AS Christmas nears, never has it been more important to support our local independently-owned small businesses, especially in the retail sector.

After such a difficult 2020, the next fortnight is an opportunity for shop owners to get their tills ringing again and for the rest of us to back our local economies and the High Streets which lie at their heart.

Last Friday, the day before Small Business Saturday, I spent time in Bedale Market Place, talking to shop staff and owners – and, importantly, doing some shopping!

Many staff were just back from being on furlough again and were so happy to be welcoming customers once more. And despite the weather being absolutely miserable I was encouraged to see the Market Place busy.

Some of the stories I heard were inspirational, none more so than that of Derek and Katie Ballantyne who had opened their new chocolate shop only days before.

Katie had lost her job in the hospitality sector earlier in the year and she and Derek have shown great courage in setting up their own business in the teeth of the pandemic.

Their new shop, with a fantastic range of handmade chocolates and confectionary, much of which is sourced locally, is a delight to spend time in.

As is Cockburn’s Craft Butchers new shop. A comprehensive refurbishment was completed in record time only a matter of weeks ago. Mark Cockburn told me customers are loving the new displays and smart colour scheme and I can see why. I’m loving Cockburn’s pork pies which are a must-buy for me whenever I’m passing.

At Nickery Nook gift shop Anji Mungham said they had been really busy since re-opening last Wednesday and the online business they launched during the long closure in the spring has really taken off with business up 30 per cent overall. I was happy to help out preparing some of their digital orders.

During my time in Bedale I also called in to Asquith’s Butchers, the Herriot Hospice Homecare shop and grabbed some lunch at the Institution Cafe where owner Nigel Parkin told me how delighted his team was to be back serving their loyal customers once more.

The businesses I visited were incredibly grateful for the support they have received from their customers this year and many expressed their gratitude for the Government’s economic assistance schemes. In turn, I’m very grateful for the work they have done through the pandemic to trade as well as they can, adapting, developing and in many cases looking to the future and investing in their businesses.

Many are feeling much more confident about 2021 and we can all do our bit for a brighter future by continuing to shop locally, on our High Streets and market places.

Also, don’t forget those local businesses not on the High Street. On Friday, I picked up a fine Norway spruce from Croft Christmas Trees and then collected a truly beautiful Christmas wreath from Ravensworth Nurseries, just off the A66 near Richmond. The wreath is now proudly displayed on the front door of No 11 Downing Street.