Claire Docwra has found her calling in life by becoming a pub owner in a North Yorkshire village. Chris Berry paid her a visit.
Ten years ago when Claire Docwra first came to live in the village of Flaxton she fell in love with The Blacksmiths Arms, a former coaching inn that was built in the 18th century.
Common grassland dominates the wide expanse that greets you, giving the impression the village wouldn’t be out of place in the North York Moors. Legally villagers still have a right to graze cattle as ‘gait owners’ but the grids situated at each of the three lanes to Flaxton were taken away some years ago.
Claire set her heart on owning the pub if the opportunity ever presented itself and 18 months ago her dream came true, with the help of not a little cash of course.
Given the sometimes monotonous regularity of pub closure stories and yet another campaign, launched earlier this week by Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), to encourage usage of our local pub or risk losing it there might be some who raised an eyebrow when Claire, with no experience of ever having run a pub before, took up the reins. But she never had any doubt about it.
“I wanted this pub and only this pub since the day we moved into the village. It’s very rare that you get the opportunity in life to do something that you really want to do and I was incredibly lucky.
“It hasn’t come on to the market to be sold in twenty years having previously being exchanged between villagers. I took over from Andy Ritchie who had been in for five years and before then it had been owned by Jeff Jordan.
“What makes it so special are the people who come here. They are just such lovely characters. This is not one of those pubs where all the locals just stare at you as you come in if you’re not from the village. Everyone is so welcoming and that makes it a very strong community pub.
“The Flaxton Shoot involves the whole village and they all come in regularly during the season. We also have a darts team.
“It has always had a great reputation in the area and we get a lot of support from those in neighbouring villages such as Strensall and Haxby too.
“It’s a free house and that is the other major factor. It’s not tied in any way to a brewery and that means you are your own boss. Prior to running the pub I had an outside catering business and ran a bed and breakfast establishment here in Flaxton for five years and so running things my own way was second nature.
“We also have three en-suite letting rooms here at Blacksmiths.”
Claire is the chef and prides herself on providing traditional food. She was busy in the kitchen preparing a meal for over 30 local Yorkshire Countrywomen’s Association members when I visited.
“I feel quite honoured that they’ve chosen us for their annual meal, but people like coming here because of the food. Everything is cooked to order and all of our meat, fish and vegetables are locally sourced.
“I cook ‘proper’ chips and my signature dishes are the Flaxton Flipper, a 12-14oz haddock in beer batter and homemade beef in Guinness pie. Food is the mainstay of the pub and I do all of the cooking. It’s reasonably priced and nothing fancy. There are enough people out there doing that kind of thing. You won’t find anything ostentatious here.”
Flaxton’s location just a mile from the busy A64, nine miles from York, eleven miles from Malton and within easy commuting distance of Leeds, plus its rugged, rural appeal means that it attracts those who work further afield to live here. But Claire believes the heart of the community and the larger proportion of the pub’s trade still comes from locals who have lived here all their lives and in particular the farming community.
“I’d say the split is probably about 50-50. Interestingly, those who commute don’t tend to come in as much but I don’t think any business can be something to everyone.
“We do have some fabulous guys like local farmers George Brackley and ‘Mooky’ – Brian Mook. George is in his 80s and at our New Year’s Eve party he was dancing around with a wig on. We had 55 in that night and I don’t think there was anyone from outside the village.
“We get a good age range of locals and visitors from their 40s upwards. Flaxton is a very popular area for holidaymakers. Quite a number come to us from Griffon Forest Lodges on the edge of the village and the other caravan sites nearby.”
Previous incumbent Andy also assists in the pub. He came to Flaxton in 1991 from Headingley but his wife had connections with the Blacksmiths before then.
“My wife’s parents used to run it when it was a Bass tenanted house. When they retired Bass put it up for auction and it has been a free house ever since.
“It has changed quite a bit inside. There used to be a hatch where you could stand in the passageway that ran down the middle of the pub and order your pint.”
Whilst the pub’s interior may have changed Andy tells of the village population having hardly altered at all in the last 100 years.
“One of our villagers put together a book about Flaxton for the millennium and it turned out the number of people living here in 1900 was exactly the same as 2000. They’re not the same people though!”
The official population figure for Flaxton at the 2001 census was 331. With today’s rate of pub closures – 26 shut each week says CAMRA – that would seem to be hardly enough to warrant one pub let alone two as the village also has Thompsons Arms at the former railway station.
Perhaps the answer is that both are free houses and therefore not run by pub chains who sometimes appear more intent on charging higher rents than selling beer.
Talent runs in the family
Landlady Claire has two sons and a daughter. Will and Charlotte are both grown up whilst her youngest son Harry is 11.
Charlotte, a former Bootham School pupil, is an actress and recently had a speaking role in the TV series Call The Midwife playing Miriam Pritchard, the daughter of a back-street abortionist.
She has also recently completed a film produced by Roger Taylor from the band Queen.
Will is a point-to-point jockey in his third season and will be racing at Sheriff Hutton on Sunday.