Where the heart is: Living over a very traditional shop in Abbeyleix
There were pigeons flying around the house when Alissa Blundell first bought her shop and home in Abbeyleix
Alissa Blundell in her shop Horse ’N’ Riders in Abbeyleix, Co Laois. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
The shop leads into a cosy family sitting room. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
Dating back to the 1800s when its current development started, Abbeyleix is one of Ireland’s oldest planned estate towns. Surrounded by hinterlands that boast historical remains dating back to even more ancient times, the small heritage town in Co Laois is a place where history and modernity coexist as easy neighbours.
The town’s park houses a monument dedicated from tenants to the de Vesci family, whose estate still remains in the area. The development of the ‘new town,’ initially predominantly Georgian in style, later went on to include Victorian and Edwardian architecture. Terraces of attractive houses, also attributed to the de Vesci family, are fronted by gardens which flank the main thoroughfare. Shops, restaurants and cafes are housed in a mix of the more modern and some of the older buildings.
Beside Morrissey’s, an establishment claiming to be Ireland’s oldest pub, a quaint, diminutive shopfront seems in tune with the sense of merging eras. The window of Horse ’N’ Riders is adorned with tack and other horsey accoutrements. There are displays of country crockery – floral-print jugs, butter dishes and cups featuring country scenes.
Inside, a hallway bedecked with pamphlets, books and other carefully chosen treasures leads to a door to the main shop area. A small brass bell tinkles overhead as customers push through the door to enter an unfolding eclectic treasure trove which features floor-to-ceiling shelves, dressers and displays. On high shelves, riding hats are stacked in descending sizes. Crops hang from hooks next to cups and racks displaying a range of greeting cards. Space is of a premium and is stretched to capacity.
Lots to see
With lots to see in a small space, customers might take a while to notice the doorway tucked away at the back of the little shop floor. It frames a discreet, wooden-framed glass door that leads into what any vaguely nosey shopper will quickly realise is a cosy family sitting room. Buddy, the rather handsome little chestnut-coloured terrier lies draped across a cushion on what he’d likely confirm to be a very comfortable armchair beside the lit stove. It’s a room that wears its welcome in the shape of drapes and trinkets and the sort of built-upon collections of gathered trinkets and décor that marks its status as part of a family abode.
That sitting room and the rest of the building has been home to Alissa Blundell and her family for the past 24 years.
“It all came about after I finished college and came home after travelling a bit and property came up in the town. I wondered if I might venture. So I approached the owner. It used to be an old bookies. It hadn’t been lived in for years. It was reasonably priced, but needed a lot of work. There were pigeons flying around the house. It wasn’t liveable in. I ended up buying it in ’95. The first thing my mother advised was to attack the shop so I could generate an income. So I followed mother’s good advice.”
Blundell was born in England, but moved to Abbeyleix when she was four. Her father was the huntsman for the local hunt. He also did a bit of saddlery. Blundell, too, was fond of all things horsey. It was growing up with that backdrop that inspired the idea to make the shop equestrian-themed. She sells new and second-hand equestrian wear, tack and equipment. She also has a jacket re-waxing and tack repair service. In a town as steeped in history as Abbeyleix, her business lends itself well to the surroundings. She sells ware that could be classed as timeless, traditional. Times are changing in the business world though, and for Blundell it’s an ongoing challenge to keep coming up with ways to bring customers through the door.
“A lot of people buy online now and I realised I needed to branch out. It started with someone asking have you got a horsey mug or card or whatever. I thought I’d better get into cards and a wider mix of country-style giftware.”
Juggling home life with living at the workplace has been a good fit for Blundell, who enjoys being in a position to juggle both from the one location.
‘Quite the adventure’
“It’s been quite the adventure. I own it, so I can do what I like now. Living here has really been great. It originally started out as just me, but now I’m here with my partner and three children. It has worked out brilliantly. I can get on with my work and get on with minding the children at the same time.”
The home consists of the downstairs sitting room area directly behind the shop and other living quarters upstairs. Off the sitting room is a hallway that leads out to a storage area and outside yard. Upstairs, Blundell has divided the space into three bedrooms, another sitting room and a galley kitchen.
“It’s well lived in,” says Blundell, laughing. “My daughter would like sleek lines and stainless steel everything with no clutter in sight, but I’m afraid that’s just not my style. I say to her ‘Kate, in 20 years you’ll be off looking for an old chair that someone’s painted with chalk paint and they’ll be stripping it back and asking a fortune for it!’”
In the long term, Blundell is unsure about whether she’ll stay put.
“At the moment it’s great, you’ve got all the amenities, I don’t have to walk to work. Kate is 15. Her brothers Jack and Danny are 12 and seven. The eldest two are in secondary school. The little lad’s school is within walking distance, but you know how it is these days. I drive down to drop and collect him. So it’s notes on the door ‘back in 5 minutes’. My partner is a farmer so he’s separate to this business, but it works. I like living in the town but I’m a country girl and I do miss having a proper garden. We’re tight for space here. I’d love the idea of the grand house for the space. But I’d still have the same carpet. I wouldn’t modernise it. Space and a garden. They’re the only things that might bring me away in the future, but we’ll see. I might feel different when the children have grown up and gone off to do their own thing.”