As places go, Tissington is a picture-perfect crowd-pleaser. From the minute you pass the towering lodge gates and meander along the lime tree lined avenue, there’s a sense you have discovered a magical village that time forgot.
Tissington’s popularity (as many as 35,000 visitors during well dressing week) explains why a village with around 120 inhabitants has a butcher, some bakers (producing cracking cakes for Tissington Hall’s tearooms) and a nationally renowned candle-maker. Follow your nose to the former village forge and Annie Maudling, founder of On a Wick and Prayer, offers the warmest of Tissington welcomes. In my case – a hug, a mug of coffee and the chance to warm cold hands over a pot of melted wax on the brazier.
This enthusiastic greeting is far more than I deserve because – after promising to stay in touch – it’s been 20-years since I last visited On a Wick and a Prayer. Back then, Annie had just moved her candle-making from the kitchen stove at Yew Tree cottage (every inch as gorgeous as it sounds) to a converted pigsty in the garden.
“I’ve been very busy,” she laughs when I ask for a ‘quick’ catch-up. “It’s 22 years since I started making candles with my daughter’s unwanted kit and a grotty pan which I could never use again as it made the gravy taste of lavender.”
I wonder what happened to the pigsty. “We needed more space so, with the blessing of my landlord Sir Richard FitzHerbert, we moved into the old blacksmith’s forge next-door to the cottage,” Annie says. “We hand-pour around a thousand candles per day – sometimes more – and I have ten part-time members of staff. My husband Ed even asked to join the team as he said it ‘looked like fun’. It works well, as long as he does what he’s told.”
Annie says the turning point for her company came about after a chance meeting at a trade show.
“Someone came to our stall and explained the National Trust shops were looking to stock more local products and asked if I would be interested,” Annie (54), recalls. “It was a case of ‘Er, give me half a second to think about it’ before saying yes. It proved a massive leap forward. Before I knew it, we were supplying candles to 60 shops throughout the country.” In 2005, with orders coming in thick and fast, Annie took on another unit in nearby Ashbourne. Within a matter of two years – they’d outgrown it. “I have a friend whose husband worked from a base in Dovedale. He was moving to larger premises and she asked if I’d be interested in his unit,” Annie says.
“It was perfect – offering four times the space. I’d finally found a place big enough to make custom candles for other businesses (including some top London hotels), store the packaging and do the product photography. It also allowed me to achieve a life-long dream of buying a kiln and making a range of pottery called Dovedale Ceramics.”
As Annie and I chat, there is a steady stream of people visiting the small but perfectly fragranced shop which is on the side of her workshop. Even though most visitors are there by chance – hikers, cyclists, tourists – they all leave with a candle, or two.
“The workshop is really popular. We often have people who come in – smell a few candles – and because they are out walking or cycling say they’ll come again with the car and fill their boot. I’m pleased to say most do,” she says. “We did a survey recently and asked our customers ‘why us?’ I was expecting a variety of answers but 95 per cent said they loved our fragrances. I remember when I first started I was so desperate to please I’d find myself obliging all requests to make anything from Parma violet to roasted mushroom scented candles. Then I learned to have faith in my own fragrances as each one can take weeks – even years – to perfect.”
Annie agrees there has been a craze for candles which evoke a favourite smell as opposed to a parfumier’s scent. Annie’s own collection includes Starched Linen, Vine Tomato and the best-selling Hot Toddy.
“I try to avoid trends and, even when I’m developing something new, I ask if it fits in with our story,” she says. “For instance, I’ve fallen in love with Norway and spent six years perfecting a blend which brought to mind the smell of a ‘Nordic Forest’ as opposed to a toilet cleaner.”
Annie is unperturbed if people don’t like the scent (known in the trade as the throw) of a certain candle.
“Two girls came in the other day and one loved a candle but the other said ‘Ew – no’,” she laughs. “We’ve all got a very different sense of smell. I test my fragrances on the ten members of staff and we’re all experienced enough to know when something is right. The rest is down the to personal taste.”
One trend Annie is happy to embrace is that of recycling; “We tried launching a refillable eco candle – made from the bottom of wine bottles – 15 years ago. It was just too far ahead of its time,” she recalls.
“I know a lot of my customers have cupboards full of spent candle containers they’d like to reuse. We do offer a popular refill service but I wanted to help those who’d prefer to make their own candles.”
Annie wrestled with the idea of how to make candle-making accessible to all; doing away with the need for moulds, thermometer and jugs. As usual, divine inspiration struck. “One night I went out to buy a pint of milk. The next morning, I woke up and had a light bulb moment – put the wax in the bottle. Milk bottles are one of the most re-cyclable of all plastics, they can withstand heat and it’s a ready-made pourer for melted wax,” she explains.
“We previewed the idea at a craft show last November and it was really well received. We had lots of questions and our response was ‘It’s easy’. That’s how Eazi Candle was born. We went to more craft shows and the response was amazing and I was invited to talk about making candles on Create and Craft TV.”
Since that initial screen debut, Annie has been asked back many times and even has two TV personas – ‘Annie Candle’ and ‘Mrs Eazi’.
“Appearing on TV doesn’t faze me at all as candles are my passion and I don’t have to think about what to say,” she says. “In fact, at trade shows my staff sometimes tell me to tone down the passion and just point to the candles and say ‘How many do you want?’.”
To prove they really are idiot-proof; Annie sends me off with everything I need to refill one of my own empty candle containers (I also have a cupboard full) and even provides a scent blend to emulate the smell of the former candle; namely ‘Frosty Morning’.
“There’s nothing I enjoy more than bringing a candle back to life,” Annie smiles. “A couple of Christmases ago a friend asked for help with a £300 designer candle given to her by her son as it had ‘stopped working’. She’d lost the wick in a tunnel of wax. I scooped it out, filtered the impurities out, added some new wicks and, two years on, it’s still going.”
As for the future, Annie has promised to work on creating a better work-life balance after having a dramatic wake-up call.
“October to December is always a busy time for candle-makers. About six years ago, we’d had an especially crazy run-up to Christmas before dashing off to stay with some friends in Leicestershire for New Year,” Annie says. “We decided to catch-up with other friends but, on the way over, we had a car accident on a bend which nearly killed us. Ed cracked eleven ribs and punctured his lung and we had to close the workshop. I think the universe was telling us both to slow down. These days we run the business rather than let the business run us.”
Since then, the couple stop work at 5.30pm and, every year, they cram Ed’s fishing gear into their trusty Belingo-turned-camper-van and head off to Norway for a few weeks.
“Once there, we switch off completely. We go to bed when we’re tired and eat when we’re hungry. It’s a much simpler way of life,” Annie smiles. “Running my own business is not easy at times, particularly when I walk out of my own home and it’s there on the door-step. Travelling all the way to the remote parts of Norway is the easiest way to get a proper break. It’s the one place on earth where I can forget about everything – it’s bliss.”
Visit on a Wick and a Prayer at The Candle Workshop, The Avenue, Tissington DE6 1RA or visit the on-line shop onawick.co.uk