top of page

The Bridge Interviews

Sally Colter

Sally Colter

February 2023

Sally Colter is almost certainly the busiest person in Burford. She runs in effect three businesses, gets up every day before dawn and rarely takes a day off. She has earned a great deal of gratitude from many members of the community, some distinguished customers and an award. She also has a ghost.

She was born in Bury in what she thinks of as being in Lancashire rather than as part of Greater Manchester, Her father was a sales manager for a company who supplied the wrapping for Halls Cough Drops and later started his own business supplying wrapping for lozenges. She has a sister and two brothers. She grew up in the country, surrounded by horses and dogs, and describes her childhood as “idyllic”. Unusually, she had her entire education at one school, Bury Grammar School, which had both junior and senior departments.

Her interest in cookery started early. There was an upmarket French restaurant up the road from her home and she began part time work as a waitress and helping in the kitchen. Sometimes she stayed on to eat with the family who owned it. “I would go home and say ‘I had lobster thermidor for dinner’ ”. She also played netball at a high level, in her county and north-west regional teams, and had trials for England.

On leaving school she enrolled at the Tante Marie School of Cookery at Woking in Surrey to train as a Cordon Bleu chef. (The school is now owned by Gordon Ramsay).

Her first job was at a wine bar in Manchester after which she worked as a chef for a firm of solicitors, preparing food for lunches, client entertainment and parties in the partners’ homes. As it was a Jewish firm she learned Jewish dietary rules. She married at 20 and left this job when she was expecting her first baby. She went on to have two more. Claire lives in Dubai and is married to an architect. Nicola lives in Byron Bay, a popular seaside resort in Australia. Jeremy lives in Woking.

Her chance to move back into cookery came when she became a support worker at a college where children with learning disabilities were taught to cook. After a while a colleague pointed out that she was in effect acting as a teacher and suggested that she could take up teaching as a career. She applied for and obtained a place at Bolton University and on leaving there she got a job at a school in Bolton where she taught food technology for ten years.

Her first marriage had by then ended and during this period she met her second husband, Steve. He belonged to Round Table and she was in its associated group, Ladies’ Circle. For a time they each chaired their respective bodies, went to events together and found they hit it off. They have been together for 18 years.

After a time Sally found teaching very wearing. There were only two teachers of food technology in the school and regular changes of government rules meant that they had to keep rewriting the entire curriculum for the year. There were many extra duties including preparing food for and clearing up after parents’ evenings and pensioners’ lunches. She and Steve therefore decided to buy a business.

Their first attempt fell through but one day Steve had to go on a business trip to Swindon. Passing through Burford on the way home, he noticed Mrs Bumbles as he waited at the traffic lights, stopped to have a closer look and discovered it was for sale. Sally then came to see it for herself and they decided to take the plunge.

They took over the business in 2014. The shop was well established and they decided not to make many changes. The main difference at first was that she did a lot more cooking for the deli counter. Items such as pies and sausage rolls were now made on site instead of being bought in frozen. More than half of the original suppliers to the shop are still being used. She soon found she had a lot of celebrity customers. She reels off the names: “Peter Bowles, Sorcha Cusack, James Martin, Dido, Emma Watson, Nigella Lawson.” The most famous visit was from David Beckham who was caught on camera by a local paparazzo who sold his photographs to the popular press. The Sun, no less, reported that the former footballer had been visiting his "favourite delicatessen” in the “picture-postcard village (sic) of Burford”. Mrs Bumbles was also described as a "fancy deli" and a "posh deli” (presumably no pun intended). Beckham then put Mrs Bumbles on his Instagram feed. “I had 52,000 hits on my website that day”.

Her second business started when for a while she did cooking at the Warwick Hall, catering for weddings and other parties. She and Steve put on evenings for tribute bands and she cooked lunches on Christmas Day. She provided lunches for the Age Concern meetings and for its successor, Time Out. When lockdown arrived and meetings were impossible, she provided meals for home delivery covering anywhere within a ten mile radius. This included the Richmond Village retirement complex in Witney. “One day I delivered 42 lunches there”. She still provides meals for a number of less able people in the area. For her efforts she was nominated by a grateful customer for a BBC Radio Oxford Great Neighbour award. She was videoed and interviewed and, although she didn’t win, she was in the last four and received a plaque which is on display in the shop. She was also one of four winners of the Burford Medal awarded during the 2022 festival.

During her time at the Warwick Hall Sally cooked for an event attended by the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft. She now cooks regularly for his events such as parties for newly ordained deacons and their families and a dinner for the heads of all religious groups in Oxford (all vegetarian and vegan food in that case).

The third business is, of course, the post office. “We heard that Burford News was closing and thought that taking over the post office would be a good way of increasing footfall for the shop”. Their initial plan was to move to the shop on the opposite corner of Church Lane and have Mrs Bumbles, the post office and a community cafe on one site. They were unable to get the building but then the adjacent shop to Mrs Bumbles on the north side became available. Until that shop was ready there was a post office counter in Mrs Bumbles for some five months. Sally had to learn the complicated business of running a post office, helped by Lesley who joined from Burford News and had years of experience. To survive the post office needs volume of business as many transactions only provide a few pennies in income. It is helped by the sale of newspapers and has become an unofficial source of information and guidebooks for visitors since the demise of the VIC.

Sally and Steve are now planning business number four which will be a taxi service, plugging a gap in the Burford area. More news on this will follow. Sally rarely has a day off. She is up at 5.30 seven days a week to take delivery the newspapers and opens the post office at 6.30. She is then on duty there until Lesley takes over at 9.00 and Sally can direct her considerable energies to Mrs Bumbles.

The day of our interview was theoretically a day off but she had still done the early morning shift. Sally and Steve plan to take a whole week off in March. Can Burford survive?

And the ghost? The first time they were aware of anything was when they found that a radio had come on which neither of them had touched. Another time all the lights went out and they found that the power had been mysteriously turned off at the main switch. Then they heard a voice saying “Why are you talking to me?” On another occasion they found six packets of fudge on the floor, well away from the shelf on which they had been placed. A ghost with a sweet tooth, perhaps? Then they heard steps coming up the stairs. There is a legend that a woman in the building, which dates back to 1290 and was more recently used as a location for the Jack Warner film Talk of a Million, saw her lover on his way to a ball at the Priory with another woman and in her grief drowned herself in the well in the shop (now sealed over). They have decided that it doesn’t bother them. “She sometimes gives us a start but she isn’t frightening”. Frankly, if we were a ghost in that shop we would find it much too exhausting and would decide to haunt somewhere else.

Sally Colter
Sally Colter
bottom of page