Martin Hesp: Closing these pubs could call time on village life
More than 100 pubs have closed since the beginning of the year – Martin Hesp fears for village life after two well-known hostelries near him shut up shop...
Every now and again we get to feel how it must be when we become very old – by which I mean, we look around and are shocked by the way things have changed, even locally in our own backyard.
Here’s an example – for most of my life, the West Country villages in which I’ve lived have had pubs. Some of the more remote ones have closed but, for the most part, those at the heart of communities have carried on – a few have thrived and a couple have been celebrated way beyond parish or even county boundary.
These village pubs survive as age-old fixtures, some centuries old – and during my lifetime the generally accepted notion has been that they will continue to do so.
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But then one day you blink, and everything has changed.
The community in which I live is bordered by two villages – one to the east and one to the south – and both, until recently, boasted exceptionally well-known and well-loved public houses.
Now both are gone. For how long, I do not know. The closures might be temporary – new buyers might be found and one day they could be up and running again. I hope so.
Many readers will have heard of Luxborough’s Royal Oak, deep in the Brendon Hills. The Blazing Stump, as it was often known, was a classic stone-floor affair with a huge inglenook fireplace and all the thatched-roof trappings. When I first drank there 40 years ago, it was just a single room served by a small hatch – but a succession of owners developed the place until it became a rather swish cottage hotel and restaurant.
But, for all that, the bars never lost their authentic pub charm – and I won’t bang on about the crowds I’ve had to squeeze past in order to get a drink, or the celebrity names I have spotted in the place.
I will, however, quote directly from the Royal Oak’s present website: “Due to family illness and the economic situation, the business is closed for the foreseeable future.”
Two miles east of my village, there’s another charming Brendon community. For countless years Monksilver has enjoyed the services of an equally charming pub.
To be honest, The Notley Arms hasn’t always been the most crowded inn – when I first used to call as a young cub reporter, it was run by a retired colonial hangman who was one of the most insidious and unfriendly men it has been my displeasure to meet. Often the place was empty and if you happened to call when there was no one about, the lugubrious Jim would grunt: “I’ll give you a quid to go on to the next pub.”
As you could buy two pints for that, I took to calling regularly to collect this welcome boost.
Anyway, the hangman duly went off to join felons he had sent heavenwards and soon the place was transformed. Within a few years you couldn’t get through the door and eventually – under the auspices of one particularly efficient landlord – table bookings were scrapped as there was always such a queue outside the door anyway.
Among the crowds I remember seeing Ian Botham in the Notley with a great crowd of his Somerset mates.
Under more recent landlords, this popularity appear to ebb somewhat. But, to see the establishment sitting empty goes very much against the grain with me – and the community.
The local parish council and a group called the Monksilver Action Group nominated the pub as a “community asset” (which means such a property cannot be sold for six months on the open market as long as a bona-fide community group has registered an interest in buying it). This was upheld by West Somerset Council, much to the chagrin of the owner who – according to the local newspaper – says he’s now decided not to sell at all.
Herein lies a tale… How many other inns around the region, I wonder, are closing and then put up for sale by owners who would like to see the official public-house planning status on their properties lifted?
Monksilver Parish Council’s decision to go for community asset status was made in the hopes that the Notley Arms would remain a pub: “The community is desperate to have the pub trading again, but its future is threatened by the stated owner’s wish to sell it as a residential property,” claims the parish council. “Residents strongly oppose this. It has been much loved within the area for many years and was a very successful business.”
So much for the tale of two public houses in West Somerset villages – my bet is that readers could point to the same thing in communities across the region.
The Campaign for Real Ale claims that around 18 locals close each week and that so far this year more than 100 have bitten the dust. The pressure group fears more than 1,000 will shut by the year’s end.
I accept the world changes and that certain businesses will disappear.
But when establishments that enjoyed long-term popularity suddenly disappear, I can’t help but question why things are changing so fast.