Couple raising a glass to future of rural pub

The pub trade has been fraught with difficulties in recent years but Chris Berry met one couple trying to make life at a rural inn work and keep its traditions alive

Whisper it softly, but the rate of pub closures is slowing down. Since 2008 there have been 4,500 hostelries call last orders for the final time and country pubs haven’t been immune.

The rate of pub closures was 50 a week in the UK four years ago, now it’s down to 12 according to a recent CAMRA survey but the worrying sign is that half of those are village pubs.

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Rural drinking houses have long been regarded as more pivotal to the countryside population than even the church and yet there are many that are still under threat and according to the statistics we can expect at least one village pub somewhere in Yorkshire to close its doors for the final time this weekend.

Tough economic times, heavy taxing of alcohol and cheap canned beer sold by supermarkets leading to greater consumption at home have all taken their toll on this increasingly beleaguered sector.

Another problem that has become more prevalent in recent times has been the apparent lack of continuity in pub management particularly in public houses owned by the larger pub groups.

Often a pub can be revitalised by new management who take up a lease on a short-term one-year contract only to find that the group whacks up the tenancy fee the following year, undoing all the good work that may have been done.

And yet there seems a never-ending supply of those whose ambition has always been to run their own pub, or who simply see the potential of their local hostelry.

Catharine and Leigh Spooner fit into the latter of those camps. They had never thought of taking on a pub until they set foot in The Grapes Inn in the delightful, picture postcard village of Slingsby just six miles from Malton and on the edge of the Howardian Hills with its maypole and village green.

Their first taste of the pub wasn’t a happy memory either. They had just moved to the village in January this year and decided to partake the ambience of their local hostelry. Catharine wasn’t impressed.

“We only came in once, but that was enough. It was absolutely filthy and in desperate need of tender loving care. It closed soon after our first visit and we felt it had potential as a business and wanted to rescue it for the village. We’ve never run a pub before but Leigh says that he’s spent 37 years undertaking extensive market research!

“It’s a fantastic Georgian building in what is a great village. We felt it just needed somebody with a bit of imagination to bring it back to life. Since we reopened a month or two ago we’ve been amazed when villagers tell us that they haven’t set foot in The Grapes for over 20 years! And some of them only live a matter of yards away!”

It’s often said that people buy from people they get along with, people who understand their customers, and that seems to be where Catharine and Leigh are making a big impression.

Catharine’s father, Brian Cobb, who passed away just a month ago, farmed at Coulton, only a handful of miles east of Slingsby. He was a popular farmer who was at one time chairman of the farmers’ co-operative BATA. Catharine’s experience as a farmer’s daughter is coming in useful.

“I lived on our farm until I was 17. When our regulars talk to me about harvest or livestock I understand what they are talking about. They’ve had a particularly tough potato harvest this year and I know just how hard they work. At the end of harvest they will come in covered in dust at about 10 o’clock for a pint and I know how much they deserve it. We’re hosting a potato growers’ night this week.

“We want The Grapes to be the kind of pub where everyone is welcome. If you’re a farmer coming here in your wellies or someone out for a walk with your dog who fancies a drink then we’re the place for you, but also if you’re a group of girls dressed up in stilettos and lovely dresses ready for a great night out we feel we have created the right place for you too.”

Catharine and Leigh bought the pub freehold in April and spent the best part of six months bringing it up to scratch. This means they are free from management companies and excessive tenancy arrangements.

Leigh’s profession is in the antique trade and renovation work. He planned and undertook most of the work in the pub’s four distinctly different rooms and several of his pieces acquired over many years have found their way into use already, including quite possibly the largest corkscrew I’ve ever seen on the bar and one of my own personal favourites in a pub, a bar billiards table. They have however been mindful of falling into the more typical pub renovations.

“Professionally we don’t like anything that is reproduction. Our pub tables are proper pub tables not Singer sewing machines and we haven’t modelled The Grapes on anywhere else. We’re just trying to make it something that we like. I think the key is to make it a real pub where the whole of the village enjoy it from the moment they step through the door.”

“We’re not trying to be bigger than we are and we’re not trying to be clever. It’s all about the people. This is a real pub that serves locally produced food, rather than trying to be a restaurant and that seems to be what people want. “I know that we can’t expect everybody to be coming here every night as we’ve all only got a certain amount of money, but we are seeing a lot of the locals regularly and our Sunday lunches are going well.”

Hoping to make pub their home

Catharine and Leigh 
have two children – Alfie, 10, and Beatrice, eight.

They are presently 
renting a property in the village since selling the house they built where Catharine’s father farmed, but their aim is to eventually live-in at The Grapes.

That, as yet, is another project.

For now they are concentrating all their efforts on making a 
success of the pub that dates back to 1759 and once went under the name The Three Tuns.