The Alice Hawthorn, Nun Monkton: The 'idyllic' Yorkshire pub that thrives in a village of just 250 people

This is a countryside idyll. A rural village with just one long country lane in and out, a working village green (one that has livestock grazing it), a village school, a maypole (reputedly the tallest in the UK), a duck pond, a church and a village pub. It would be a perfect location for an episode of Midsomer Murders if it was located further south.

This is the village of Nun Monkton, tucked away two miles from the York-Harrogate A59 and with the confluence of the rivers Nidd and Ouse affording no further passage.

But how do you make a village pub sustainable here, where your local population numbers just 250 and at a time when maintaining local hostelries is still largely a precarious proposition?

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The Alice Hawthorn, named after a 19th century racehorse that won 52 of its 71 races from 1841-45, including The Doncaster Cup and The Queen’s Vase and bred by local farmer John Plummer, is the village’s pub and is now as fine in fettle as its illustrious equine namesake.

The Alice Hawthorn, Nun Monkton.
John and Claire Topham.The Alice Hawthorn, Nun Monkton.
John and Claire Topham.
The Alice Hawthorn, Nun Monkton. John and Claire Topham.

This is down to a combination of the desire to keep the village’s pub open and to best assure its future, firstly through investment from Yorkshire business entrepreneur Richard Harpin and then attracting thoroughbred country pub-owning couple Claire and John Topham, whose track record of The Angel at Hetton and the General Tarleton of Ferrensby is just as accomplished as their racehorse-named pub they came to in 2016.

“The Alice had previously been brewery-owned,” says Claire. “It had a succession of managers, seemed to be constantly closing while new managers came and went, and Richard recognised that without intervention it may close for good and the village would lose its only pub.

“Richard bought The Alice in 2013, gave it a facelift and then put a manager in, but history was repeating and through word of mouth Richard approached us and said how about a partnership?

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“As part of the agreement Richard agreed to fund development of bed and breakfast accommodation, because where we are, down a cul de sac road, in the middle of nowhere, making a viable business out of food and beverage was never going to work. We had to give people more of a reason to come and we felt the introduction of rooms would make it viable in the long term.”

Nun Monkton.Nun Monkton.
Nun Monkton.

That’s why The Alice Hawthorn is now fast losing its reputation of being a best kept secret.

It is now a perfect short stay, hideaway location with twelve bright, spacious rooms all timber beamed, but it is still a country pub serving quality food,thanks to John.

“We are a welcoming country pub that serves brilliant food,” says Claire. “If you are looking for that pub food experience that’s what you get here. If you are a foodie and a bit more, let’s say, adventurous then you get that too.

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“We are very firmly connected to our pub heritage. We have a bar where you are very welcome with your dog with your walking boots.”

Claire adds: “John has been a chef all his career. He’s from Boroughbridge and worked his apprenticeship with Ray Carter at The Sportsman’s Inn in Wath.

“John’s real claim to fame in the 1980s was that he was in partnership with Denis Watkins at The Angel in Hetton that became known as one of the first Gastro pubs and is still going strong today.”

Claire says that the synergy with near neighbours Yorkshire Heart Vineyard and Brewery run by Chris, Gillian and Tim Spakouskas has proved rewarding.

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“We’ve a great relationship with them. A lot of our guests that didn’t know about it before booking will partake in their vineyard experience while they are here and it works the other way round too as those who visit the vineyard not knowing about us will then come down to us, have a meal and get to know about the accommodation.”

Making the pub for everyone, including those who work there has always been uppermost in Claire and John’s minds. It’s all part of the pub’s sustainability, maintaining its team.

“We run the business with one team,” says Claire.

"We understand that we have to look at new ways of recruiting and keeping a team. Being able to offer them a day in the weekend where they can be with families without pressure of working was the driving force behind being closed on a Sunday during the summer and early autumn months and is always closed on a Monday.”

The Alice will be open on Sundays from November 5 through to spring and it is open to provide breakfasts for Saturday night stays.

“Our plan is to be here until John folds up his chef whites,” says Claire.

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