Rise of yesterday's man

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The Independent Online
Other people's discarded relics spell profit to a family firm cashing in on the heritage boom. Chris Arnot reports

HARDLY a square foot of the building or the yard is not covered with the accumulated jumble of all our yesterdays - red telephone kiosks, Victorian pillarboxes, Second World War mines, chimney-pots, cartwheels, sinks, even - rather incongruously - "six pine Tuscan col- umns". And the premises near Chesterfield are a disused railway station. But Havenplan is not a junkyard. It is an "architectural emporium", with television and film directors as regular customers. Period dramas require appropriate props, and the works of Conan Doyle and Catherine Cookson have proved particularly profitable for the family firm. So has the new Coronation Street Experience in Blackpool.

More than 26 years have passed since John Buckle spotted a business in the trappings of the past. He followed a hunch, bought the contents of an old church that was being demolished in Lancashire and shipped them back home to Sheffield. Pews and pulpit sold quickly. It was the early 1970s, and a reaction had begun to set in against laminates and chipboard. "People wanted something with a bit of quality about it," Mr Buckle says. And he was the man to get it for them.

He travelled far and wide, buying second-hand seats, cupboards, fireplaces, brass fittings and ornate metalwork. In the process, he built up a Byzantine network of contacts that has proved invaluable in meeting the punishing demands of television companies. When Granada rang up one night and asked if he could find 20 live geese by 7am, he knew those Monday afternoons carousing with farmers at Bakewell Market had been worthwhile. He found them.

Does he ever fail?

"An independent film company wanted six live reindeer and a sleigh. I found a sleigh in Manchester, but I could only come up with two reindeer." He says this with the tone of regret of one who banks his reputation on meeting deadlines.

John Buckle is 58. He started in business as a supplier of packing cases to the Sheffield steel companies until the industry went into sharp decline.

At least the mines were still working in South Yorkshire in those days, and coal-fires were plentiful. So he set up a firm to make fire-lighters. It eventually petered out as more and more of his time was spent in auction rooms, old houses and churches. In 1976, he bought the old railway station in the north Derbyshire village of Killamarsh.

Hard bargaining is carried out in the small caravan at the centre of the yard. Behind the amiable exterior of the matey Yorkshireman lurks a sharp business brain. "John loves to haggle," says his wife and business partner, Margaret. "He even haggles with his dentist." But having fixed a price, he sticks to it and delivers on time.

Like many a self-employed businessman, he finds it difficult to switch off. "We were on holiday in Folkestone," Mrs Buckle recalls, "and he promised me he wouldn't buy anything. But I left him on his own for half an hour and that was long enough for him to unearth an old water pump. We couldn't get it in the car, so we spent all the next day on the cliffs at Dover, peering through binoculars in the hope of seeing a lorry with Sheffield or Chesterfield on the side."

Not one did they spot. But they did persuade a coach driver to lay the pump across the back seat. Since then it has appeared in any number of period dramas. "At the end of the day we made a profit on it," says Mr Buckle. 'That's the main thing."