The heart of the community

Pubs are sometimes more than just places for drinking


Alex Begg wasn’t surprised when The White Swan closed down. “It was a real grotty boozer,” the National Trust finance strategist says of his former local, a pub occupying a prime spot on the green in the Norfolk village of Gressenhall. 

“The last couple of years it was absolutely inevitable it was going to fail: Smelly carpets, poorly kept beer, inconsistent opening hours, terrible hospitality and no warmth to the place, no food. It was on a hiding to nothing.”

So when the inevitable did happen, in July 2018, Alex was ready. Not content for Gressenhall to become “another publess village”, he and a group of likeminded locals put together a plan to buy and manage The White Swan as a community venture.

THE WHITE SWAN: visualisation by Glenn Anderson

Nearly three years later, having raised £360,000 through a community share offer and grant funding, that dream is about to become a reality. In January, Gressenhall Community Enterprise got the keys to the pub. In March, renovation work began on the building. Covid-19 permitting, they plan to open the new White Swan in the autumn. And Alex can’t wait to get to the bar. 

“Our most local brewery, Beeston Brewery, have aptly got a beer called Worth the Wait,” he says with a grin. “After about three years of slogging our guts out to get it there that will probably seem quite fitting.”

Hard times

Times are hard for pubs. A total of 446 closed for good in England and Wales in 2020, a product not just of the pandemic but of longer-term factors including demographic change, competition from supermarkets and high duty on booze. The figures for previous years are even more depressing: 473 pubs were lost in 2019 and 914 in 2018, according to real estate advisor Altus Group. 

Fortunately, there is a fightback taking place. Faced with the grim prospect of a future with no local boozer, people in villages, towns and cities across the UK are coming together in increasing numbers to save their pubs, members of a growing movement that puts communities, rather than individuals or corporations, in the driving seat. 

Community-owned pubs are a tiny proportion of the 40,600-strong pub sector – the 13 that opened in 2020 took the cumulative total of community pubs to 132. But growth is steady, according to the Plunkett Foundation, a charity supporting rural community businesses that funds community pubs through its ‘More Than a Pub’ project. Plunkett is currently advising 250 community groups hoping to take their local pub into community ownership. And the recent launch of the government’s £150 million Community Ownership Fund is likely to prompt even more groups to come forward and start the process of saving their local. 

The sector may be little, but it is fierce. Community pubs have an impressive survival rate – until last year, when there was one closure (not related to Covid-19), it was 100 per cent. Plunkett puts this success down to “the hard work and determination of the community groups and their volunteers”, says Liz Woznicki, communications manager for the charity. Also relevant is that, thanks to ongoing advice from organisations like Plunkett, these pubs tend to have robust constitutions and to follow legal and financial best practise. 

More than a pub

Vivienne Coleman, company secretary for the Lowther Arms Community Project Ltd, can certainly attest to the ‘hard work’ thing. “This has taken over my life a bit because there’s so much to do,” says Vivienne, an artist who runs her drawing business from her home in the isolated Cumbria village of Mawbray. 

She and her husband, Chris, never expected to find themselves leading a campaign to save their local pub but, after its closure in December 2018, they felt they had to step up. 

“There was so much unhappiness about the pub closing,” she says. “So many people wanted to save the pub, and we felt it was so important to the community.”

Mawbray is in a beautiful location close to the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But the village is several miles from the nearest shop, café and pub, and public transport options are very limited. Without a private car, you’re stuck. “Social isolation is a problem,” says Vivienne. 

The Lowther Arms campaign launch day

The Lowther Arms Community Project saw an opportunity, not just to give the village back its pub, but to meet some of the other needs felt by locals. When the Lowther Arms reopens this spring (following a share offer and fundraising campaign that enabled the group to buy the pub and save it from private development) it will boast a volunteer-run café, general store and caravan site alongside a traditional food and drink offering. 

The hope is that such a set up will regenerate the local economy, providing employment to those unable to access opportunities outside the village, as well as attracting visitors whose custom will support the businesses of local artisans and growers. “It becomes more than a pub,” says Vivienne. 

A social hub

That’s certainly what happened at the Stoke Canon Inn, outside Exeter. The pub has been run by the local community since 2011, when a private developer bought the property from Punch Taverns and agreed to take the community group on as a tenant. In July 2019, however, the group was able to take its destiny into its own hands by raising enough money to buy the pub itself.

Staffed by volunteers who work alongside a paid bar co-ordinator, the Stoke Canon Inn “really is quite a village hub,” says Maureen Mitchell, committee secretary of Stoke Canon Inn Ltd. 

Before residents took it over, the pub was “such an empty, barren, unwelcoming place,” she says. “But now people come in in the winter and say, ‘Shall I light the fire?’ A volunteer will say, ‘I’ll go out the back and get some logs”.

Regular events such as bingo nights and quizzes provide opportunities for socialising for otherwise isolated members of the community. These regulars might not spend a lot at the bar but there’s no pressure to do so – run on a not-for-profit basis, the pub is for everyone, regardless of means. 

“The important thing is that they’re coming out, the pub is being used, and they’re having a good time and seeing their mates,” says Maureen. 

It’s something of a spit and sawdust affair as a result. When the pub reopened with the easing of Covid-19 restrictions last summer, the committee put a call out locally for second-hand garden furniture to enable them to accommodate more punters outside. 

“You see in the paper various pubs creating all these outdoor shelters and all the rest of it,” says Maureen. “We haven’t got the money for that kind of thing, but people don’t care: they come to the pub and they sit in the car park on their plastic chairs.”

A helping hand

Support for these endeavours comes in myriad forms. The bulk of the money used for the community purchase of The White Swan, The Lowther Arms and the Stoke Canon Inn came from community share offers, with individual investors putting in anything from £100 to £20,000 each (though each shareholder has an equal say, regardless of the size of their investment). Grants from the Plunkett Foundation and business loans from socially-minded banks serve as an important top-up, though mentoring is also available to help upskill community members dipping a toe into hospitality for the first time.  

It’s not all about the money. Beeston Brewery, just up the road from Gressenhall, produced a limited edition Save Our Swan beer as part of the fundraising campaign for the pub. More recently, when it came to the demolition work at the start of the The White Swan’s renovation, it was almost entirely unskilled and semi-skilled volunteers who stepped up to help. 

“We’ve already tapped into lots of goodwill in terms of people’s time,” says Alex Begg. “It’s really endearing.”

Save Our Swan Supporters Meeting with the locals of Gressenhall and surrounding villages, 2019

The campaign to save the Lowther Arms also drew on beer-based support, with Derwent Brewery stocking the pop-up bar at a fundraising event for “a very good price”, says Vivienne Coleman. The Lowther Arms Community Project are yet to appoint a tenant to run the pub for them, but when they do, Vivienne is keen to return the favour by making sure that Derwent and other local breweries are well represented at the bar. 

“People love the local beer so it would make economic sense as well,” she explains. “Obviously we’ll have all the brand names as well but to have a mix would be ideal and hopefully the right tenant would be really open to do that.”

It’s been a tough year to run a pub. It’s also been a tough year to get people together to organise and fundraise. The Stoke Canon Inn has lost volunteers, with people reprioritising their lives in the wake of the pandemic. Even so, says Maureen Mitchell, having the pub to think about during this time “has brought the community together”. 

For the residents of Gressenhall, says Alex, having “something in the pipeline that’s going to be really special to look forward”, has been a real boon. “Everybody that we’ve spoken to is really buoyed and energised.”

The pandemic has certainly put things in perspective, he says. 

“Most people I speak to around here don’t necessarily miss a trip to Spain to sit on a sunny beach. It’s the basic essentials that you really value and reprioritise, like being able to go down and have a pint in your local.”

Cheers to that. 

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