In many ways, Michele enjoyed a privileged though unconventional childhood in beautiful Wykehurst Place, the Gothic Revival mansion in Bolney which was lying derelict when her father, James Doyle, bought it in the 1970s.
The magnificent building, which resembles a French chateau, had been home during the Second World War to Canadian soldiers preparing to join the D-Day landings but had since been unoccupied for 30 years and fallen into disrepair. Having saved it from demolition, James Doyle set about restoring its former splendour, and it was there Michele grew up.
The mansion’s eerie, imposing architecture caught the attention of moviemakers, and it played host to many famous stars of the silver screen, including Michael Caine and Donald Pleasance who filmed Oh! What a lovely war there in 1976.
One of Michele’s fond memories is playing Swingball with Michael Caine, who inadvertently whacked her in the eye with the ball! She also met Ringo Starr when he came to Wykehurst.
But while her childhood in such beautiful surroundings was idyllic in many ways, it was touched with tragedy when she was just nine years old as her mother took her own life.
Michele also faced a challenging period in her life as a teenager when her slightly eccentric father, an antique dealer, was determined she should follow in his footsteps.
“My father insisted that I went into antiques after I left school, so I was not allowed to go to art school,” she recalls. “That is kind of how my career in antiques started, working at my aunt’s antiques shop in Kemp Town. The rest, as they say, is history!”
Antiques have been an integral part of Michele’s life ever since. Still, it’s the people aspect as well as the incredible array of intriguing objects in her shop that she finds so exciting and enjoyable.
The Emporium lies in the heart of the Cliffe area of Lewes, a magnet for collectors who come from far and wide to seek out items they are determined to add to their hoard or find something intriguing that catches their eye.
Sentiment plays a large part in antique collecting and Michele loves to hear people chatting to each other or to the stallholders about items that hold special memories or are dear to their heart for one reason or another.
“It’s enjoyable to hear them talking about the past and reminiscing about things they may remember from their childhood,” she says. “And it’s very satisfying to hear someone say they’ve found that something special they wanted, or see them beaming with happiness because they’ve managed to find a genuine bargain,” she says.
Antiques are in Michele’s blood. As well as her father being a well-known dealer, her grandmother had a shop in Brighton’s famous Lanes, and her aunt’s antique shop was where she learnt her trade.
“I just slipped into the antiques business,” she says.
Tragedy struck again in 1995 when Michele’s father took his own life just months before she and her business partner Steve Madigan established The Emporium on Cliffe High Street in Lewes.
“I think we are the second longest-established antiques shop in the town,” she adds.
Sadly Steve passed away five years ago at the age of 57 after a long battle with cancer, and Michelle found herself in sole charge of the business, coping with another devastating blow.
“It was a very sad time, and Steve was a huge miss as we balanced each other nicely as business partners,” she says. “It was tough without him at first, but we had both put so much into the shop that I decided I had to keep it going. I think we are the second longest-established antiques shop in the town.”
Michele’s determination paid off, and The Emporium continues to be the go-to marketplace for collectors who flock to Lewes from all over the south of England and further afield.
Word of what a great shop it is has also made it a magnet for BBC TV shows featuring antiques. Both Bargain Hunt and Celebrity Antiques Road trip are often filmed there, with the next one on March 2nd.
“It’s fascinating when the presenters and TV crews arrive, at least once a year,” says Michele. “And the shows are screened monthly for the next ten years or so, giving audiences a real glimpse of the beautiful and interesting objects we have on display.
“I often hear people who haven’t been in the shop before saying they wish they had come here first.”.
There are now about 50 stallholders in The Emporium, offering a staggering array of vintage and collectables of all kinds, everything from china and glass, small furniture, costume jewellery, postcards and militaria to teddy bears and dolls. It’s a treasure trove for anyone who likes the old, the unusual, and wants to be sure they are paying a reasonable price.
“Our stallholders are very knowledgeable, and many of them make a real effort to create lovely displays,” Michele says. “Most of them have a real passion for what they’re selling, and others are hobbyists who know a great deal about what they have on their stalls.
“A lot of people in this business enjoy restoring and selling antique pieces. For them, it’s all about love, not money.
“None of our stallholders charge the ridiculous prices you often see elsewhere and customers who come here know anything they buy is going to be affordable.
“After Brighton, Lewes has become the place to go to for people who want to feed their collecting addiction, and we’re lucky to be on Cliffe High Street, which has a lovely mix.”
Does Michele have any tips about which objects will be next to capture the public’s imagination and become highly sought-after?
“Things are always changing in the antiques business, and that’s what makes it so exciting and difficult to predict the next trend,” she says. “Some things are selling for less now than they were 30 years ago, like decanters or bedwarmers, which were in fashion.
“Brown furniture has also been out of favour for quite a long time. We don’t have room for that here, but other people tell me it is now making a comeback and is in fashion again.
“I think the excitement for anyone who likes old, interesting objects is that you never know what you are going to come across and we certainly have plenty of choices here.”
However, Michele does point out a firm trend that has recently become apparent at The Emporium.
“Vintage clothes are really in fashion, and our basement is now totally devoted to an amazing range of pre-loved clothes, with nine stallholders selling all kinds of fashions from across the decades. We see a lot of people coming in and heading straight downstairs.”
Does Michele have a personal favourite about any particular kind of antique or vintage item?
“I have somewhat eclectic tastes and so sometimes see things I don’t want to part with.
“One of our stallholders, Sarah, has a beautiful Chiltern teddy bear for sale at the moment. He is just like the one I had as a child, so I can understand why nostalgia and sentimentality play such a large part in why people like to collect things that take them back to the past.”
Chatting to others about their collecting passions has always been part of the scene at The Emporium. Still, there’s also another prominent attraction – resident dogs always happy to greet customers and enjoy being fussed over.
Unfortunately, the beautiful deerhound – Kymmy, who was a massive favourite with everyone recently passed away. Still, there’s a new puppy who is fast becoming just as popular – Toto, a lovable Portuguese podenga and let’s not forget the beautiful Nelly a firm favourite of our customers. Several of the stallholders also bring their dogs to work, so The Emporium is rarely short of canine cuteness.
“Some people often come in just to say hello to the dogs,” Michele says.
Dogs also have a place in another string to her bow. She has a talent for printmaking, and several years has been making mainly linocuts and woodcuts. These sold particularly well at the last two Artwave events, and several prints featuring dogs were bought for Bill’s restaurant.
Michele enjoys both working and living in Lewes.
“I’m fortunate to live near the golf course, and from this part of town there are beautiful views, and I love the big sky here. It’s a fantastic situation, and my home is my little sanctuary.
“Cliffe is a marvellous place to work in – it’s extraordinary, like a little village, a lovely community. I think that if you have been to school and lived in the same area for a long time, you never really want to leave. I have three children I’m very proud of, and they all live locally. It’s really exciting that one of them is getting married this summer.” •