Britain's oldest family business, butcher's shop R J Balson and Son, celebrates its 505th birthday this year. Richard Balson tells Joanna Davis how the coronavirus crisis is just the latest in a long line of challenges to be overcome by his business.

IT'S survived through plagues, wars, fires, floods and recessions.

And now butcher's shop R J Balson and Son of Bridport, Britain's oldest family business, is carrying on through the coronavirus crisis in the year it celebrates 505 years of trading.

Richard Balson, who has run the shop at West Allington for 50 years, said that amid the pandemic he is seeing plenty of community spirit in Bridport with people continuing to support local businesses and shopping for their housebound elderly neighbours.

He said the virus crisis isn't the worst challenge the business has faced, with floodwater engulfing the shop in 1979 the 'scariest' time he has experienced as a business owner.

"We've been through wars and have remained open through different health scares, recessions and tough times.

"The flooding we had in 1979 was really scary. We were shut for months. But the water was there one minute and the next it was gone.

"With the coronavirus situation we've never seen anything like this since the war and it'll be worse before it gets better."

But Mr Balson, who will celebrate Balson's 505th anniversary on September 12, 2020, is vowing to remain open during the crisis.

He is planning a special pork, ginger beer and marmalade sausage for the milestone called The 505, made using produce from local suppliers - ginger beer from Bridport-based Palmers brewery and marmalade from The Cherry Tree in Bridport. There are also plans to raise money for a dementia charity.

Currently food that people can cook quickly or store in their freezer is proving popular, Mr Balson said.

"People are coming in and buying a bit extra, things they can freeze. They're not going for joints of meat. Sausages and bacon are popular, things people can cook quickly.

"People want to know if we can get out to them to deliver because they need to stay in, that's not a problem for us.

"We're being sensible, we've got signs up all over the shop and we're asking people to use hand gel."

While households are buying more meat than they normally would, the shop's catering trade has suffered, Mr Balson said.

"It's the catering side of our business that will take a bit of a hit. We sell to a lot of pubs and restaurants. This weekend is Mothering Sunday, rather than going out for a Sunday roast people are staying away.

"We have a lot of customers who run B&Bs and they aren't buying sausages and bacon any more as people aren't coming down to Dorset on holiday. That's going to be a bit of a hit as well."

The business was founded in 1515 and the butcher's shop was bought in 1892 for £275. Prior to that it operated out of various local pubs which was a common distribution method for butchers in Georgian and Victorian England. And even before that the family had a market stall in the Bridport Shambles, shambles being an ancient name for a shelf, on which meat was slaughtered and then sold.

Mr Balson said he hopes shoppers support independent traders during the coronavirus crisis.

"We're all about supporting the independent shops in the high street. We're really lucky in Bridport, we've got many independent businesses but in some towns businesses have been really battered by the economy.

"People are going to the supermarkets and going crazy. You've got people coming out with all these toilet rolls they don't need. How much toilet roll do you need?"

Mr Balson says his supply chain is currently unaffected by the coronavirus outbreak because he sells local produce, "but that's not to say it won't be affected."

Many of the shop's customers are the generation who lived through the Second World War, he said.

"A lot of the older generation of our customers have been through the war, they were saying at the moment a lot of younger people don't know they've been born. It's a different world now. You can get everything on higher purchase and pay for it later. A lot of people have never known hardship before."

As R J Balson and Sons looks ahead to its 505th anniversary, Mr Balson said the secret to its survival is very simple.

He said: "Our secret to success has been having one business and not opening shops all over the place like some people have done and not being able to make it work.

"What we've done, we've done it right, we've offered good customer service, people come to our shop to talk and they see what we're like as people."

And being in charge of Britain's oldest family business in its 505th year is an 'honour' and 'a privilege', he says.

"I'm just the current custodian who's in charge of the business. But it's an honour and a privilege. There's always some interest and someone who wants to talk to you about being Britain's oldest family business.

"We've got to go on and on and that's what we're going to do."