So many reasons to love your local pub

Ice cold Aspalls at The Duke of Marlborough. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Ice cold Aspalls at The Duke of Marlborough in Somersham, Suffolk. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

If there's one thing that signals a return to 'normal', after the very strange year-plus that we've just experienced, it's the chance to meet friends and family at the pub. It's such a part of British life.

No wonder #lovemylocal has been all over social media. In Somersham, a small village in Suffolk, the Duke of Marlborough is feeling the love. 

“There’s been so much enthusiasm, such a lot of goodwill,” says David Thorne, chair of the committee that runs this community owned pub. “We absolutely wanted to open that first day after lockdown. It was incredibly cold - but we sold a lot of beer!”

Richard Toome, who is one of the volunteers at the pub, enjoying a pint. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Richard Toome, is one of the volunteers at the Duke of Marlborough, Somersham, enjoying a pint. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

There was a sense of gratitude, says Lucy Batchelor-Wylam, fellow committee member. “After the previous lockdowns people seemed reluctant to come out, but this time it felt positive. Wonderful to see new faces too.” 

David (masked) is on the rota this Thursday evening and taking trays of drinks and plates of food to guests (seated). He weaves his way round the striking walnut tree that bursts out of patio slabs, and the firepit that’s warming some hands and bottoms, past the outdoor Birch Bar (built by a volunteer carpenter in the village), into the marquee. It bubbles with the chat of all ages. A few post-walk dogs lie quietly.

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Lucy, a landscape architect who pours creative energy into design and managing the Duke’s online presence, is with her family, her boys demolishing midweek treat burgers.

Lucy Batchelor-Wylam, committee member at the community run pub, The Duke of Marlborough. Picture:

Lucy Batchelor-Wylam, committee member at the community run pub, The Duke of Marlborough. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

It’s a night off the rota for Lucy, but she makes a point of welcoming a group from nearby RAF Wattisham, new to the pub. She’d love to see them back again, did they know there’s live music this Sunday afternoon, and happy hour 6-7pm on Fridays? Quizzes? Yes, on Thursdays and sometimes it’s a fundraiser for the primary school. And there’ll be a beer festival on the August bank holiday because the 2019 event was such a success. 

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The Duke of Marlborough is doing the job it was saved to do when a team of determined residents, led by Lucy’s sister and local GP, Sarah Caston, decided to buy the 500-year-old pub. The landlord was retiring and there was concern it could lose its licence and become residential property.

With guidance from the Plunkett Foundation (the charity supports communities to set up and run successful community businesses), the team issued shares, won grants and crowd-funded to raise the £450,000 needed to buy the freehold and have some working capital.

By Easter 2017 the Duke of Marlborough was the community’s, and the job began of rebuilding it as the thriving hub of Somersham (pop. 800), and a village focal point that would help combat the problem, exacerbated by Covid, of rural isolation. 

Of course it hasn’t been easy. “To be honest, we thought we’d buy the pub and that would be that,” says David. “But that’s just the start. The real problem has been turning it into a profitable business.”

Aaron Douglas, Head Chef at The Duke of Marlborough in Somersham. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Aaron Douglas, head chef at The Duke of Marlborough in Somersham. The community pub relies on a mix of professional, paid staff and willing volunteers. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Richard Toome, who is one of the volunteers at the pub, cooking paella. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Richard Toome cooking paella. Good pub food is part of the Duke of Marlborough's offer to the community. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Everyone plays to their strengths to help achieve that, says Lucy. Loyal volunteers keep the garden tidy, the website up to date, the social media marketing constant, the pennies counted. A peek inside the pub reveals beautiful blinds made by Sarah from fabric donated by Gainsborough Silk, and the paraphernalia of decorating – by volunteers – as preparations are made to welcome guests indoors.

In a bid to operate as profitably as possible (and take advantage of ongoing furlough) the pub will only gradually build up its opening hours over the summer. There are hopes that a development of 42 new homes on land adjacent to the pub will bring new customers in time. “It’s been contentious, but it’s happening,” says David. “Even if 25 per cent of them became regulars it would make a huge difference.” 

The launch in the March Budget of the Government’s £150million Community Ownership Fund could see more pubs like the Duke saved. From June, bids can be made for up to £250,000 of matched funding to help secure a rural business deemed vital for the social wellbeing of a community and at the risk of being lost.

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It’s a great opportunity, says Chris Cowcher, head of policy at the Plunkett Foundation. “It offers hope to communities to secure the places that are special to them and will help their villages and towns thrive after the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic has highlighted the value of community pubs in providing lifeline services and activities to support local people in need.” 

The Duke of Marlborough is a community run pub in Somersham. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

The Duke of Marlborough tells its story. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Piping hot chilli from Aaron Douglas at The Duke of Marlborough. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Piping hot chilli from Aaron Douglas at The Duke of Marlborough. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

David cautions anyone considering buying their local to realise “it’s harder than you think, will take longer than you think and will be more expensive than you think”. But worth it? Yes. “You go up on a Friday night and the carpark is full, and there’s some live music, and people are enjoying themselves, and you think ‘we did that’,” says Lucy.

“This village without the Duke would be a significantly lesser place. We have a pub within walking distance for most people in Somersham. When my boys are 18, 19 I want there to be a pub for them locally.

"My family has lived in the village for 70 years but, even so, I’ve met no end of new people. People who live two doors away from each other are meeting for the first time, maybe doing a shift behind the bar together, connecting, making friendships, enjoying themselves. It has been amazing for village cohesion, and it is more important than ever right now.” 

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The Duke of Marlborough in Somersham. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

The Duke of Marlborough in Somersham. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Community spirit

There are eight community-run pubs in Suffolk. Behind each is a group of volunteers determined to ensure their pub continues to thrive. They need our support, especially now. 

The Case Is Altered, Bentley 

The Sorrel Horse, Shottisham 

The Racehorse, Westhall 

Punch Bowl Inn, Battisford 

The Cross Keys, Redgrave 

The Brook Inn, Washbrook  

The Low House, Laxfield 

If the idea of running your own local appeals, check out The Plunkett Foundation (plunkett.co.uk) which offers guidance throughout the process, and plenty of case studies. In November the Foundation teamed up with East Anglian housebuilders, Hopkins Homes, to create Hopkins Plunkett Communities Schemes, a source of grants and business advice for community businesses in Suffolk and Norfolk having to adapt because of the pandemic.  

Find details of the Government’s Community Ownership Fund at www.gov.uk.  

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