Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Pubs have been the cornerstone of local communities for generations; in towns and cities there was one on every street corner, whilst villages usually benefited from at least a couple.
Over the last twenty years, the hospitality industry changed and developed, facing competition from coffee chains and wine bars, and pub closures reached an estimated 50 per week. In urban areas many converted to neighbourhood retail outlets as extensions to the big supermarket chains.
In a November 2018 analysis, ‘Economies of Ale’, the ONS (Office for National Statistics) estimated that 25 per cent of pubs had closed since 2001, with independents and those outside busy city and town centres, most at risk.
Although the rate is slowing, 18 pubs continue to close each week, according to CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale). Villages remain vulnerable, especially those with a high number of second and holiday homes where levels of activity is largely seasonal or weekend oriented.
However, protecting their status in planning terms is helping to revitalise rural pubs, and – increasingly – local residents are getting together to save their ‘local’, setting up self-funded Community Interest Companies with volunteers helping with the day to day running of the business. Adapting to local need, and working with local businesses, including beer and wine makers, as well as food growers and producers, they are integral to the wellbeing of their communities.
Many of these are Listed buildings, part of our national heritage, and valuable potential assets for tourism and employment, so it is a delight to see them coming back to life, instead of continuing to blight neighbourhoods.
A case in point is The Boot, a delightful Grade II medieval building, set in a couple of acres near Freston village on the main road between Shotley and Ipswich.
My husband discovered it within a few months of our move from London; the landlord and his wife ensured we were welcome and introduced us to a range of people who became lifelong friends. When the Orwell Bridge was under construction, workers made it the centre of their social life for about three years, helping the pub to thrive with endless events – it was a fun place! When the workers moved on to build the Dartford Bridge, the landlords also moved, to another historic pub, pursued by most of their customers. So, The Boot gradually declined until it closed a decade ago.
Being so prominent, it became an unloved eyesore, sad and vandalised for years until a local business purchased the freehold, and sought a tenant. A talented local chef, Michael Keen, took up the challenge, and a 20-year lease, so an ambitious partnership was born, with a shared vision to recreate a genuine community pub, with the personal touch. Freston village has a population of just 110, so attracting a wider market, including residents and weekend sailors, as well as parents, using the main Shotley road travelling to and from home, the two popular public schools, and harbours, is integral to the business plan’s success.
And it’s working. So I met up with Michael to ask what prompted him and his partners to take up such a big, and expensive challenge, reviving an iconic pub. As I arrived, I was first welcomed by a magnificent Briard French sheepdog; at just 10 months old, he is big, beautiful, and much loved by customers. Over a coffee, with Ralph at our feet, I discovered Michael’s passion for the task.
An experienced architect was commissioned to sensitively reconfigure the accommodation, creating new bar and open plan kitchen areas, whilst restoring the historic core with its exposed beams and inglenook fireplaces. Following detailed consultation with Babergh District Council’s planners, who proved sympathetic, consent was granted with one (costly) alteration. The property had been re-roofed as a matter of urgency a couple of years after purchase, with double glazing installed in the dormer windows; the council demanded that single glazing was restored, although it made no difference to the appearance, and increases heating costs.
Specialist contractors were employed, completing the work on time, and on budget (£400,000), so The Freston Boot re-opened a year ago, to the delight of everyone, not just in the immediate area, but right across the region, as its reputation quickly spread, attracting repeat business.
The first cashless outlet on the Peninsula, it has 70 covers, with antique dining furniture purchased from local auctions adding to the pub’s historic character; a varied menu offers delicious home made food, using vegetables (including asparagus, squash and garlic) and soft fruits grown on site. Three beehives provide the honey for various recipes, and ducks and chickens produce lots of fresh eggs.
A couple of handsome sheep are a new addition, alongside the wedding paddock, already booked for eight weddings during the coming year, and 120 terrace seats. A small (free) 12-seat cinema has been created in one of the outbuildings for shows on Wednesday and Sunday; popular rugby and football matches are also screened. Cycle hire is available for visitors wanting to explore the famed AONB landscape along the River Orwell, watching the birds (including the peregrines nesting under the bridge).
Community involvement is important. “We like people to feel welcome if they just want to come for a glass of beer or wine, or a coffee, either on their own or with friends,” says Michael. He supports ‘Meet Up Mondays’, when an average six to eight people “wanting to get out and meet people” enjoy a free coffee or tea, and home made cake, for a couple of hours in the morning:
“Loneliness can be a factor in rural areas, with poor public transport, so we try to involve those at risk. They enjoy having something to do when retired, and meeting other people. We were quickly offered lots of help to maintain the grounds and kitchen garden, which is time consuming, but our volunteers take pride in keeping everything looking good.”
The pub hosts regular Volunteer Days, with free food and drink, to thank the community. It is also part of the Adnams 150-strong petanque league, and is in the process of setting up a darts team, bringing people of all ages together. The Morris Men have returned for regular performances, and events are planned for the summer months, promoted via social media, ranging from the World’s Pickled Egg Championships, to a Festival of Food with celebrity chefs.
Businesses like The Freston Boot are critical to the local economy, and tourism, as well as community wellbeing; a significant employer, training apprentices in the hospitality and catering industry, it is also a responsible retailer of locally made alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. However, sustaining viability can be a struggle with excessive taxation.
Last November, CAMRA launched a three point plan to save The Great British Pub, with hundreds of members descending on Westminster to send a message to MPs:
- urgent reform of business rates (tripled under Labour);
- a preferential rate of duty for draught beer;
- an urgent review of the Pubs Code.
The Budget froze duty on beer and cider, and announced a new package of business rate relief. Whilst the changes will see annual savings up to £8,000 for some pubs, CAMRA was disappointed that pub-specific rate relief has been scrapped, leaving those which have seen the largest rate increases still potentially vulnerable to closure.
Speaking at the CAMRA rally, Mike Wood MP, Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group, said:
“We need to make sure that we have a proper review of local business taxation which goes beyond what was announced in the Budget on business rates, so that pubs of all size are actually taxed at a fair rate.”
Amen to that.