Saving The Village Pub

When a small U.K. village’s pub closed, a group that had formed to create affordable housing found itself launching a campaign to form a community-owned business and save a community gathering space as well.

The village of Crosby Ravensworth, with a population of 250ish, lies in the most sparsely populated district of England on the edge of the Lake District National Park. Although the village lies only six miles from the country’s main North-South highway, rail services are limited and the nearest shops, bank, and emergency room are 5, 7, and 30 miles away respectively. With the rural location and the seemingly quiet, idyllic lifestyle come exceptionally high house prices; prices approach 12 times the average family income.

Against this background, a group of residents decided in 2009 to form a community land trust to develop some affordable housing. For nine months the group beavered away on the project, developing a support network and getting to grips with the various government agencies, housing policies, and site investigations, all while maintaining a regular dialogue with the community.

Everything was going well until one fateful night when, while we were sipping on our pints in our only pub, the Butchers Arms, the landlord dropped bad news into the conversation: he was closing the pub in two weeks.

Suddenly there was a groundswell of noise from the community. Our friends and neighbors started asking the housing group to intervene with comments like “The housing is going well, could you not do something about the pub?”

Community Buys In

We decided that we needed to investigate options and test the resolve of the community. We visited a co-operative pub in another community, sucking up every bit of information we could, as well as sampling their hospitality, then progressed to a community meeting. We were working on the basis that if there was no commitment we could drop the idea and press on with our housing scheme.

Well, over 100 people turned up at the meeting to hear our co-operative proposal and we came away with 50 people pledging £1,500 (about $2,400) each.

The scheme seemed to be a potential runner so we spent the summer of 2010 chasing further pledges. We reached over £240,000 before our plans took a real backward step. We were visited by a cabinet minister from London, very supportive, but the press release that went out from London stated that the minister had visited a pub already owned by the community. Thereafter, every time we tried to revitalize the story with the media this press release reared its ugly head.

It was time to regroup and take a more formal approach. We managed to get some grant funding, which allowed us to get the premises valued and surveyed, develop some preliminary revised layouts for the building, carry out a community survey to measure support, and capture views on the building’s future use. We employed the chair from another community group to draw up a business plan and prospectus. This was a godsend as at this stage we had secured grant funding for our housing, but had only five months to buy the site, get planning permission for housing, go out to bid, award the building contract, and secure the additional £1.4 million required.

We managed to hit the March 15, 2011, deadline for the housing and went on just two weeks later to officially launch our Pub Prospectus.

By the launch we had secured purchase of the pub, subject to raising the £255,000 required within three months. Without doubt our secret weapon was Christine Smith, known to all as Kitty. One of the founding directors of the co-operative we formed, the Lyvennet Community Pub Ltd., Smith is a local hairdresser and pretty well had most of the community in her chair every six or so weeks. That took care of the locals!

We used every avenue to promote our issue of cooperative shares, from local papers and radio to eBay, the Web, Twitter, national press, and national radio and television shows. Our aim was to have the pub story in the media every week. The story was also picked up by The Guardian newspaper around our “buy a share in a pub for father’s day” promotion.

Not only did we raise the money in two and a half months, but we managed to raise a total of £300,000 to allow refurbishment. In addition, we secured further grant funding from local government and charities.

Just over 50 percent of our investors are local, with the remainder mostly from every corner of the United Kingdom. We also have international investors from Alaska, Vermont, California, Singapore, Australia, Spain, and France. Our Alaskan investors emailed to say that they were coming to walk the Coast to Coast path and that visiting their own pub would be a real hoot.

From Owning to Opening

By June 7, the pub was ours. Over the first weekend we had 35 volunteers from ages 5 to 70 helping gut the downstairs. Not everything went well though. When we turned the water on we discovered we had leaks everywhere, as everything from taps to radiators, pipe joints, and the boiler had been blown by frost damage during the previous winter. The electrical systems were not much better, with electric showers linked to cooker sockets and a Jacuzzi bath that was not even grounded.

Our community is resilient, however, and over the next nine weeks the pub was taken back to bare walls; room divisions were removed; new plumbing, heating and electrical components were installed throughout; the walls were replastered; a catering kitchen and new bar were installed; and the building was painted inside and out.

We had a blackboard where tasks were listed; people came when they could to complete a job and “scored it out” (marked it off) when they were done. Each day we arranged materials and listed the next jobs, and so it progressed. Over the nine weeks we had volunteers who never missed a weekday night or weekend day (in total over 4,000 hours of volunteer time).

Everyone recounts stories of this period: the gallon of white masonry paint that fell from an upstairs windowsill onto the road in front of the pub; knocking down internal walls and finding buried live electric cables; one of our shareholders spending a week’s holiday cleaning the catering cooker to bring it back to show room condition. Our local councillor visited every weekend with her barbecue to make bacon and cheese sandwiches for the troops. That’s how, on a rainy day, we found out that the fire alarm system, like everything else, did not work.

We managed to secure and appoint two excellent tenants to run the pub, Keith Taylor and Bev Percy, both talented chefs with a brilliant track record in catering and the hostelry trade. They were dubious at first that a small rural pub had a future and that the community could deliver the project, but as we progressed through raising the money to refurbishment they became inspired by the dedication and support.

Open for Business

Our member of parliament, Rory Stewart, was very supportive, and brought a stream of government officials and cabinet ministers to visit, until I joked with him that he needed to stop bringing the monkeys and bring the organ grinder!

We received a message on a Monday afternoon, less than two weeks from opening, that MP Stewart was bringing a VIP. He could not tell us who, as any leakage of the visit would mean cancellation. On August 18, the visitor, Prime Minister David Cameron, duly arrived for lunch with the directors. We were pestered to allow him to open the pub, which we refused, saying it was a community project and the community would open it, but we offered him the option of pulling the first pint or the last bit of painting, before conceding and allowing him to open the bar (but not the pub).

Our grand opening was on August 27, and boy did we have a party. Our Australian investor, John Stubbs, flew in to officiate, which was really fitting. He grew up in the pub, as his mother had owned the premises from 1958 to 1978. He had emigrated over 40 years earlier and this was his first return visit. Over 200 people attended and we even had our own ballad produced by John’s family: the Ballad of the Butcher Arms, though Keith said “not in his pub” to one of the chorus lines — “and we will drink to the break of day.”

We are now over a year on. The business is thriving, employing two full-time and nine part-time staff, and providing good food in a warm and pleasant environment. The tenants have created the right balance between attracting diners, drinkers, and individuals simply coming in for company, activities and to catch up on the latest gossip. The pub has built a reputation for good food, fine ales (always three real, mostly Cumbrian ales on tap), and wines.

And the pub has become again a vibrant community hub. There are regular social gatherings, quizzes, domino tournaments, drinks evenings, parties, gatherings to sing hunting songs, live music, Wednesday evening walking group during the summer months, and pub pool teams.

At our first annual general meeting, we reported income over 125 percent higher than the previous owner’s last full year. We are currently fund-raising to convert two of the upstairs rooms into an additional dining/meeting room.

One of our shareholders, a community resident, summed up the pub buy-out: “For years we have seen a steady decline in local services in our community. We had a shop, a post office, bus service, and another pub when I was young. We were about to lose the last pub. We did not have a choice. It was a case of find a solution, do something about it for ourselves, or lose it forever. Now I can continue to meet up with my friends whilst enjoying a good ‘crack’ [catching up on the latest stories and gossip] over a pint. The group and shareholders have given us back a much-needed community building.”

1 COMMENT

  1. This just shows that housing development professionals must always be mindful of the community’s wants and needs.

    What an inspiring story. Well done!

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