I get to travel around the UK a lot, forever celebrating commercial life outside the big cities. On Monday morning, I found encouragement in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire. It was raining hard on this small former pit town. The last of the collieries closed in 2003 and it has been looking for another purpose ever since. Over the road from Lidl and the police station is a place called Coaltown. It is a huge coffee shop, cafe and roastery, so hip that if you came across it in Hoxton in east London or Manchester’s Northern Quarter you would roll your eyes. Here in Ammanford it looked, at first sight, plain incongruous.
Scott James founded it. Sporting a bright red knitted beret thing, he wouldn’t look out of place in Hoxton, either. It was Scott who decided that his home town needed, of all things, an enormous, trendy coffee palace. God only knows how he persuaded anyone to agree with him enough to lend him the money to buy a vast derelict coalshed next to the railway and turn it into this unexpected masterpiece. Scott hopes that coffee can take the place of anthracite as the black gold powering the town. He speaks of creating a new industry, training and employing local people in the business. The punters come from far and wide to hang out, eat the food, drink the coffee and smell the beans roasting. It’s a beautiful space.
Yes, as a nation, we probably have enough coffee shops. And the best coffee business east of St Davids is not going to turn a town around on its own. But there is something magnificent about the ambition, and where it could lead. Many a local will surely look at the success of Coaltown and think: well, if this kind of place can work here, then anything can; I’ll give something a try.