“It’s strange and challenging,” says John Chapman when asked why his shop, Crowman Antiques, has such a cult following. “So many places sell vintage-style bric-à-brac rather than genuine antiques these days. But we deal in real English country pieces – and we don’t do French.”
The store, which is co-owned and run by Chapman and business partner Vicky Heaton-Renshaw, is not for those who are merely in search of a pretty knick-knack. Walking in is like arriving on the other side of the looking glass in a century devoid of frippery and frill. A window display greets visitors with a huge pair of 19th-century blacksmiths’ bellows (£750), a church panel (£450) and a stuffed lamb from an old butcher’s display (price on request) – curious and challenging indeed.
Originally called Sergeant Beetroot, the shop was founded in 2008 in Pewsey and began to attract attention for its theatrical, candlelit interior, unusual antiques and scarecrows complete with clothes handmade by Heaton-Renshaw – of which Zoë Wanamaker was a fan. The duo soon gained a reputation as suppliers of quirky goods with a sense of rural history. They renamed the shop as a tribute to their scarecrows and moved first to Frome, then to Devizes last August.
Today the store is a warren of uneven rooms on a street near the ancient town gate. It’s housed in an old building – previously a dentist’s, a music shop and a tobacconist’s – that Chapman has stripped back to its bones, leaving remnants of Victorian wallpaper, sage-grey paint and even parts of a 17th-century wattle-and-daub wall, so that the shop’s history can be sensed through its layers. Next to the fire is a 16th-century oak table base with a reclaimed-elm top (£1,200) made by Chapman, while in a back room are four 19th-century carboys (just sold to Marco Pierre White and awaiting collection) and a selection of Victorian tincture bottles (from £8) in a vintage apothecary cabinet.
One of the joys of visiting this unique store is that it’s almost impossible to classify exactly what it sells. Although Heaton-Renshaw no longer makes scarecrows, one or two of her old designs (from £25) are still on display. Other eclectic finds include film spools salvaged from a closed-down cinema (price on request), Pulcinello nose moulds from an Italian carnival-mask factory (£15), a carousel horse rescued from a fairground (£2,000), and a stuffed fox with a rabbit in its mouth (£295).
“Our customers are searching for a more individual approach to interior design – we’re not mainstream,” says Chapman. “The shop’s interior is like a frame – subdued and authentic, rather than gilded and shiny. It complements the more well-worn furniture, while the brighter Georgian pieces benefit from the low-key background.” Low-key it may be, but it’s impossible not to be lured into this curious, firelit atmosphere for a long and rewarding rummage.