How Somerset communities are responding to pub closures
PUBLISHED: 06:00 29 May 2016 | UPDATED: 11:19 01 June 2016
Somerset villages have bounced back following their pub’s closure thanks to some inventive initiatives
JULIE HARDING discovers how progressive Somerset communities have found that the closure of their village inn can be a driver for different kinds of community spirit.
Upton Noble, a village sited just off the A359 between Bruton and Frome, is an example of such a community. Three years ago its pub, the Lamb Inn, called time.
“Although the village had a Post Office, garage, church and school, it had no meeting ground. We needed more cement,” says parish meeting chairman Melinda Baker. The first initiative, in 2014, was a safari supper, with 25 residents taking part in the mobile dinner party. Last year 35 signed up — and the village only boasts 60 houses in total — with everyone converging on the village hall for drinks afterwards. “We tried to replicate what our neighbouring village, Batcombe, had done,” adds Melinda. “I think we succeeded and the safari supper was the catalyst that made us realise what we could do.”
Initiatives since that first major community event have included regular ‘pub nights’ at the village hall. Home cooked food was added about 18 months ago by a group of renowned local cooks who call themselves ‘Upton Nibbles’.
“Ten years ago we hosted rounders matches and village fetes that raised £1,000 a time, but they dwindled out. We have since had new people move into the village with young families and we have got back our heart,” adds Melinda Baker, who notes that the pièce de résistance of Upton Noble socials was last year’s beer festival, which pulled in almost 900 members of the paying public over a Friday evening and throughout a Saturday in September.
“There was so much to celebrate about the festival, not least the fantastic support of so many sponsors that allowed us to create a significant fund which we’re now using for village causes,” says Dan Hurring, festival committee chairman, who is already planning this year’s fixture (unfestival.co.uk). “Making it a family event was really important and I enjoyed the amount of kids — as well as adults — having fun on Saturday.”
The beer festival has recently led to an unexpected spin off — Upton Noble’s own brand cider made using 61 sacks of apples picked by volunteer villagers one Sunday last October. The 1,800 bottles are now ready for sale at village socials. The project was the brainchild of village resident John White, proprietor of Somerset craft producer Millwhites Cider. He says: “This is a really exciting new venture for the village. After the Beer Festival, it seemed like the natural thing to try.”
The cricket club in Compton Dundon came up trumps when the Castlebrook Inn closed its doors for a year in early 2014. The club obtained a licence and hosted pop up pubs after matches and on certain Friday evenings, with a particular concentration around football World Cup match nights. The village hall committee even joined in on the act and ran its own pub evening as a fund-raiser, plus there was a tasting evening for the village’s home-made cider.
“The bars at the cricket club attracted people who didn’t usually go to the Castlebrook Inn,” says Greg Jones, chairman of the parish council. “The social evenings were restricted to the summer months because the pavilion isn’t heated, but they were a brilliant example of community spirit. Even though the pub is now reopen — and doing well — the cricket club has kept its licence and it still runs a bar for home matches, but everyone heads off to the Castlebrook at twilight.”
South Stoke, located to the south of Bath, boasts charming honey coloured houses and a beautiful listed pub building. Since the historic Packhorse Inn there closed in 2012 after more than 200 years of trading there has been a major campaign by locals and other interested parties to try to buy it. In the interim, many of the village’s 419 residents supported the bar and musical entertainment held on the village green last May.
“Around 200 people came along to mark the third anniversary of the closure,” says Save the Packhorse’s committee chairman Trevor John. “It was a chance for people to meet and maintain enthusiasm over beer, cider and wine. We also held a village barbecue, which we alternate every two years with a village fete. We would love our pub back, but in the meantime there are plenty of ways that we can get together.”
Somerset villages, it seems, are resilient and versatile and will invariably maintain their mojo in the face of adversity.
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Did you know?
Many communities rally round when their local pub comes up for sale.
Two years ago when The Bell, a key part of Bath’s live music scene, came on the market, loyal customers, fans and staff keen to keep it just as it was banded together to purchase it. In all 536 people paid from £500 a share. Although the pub didn’t face closure, customers were concerned that other buyers may try to alter its ethos.
“The sale of the pub generated a lot of publicity, plus the shares were reasonably priced and Bath is lucky to have some affluent residents,” says general manager Aaron Whan, explaining why so many people put their hands in their pockets. “It was also a successful business already, and it has continued to be successful since the sale.”