A former Metropolitan Police officer is selling Christmas trees outside Shaftesbury Town Hall. Alfred’s Keri Jones spoke with Simon Burge and heard why he switched from the police force to firs – and picked up some tree care tips.
Five years ago, Simon Burge’s days and nights were filled with some of the most challenging police work. He wouldn’t and couldn’t go into too much detail, but he told me it was, ‘7/7 and things like that’. All a far cry from the jolly seasonal display of trees, some decorated with Santa hats.
“It was tough stuff – terrorism and counterterrorism. I know it is a hot subject at the moment,” said Simon. “I dealt a lot with that and public order. I spent most of my time as a response officer, answering your average 999 calls.”
Simon spent fifteen years in the Met. He had to leave because of a serious injury three years ago. This keen motorcyclist was badly injured in an off-duty accident on his bike. It ended his career but thankfully he is fully recovered. “There’s metal in there now,” Simon revealed as he patted his leg. “Three operations later I am back to full strength and back on a bike as well, which is good.”
Family ties brought Simon to Shaftesbury. “The in-laws have been here for 45 years. My mother-in-law is Elvie Pearson. She is a community midwife from Salisbury Hospital, but she is very well known in Shaftesbury. Her husband Peter has a lot to do with Father’s House church,” explained Simon. “My better half is Jehanne Walker. She grew up in Shaftesbury, lived here twenty years and moved up to South London and Surrey, where we met. We lived in Woking and we decided to move down to be closer to her family.”
The couple wanted to relocate somewhere with greater opportunities for young families. There is, ‘no better place than Shaftesbury’, Simon said.
As a former Woking resident, I had to ask him whether he has eaten at the town’s ‘famous’ Pizza Express. “We were in there all the time. We lived less than half a mile from there. I didn’t see anybody famous and I didn’t see anybody sweating either, even with the hottest Diablo pizza,” Simon laughed.
He discovered Christmas tree sales when he couldn’t get back to full fitness and resume his police service role, so instead went into wholesale management and warehousing. “I landed myself a job with a company called Pines and Needles, the UK’s biggest Christmas tree supplier. I managed wholesale for them for a couple of years and I still do now, remotely,” he said.
When Simon moved to Shaftesbury in January, he decided to sell trees locally. In addition to the display outside the Town Hall, he is offering online sales. I was surprised to hear that people buy real trees on the internet. “It was a tentative one. We didn’t know whether to offer it or not,” said Simon. “It is traditional for a family to want to go and choose their tree or even cut their tree down. But it’s been well received. Today I’ve gone out and delivered five trees and three of those were online sales. I don’t take just one tree. I give people a choice. If they don’t like it, I can un-net another one.”
The trees come from Scotland, near Aberdeen, and Simon says that the netting bags they’re wrapped in is 100% oxo-biodegradable and contain no plastics whatsoever.
Even though Shaftesbury is a small town, Simon says there is enough business. “I believe there is. We’re not looking to step on anyone’s toes. I know there are other people selling trees around the area but there is the footfall.”
Simon specialises in the traditional Nordmann fir variety – the non-drop type of tree. The tallest specimen he’s sold so far has been 12ft high. “Funnily enough, I have had an enquiry online for a 16ft tree, which I need to source next week,” Simon said.
To put that tree into height context, we were standing outside the town hall and looking across to the town Christmas tree outside King Alfred’s Kitchen, which Simon estimated to stand 15ft high.
Shaftesbury shoppers have a different taste in trees compared to customers in Surrey where Simon used to live. “Around here there are a lot of people that go for a larger tree. In South London and Surrey, there are a lot of flats and smaller houses. We sold a lot of smaller trees. Today, we have sold mostly 7ft trees.”
Another difference appears to be Shaftesbury’s more traditional approach to the date when the Christmas decorations go up. “People are not looking to buy their tree until this coming weekend. It’s the twelve days of Christmas here. Before (in Surrey) there were people who were Christmas crazy and they wanted the trees in the last week of November.”
Simon has another seven dates outside the Town Hall, after which his service will be online only. “It’ll all be said and done by the 20th but this morning I’ve had a phone call from a family in Shaftesbury who are currently on holiday in Australia. They asked me to save a tree for them, because they are not back until Christmas Eve.”
But Simon won’t be out of a job after Twelfth Night. “I’m starting a new job in January working for Gritchie Brewery on the Ashcombe Estate. That is Guy Ritchie’s brewery,” said Simon. And he says he’ll be back with the tree sales again next year. “It’s definitely not a one-off. It’s been very well received, and we’ll make sure this happens.”
Simon has advice for any real tree owners. “They are living things. Would you like to stand in the corner of the room from now until 31st December without water? They do need to be put into a water-holding stand to have the longevity,” he said.
You can find Simon’s website at ShaftesburyChristmasTrees.com.