The former Mill town of Chard, in deepest Somerset, borders the ancient Fosse Way, one of the great Roman Roads of Britain, and lies within an area of outstanding natural beauty. Characterised by colourfully-contoured landscapes far removed from the pragmatic dash of modern life: meandering country lanes lined with lavish stately homes and warm hamstone cottages; chocolate box hamlets perched upon gently undulating hills which bring to mind the rural Wessex of Thomas Hardy’s times: a golden epoch that existed just before the advent of the railways and the agricultural and industrial revolutions that would change the English countryside indefinitely.
I must confess to performing a double-take as I first approached the town. It’s as far from the madding crowd as you’d expect and an air of somnolence still presides. The town’s claim to fame as the ‘Birthplace of powered flight’ is proudly celebrated on its welcome sign - in big bold letters, against a cyan and yellow backdrop featuring a Da Vinci-esque illustration. I could have sworn the Wright Brothers had laid claim to this feat. Turns out Chard’s most famous son, a certain John Stringfellow, predated the Magnificent Men by half a century - although sadly his steam-powered monoplane only ever made it 10-feet high but history had, nonetheless, been made.
But I’m not here to give you a history lesson on aviation. Instead, I’m heading towards the premises of Rayner and Sturges on an industrial estate close to the centre of town. A plinth, mounted to the exterior wall of this state of the art facility, proudly records the occasion in 1998 when The Princess Royal, no less, rocked up to cut the silk ribbon at its official opening. For those not yet privy, this is where Drake’s, whose reputation continues to soar, ply their shirtmaking prowess. What the premises lacks in aesthetic heritage from the outside, it more than makes up for inside - for a dyed in the wool menswear romantic like me anyway: the building boasts a factory floor that’s more befitting of its purpose, alive with the whirr of sewing machines - the very finest Singer’s, Brother’s and Pfaff’s chattering away incessantly. There’s an extensive rail of sample shirts running along one wall, juxtaposed by successions of looped cables, some linking the sewing machines at the front, others trailing in the wake of the electric fabric cutters - often slicing through patterns of fabric numerous layers deep. Machines with blades so dangerously razor sharp that chainmail gloves are a prerequisite, lending a rather Tolkien-esque quality to their operator’s daily armoury. The back wall is awash with fabrics from the upper echelons of textile manufacture. A collective mass of elliptical vaults which, when viewed face on, is rather like having hundreds of pairs of multicoloured binoculars staring back at you.