WHETHER it’s Winnie The Pooh, Rupert, or Paddington or just a classic teddy, the toy bear has always found its way into children’s hearts.
It’s no surprise then that at one of Britain’s last remaining ‘toy hospitals’ there is a huge demand for fixing broken teddy bears.
Alice’s Bear Shop is home to a bear and doll hospital which has a four month waiting list to repair ‘patients’ for their sentimental owners.
The dedicated team of ‘doctors and nurses’ perform all kinds of ‘surgery’.
Surgery can be anything from simple restringing and re-stuffing to head re-attachments and complete skin grafts to bring the valuable bears back to life.
Rikey Austin, who opened the shop and hospital in Lyme Regis, Dorset, 17 years ago, said it has only been in the last three years that demand for the specialist care has taken off.
She puts it down to the demise of other toy hospitals across Britain, due to society’s ‘throwaway culture’ as well as the value in heirloom toys shooting up in recent years.
Rikey, 49, now receives dishevelled and limbless bears from countries like the US, Australia and Kenya, as well as toys from across the UK and Europe.
Previous clients include the British actress Emma Thompson.
Each patient is diagnosed by email with photos showing its condition and a description of what the owner would like done.
When they arrive at the hospital they have to go into quarantine – a big airtight container with a hefty dose of good bug spray – for 48 hours before they can be operated on.
Simple jobs can be done in a couple of hours but some more complicated procedures can take several weeks and cost £300 a week.
One recent case took three months – a young boy’s teddy that had a run-in with a lawn mower but his parents refused to get the bear fixed because their son did not look after his toys.
The boy said he would pay for it with his pocket money so the team agreed to take it on and only charged him £5.
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When the team opened up another bear which came in with a broken squeaker, they discovered love letters stuffed inside.
The stuffed toy had been used by the owner’s grandfather during the Second World War to smuggle the notes out of a work camp.
And they reunited a woman with her late mother’s precious 1930s mohair teddy which was thought to have been lost.
She had asked the hospital to repair what she thought was a 50 year old bear which had its seams coming apart, but when the experts did some exploratory surgery they discovered it was actually the original bear which had been covered up.
Rikey’s team includes husband and wife bear-makers ‘Dr’ Dave Taylor and his wife ‘nurse’ Lesley.
They use recycled materials and even dip fabrics in tea or coffee or rub them in dirt to get the right ageing effect to blend in with the toy’s original colouring.
Rikey, who used to work for teddy bear company Russ and designed bears for Harrods, says the aim isn’t to make the toys pristine as that would ruin the well-loved character of them, but to stop them deteriorating so they can be loved for many more generations.
The married mum of three said: “I used to work for the big bear maker Russ, but the bit of my job I loved most was repairing old bears.
“There used to be toy hospitals in every town but now there are hardly any left because we stopped mending things and became obsessed with having new.
“We’ve passed that on to our children so they don’t treasure one teddy bear anymore, they have an average of 32.
“Having a teddy or doll is how children practice being a carer or a parent, even before they have a pet. If you give a child 30 bears, it’s like an adult having 30 children.
“If I can show them the value of treasuring their toys it will be better for people and the planet.
“The whole shabby-chic, vintage thing has become so popular and people are now realising how characterless the new things can be.
“If you get something handed down from your mother or grandmother it has a history and character to it.
“I’ve been doing it for 17 years now. We used to get one or two a month but it’s really gone mad in the last three or four years.
“About two years ago we had to stop telling people what we do because we just couldn’t cope. Our waiting list is now at four months.
“If it’s small jobs like restringing or putting a bit of stuffing in we can do several toys in a day but some bigger projects can take several weeks.
“We’ve got a Steiff cow on wheels at the moment that’s head had come completely off and the fabric on his back was worn out from generations of children sitting on him.
“That’s two weeks work and will cost about £600.
“There has sadly been times when there’s nothing we can do. Some dolls made after the Second World War have a sort of plastic cancer – the companies changed the plastic formula during the war so it could be used for ammunitions.
“People come in and the plastic looks like it’s shrivelling and there’s a vinegar smell. Then we have to sit them down with tissues and tell them we we can’t help.
“We get to hear the most beautiful stories from people about their treasured toys. We’ll never be rich from it but that’s not why we do it.”