There's nothing quite like a hearty meal, cooked by somebody else preferably, to round off a long walk, and in the Devon village of Bramford Speke we hit gold with the local tea room. After being well fed, we said our thankyous to the woman who run it, with a promise to stop by again and tell others about it.
But that got me thinking. The village tea room didn't have a web presence - trade, we were told, had built up purely from word of mouth or passing walkers like ourelves - although she had plans to get online. "Everybody's on the web these days. It's what I do if I'm looking up something," she said.
It felt a bit nosey to probe too much into our this tea room cum village shop was doing, but you got the impression through hard work and great service they were about breaking even.
To a small village like Bramford Speke, a shop & tea room (and the village pub) are important parts of village identity and vibrancy, but are constantly under threat. The challenges small businesses in tucked-away Devon villages face are very different from those who work with the social media crowd in London. But could social media help them as well?
Let's backtrack a little to why this has become the subject of a blog post. Today was one of those glorious autumn days in Devon where staying indoors seemed like an affront to nature herself, so my parents and I (visiting for a few days to recharge batteries) grabbed our coats and headed for the countryside.
We ended up doing a decent round walk around the Exe Valley, starting at Bramford Speke, taking in Thorverton, Rewe, and Stoke Cannon before ending up back in Bramford Speke having worked up an appetite.
We'd seen a few signs for the tea rooms on the footpath approaching the village and, as it was just by the main route, we dropped by in search of something to ease the hunger. We left full.
Monday is one of three days they serve a roast dinner and the parents, connoisseurs of many a roast, pronounced it excellent. My parsnip flan topped with mushrooms and cashew nuts was like nothing I'd ever tasted and left assorted earthly flavours dancing around in my mouth.
The puddings were equally a good. A bakewell tart was polished off with aplomb by my father, while the apple crumble had just the right level of cinnamon kick to it. As I type now, I'm just in the process of devouring a deliciously moist ginger cake, topped with pickled ginger, that I couldn't resist but had no room for, and that will do nothing for my waistline, but did everything for my tastebuds.
It was, in short, the type of meal you want to shout about to the world. Yet the chat we had with the lovely lady who ran the tea rooms (that doubled up as a grocery store, plus assorted other trinkets) merely served to reinforce an all too common problem with rural villages.
The tea room used to be the village Post Office. There are plenty of other buildings in plenty of other villages that used to be Post Offices. Or village shops. The village I grew up in used to have a Post Office, a Spar and a Happy Shopper. Now it just has a Post Office that doubles up as a shop, and that struggles to make ends meet. Lose it, and that's an important part of the community gone.
The same could be said for the village pubs. Most villages I know that don't have a local pub feel somewhat soulless, as if they're lacking something.
But, as with any business in a place off the beaten track, no matter how close that track may be, staying afloat is always a problem, especially in the current economic climate.
People are drinking less during the week to save the pennies, and there's only so many pub meals you can have in a week. The village pub is an endangered species, and the village that loses its pub is definitely all the poorer for it.
What to do, then? Word of mouth is vital for small businesses in small villages, especially for those that can't afford to take out adverts in the local press (and, like those located in Bramford Speke, are a very short drive away from a major city in the area). But if a business is to not just survive but flourish, it needs to reach beyond just using word of mouth.
The lady who runs the tea rooms wasn't kidding when she said they have no internet presence. I've done several Google and other searches and I'm struggling to even find as much as a postcode.
Even when they do get on the web, there's still a question of getting Google juice and pushing youself up the rankings so you're on the first couple of pages for the relevant results. After all, I'm unlikely to specifically Google tea rooms in Bramford Speke but may do a general search for places to eat in the surrounding area.
But, as the woman said, these days if you want to find out about something you search online for it. And if your website isn't that high up the rankings, then it could be the online word of mouth that brings in that trade. And helps, say, separate the good village pubs from the bad ones (there's nothing worse than driving around Devon in search of food, only to find youself in a couldn't-care-less pub with rubbery vegetables).
I'll be honest and say I'm not majorly au fait with too many sites like UpMyStreet.com. But those, along with review sites like Qype really can start pushing numbers in the direction of business. How you transfer these sites, or create a similar site, for rural businesses in Devon is another question entirely.
But the potential is there (and chances are those who use it won't even think they're using social media when they do so - it'll be just another way of finding or researching information) and hopefully there's a way of using web 2.0 to ensure that places like the Bramford Speke tea rooms continues to feed many more happy customers for many more years to come.