somerleyton Post Office and Village Store in Suffolk in February 2007, and in the two-and-a-half years since then, they have turned a dilapidated post office and convenience store into an integral part of the community.

Their good work was rewarded recently when they were named Best Community Post Office in this year's People's Post Office Awards.

Besides the usual offerings, Lynne and Ron have a tea room with an outdoor area, an internet café which runs classes on a weekly basis, and a petting zoo for children (and the adults who are children at heart). They also make deliveries to customers in Ron's trusty Morris Minor, offer shoppers lifts to the train station and, on occasion, go out to customers' houses to do odd jobs.

"Ron has been called out to change light bulbs by customers," says Lynne. "These are elderly women who live on their own, so we're happy to help them."

The duo spent 30 years in Zimbabwe and moved back to the UK in 2007 after four years of running art galleries in France. Their time in Zimbabwe is well represented with African statuettes and figurines dotted around the tea room. The outside area also features a gazebo for customers to sit out in.

According to Ron, the entire store is based on the halfway houses found in Zimbabwe. "Halfway houses are like stores along the roads, but offer much more than that," he says.

"They are a café, a bar, a place for children to play, even somewhere you can stay for the night while travelling on the road. That's what we tried to achieve here."

Lynne explains how they ended up in Somerleyton after so long abroad. "After our time in France, we decided we needed a new challenge, so I set about looking for a business that we could run together," she says.

"We wanted something rural and something that was neglected so we could turn it around and make a real go of it."

Lynne saw that the Post Office in Somerleyton was for sale and was hooked immediately. They didn't waste any time in putting in an offer in for it and, once it was accepted, got right down to turning the business around.

"We spent the first six months asking people what they wanted from the store," says Lynne. "The suggestions were varied, but we set out to deliver as many of these services as possible. As a convenience store, it's almost impossible to compete with the multiples on price so you have to offer something different.

"To be honest, when we first moved to Somerleyton we were unsure if we would be accepted by the community," adds Lynne. "This is a traditional village where everyone knows each other and it has old-style values. Some of the villagers even joked that we were 'on probation'."

However, it didn't take long for them to be welcomed by the population of Somerleyton. They now know all of their customers by name and have a chat with each of them when they come in to shop or just to pass the time of day.

"They love the banter that we provide for them," says Ron. "A lot of our customers are elderly and on their own so they're looking for someone to talk to. We have a chat with them when they come in for their pensions, or if they just happen to be passing by.

"The village is like an extended family and we all care about each other. When one of the community passes away, we feel like we have lost a member of the family."

Lynne adds that the interaction between her staff and customers is important for the business. "If you want to be successful in retail, it's important to interact with your customers.

"I make sure we greet every single customer who comes in and try to make them feel important. Customers feel at ease here and there's always laughter to be heard in the shop."

The store has received ringing endorsements from the people in the village who appreciate the hard work that they are doing.

"We've been told that the village has come alive since we've arrived and that makes us very happy," says Ron. "We never thought we were doing anything special, but apparently we have been, according to our customers. And that's what keeps them coming back."

It's not just local people who keep shopping at the store. People from other towns visit on a regular basis as well as holidaymakers, who drop by when they're in the area.

"People from towns more than eight miles away come in every week, and then we have customers who come here on their holidays every year who pop in to say hello," says Lynne. "Every time the tourists come in, they're amazed at the number of changes that have taken place in the past 12 months, what with the internet café and the petting zoo.

"A lot of people who go boating along the Suffolk Broads know us and will ring ahead for supplies," she adds. "Ron will drive down to the river and deliver their groceries to them in person. They really appreciate it."

Even with all of the work they have done to build up the business in the past two-and-a-half years, Lynne and Ron aren't ready to slow down just yet.

"We can't sit still and we're always looking to shake things up," adds Lynne. "We're looking at new ideas all the time to offer something extra to the community. When we first took over the store, we took about £40 a day, but now the weekly turnover is £4,200. You don't get that level of progress by standing still."
Extra special
Somerleyton Post Office is often called the hub of the community by both staff and customers, and with the level of services on hand, it's easy to see why. The internet café is used as a meeting room for local groups and the classes Lynne and Ron offer have really brought people together.

"The internet classes are a great way for people to get to know each other," says Lynne. "It was amazing to see people who hadn't previously spoken to each other become great friends and interact with each other outside of the classes, despite having lived in the same village for years. The customers make the shop so we're happy to provide these services for them. It's almost like a social service with Somerleyton - helping this close-knit community become even closer," she adds.

"All of the local villages nearby have lost their main store or post office and are much poorer for it," says Ron. "We'll continue to make sure the same thing doesn't happen here by being an integral part of the community and continue to help bring people together."
store profile
Opening hours: 8am-5.30pm, seven days a week

Services: post office, café, internet, deliveries

Staff: six (three full-time, two part-time and one volunteer)

Turnover: £4,200 a week