End of an era for a pair of revivalists behind the bar

Jackie & Margaret behind the bar at the George & Dragon, Hudswell
Jackie & Margaret behind the bar at the George & Dragon, Hudswell
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There’s much made of the closure of pubs and particularly country pubs. The current rate of village pub closures is still said to be around six per week. This can be put down to many reasons but one that’s not often mentioned is having the right people in charge, those who don’t just see a pub as a business but also as their way of life.

Six years ago I received an email from a lady called Jackie Stubbs. She and her mother Margaret had been looking to take a tenancy of a country hostelry for some time and to no avail. They wanted a pub with fantastic views looking out over woodland and water. Jackie’s background had been in catering. She had worked overseas in the Bahamas, a castle in Ireland, a manor house in Scotland, hotel narrow boats on English canals and as a nanny on the Isle of Man.

I interviewed them at The Foresters Arms in Carlton near Selby offering them an opportunity to put their case to Country Week readers. Two years later they took on the tenancy of The George & Dragon in the village of Hudswell in Swaledale, a mile from Richmond. Having been closed for 18 months it was about to become the first community-owned pub in North Yorkshire and it suited them, right down to having space at the back for Jackie’s couple of Kune Kune pigs.

Four years on from the grand reopening Jackie and Margaret will wave a final goodbye at the end of July through sad circumstances. They’ve lived and breathed the pub since they started but Jackie has MS. She was diagnosed whilst in their second year but recently it has developed into what consultants believe is progressive multiple sclerosis.

“You don’t know you have it at first, what you do know is that something is wrong. For me the first thing was a problem with my eye. It went blurry and I nearly lost my sight out of it. I suffered from colour differentiation. What one eye saw correctly as red the other saw as pink. I went to Darlington for tests at an eye clinic where nothing was found. That’s when I had an MRI scan which brought up the possibility of MS.

“I’m used to working at 100mph and doing 100 things at a time, but in the past six months my health has deteriorated and I haven’t been able to think about more than one thing at a time. I struggle with cognitive thought and now have problems with my balance that could lead our customers to start thinking I’ve been hitting the bottle. Mum can mention something to me and then I’ll say I’m on it, but by the time I’m around the other side of the bar I have no recollection of what she said.

“You also lose the power in your legs and can have other problems too. Swallowing, breathing, depression anything that a nerve goes to can be affected. It’s the mylene sheath that protects the nerve that’s attacked.”

Jackie’s effervescent character remains unaffected. I tell her that I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 that included an interview about MS sufferers that outlined the further north you are the greater the incidence of MS.

“Yes I’ve heard that. I think all of us that suffer from it should move to Spain! Sunshine does make a difference it seems. The specialists say that once I step away from the stress of running the George & Dragon it will help, but I don’t see this as stressful because it’s what I do. I know what they mean though, because whilst I love being with people there are the other pressures away from simply serving drinks and food.”

The George & Dragon has been a very real success story since being reopened by William Hague in 2010, not least helped by being taken on as Ade Edmondson’s favourite country pub in ITV’s The Dales series and a second place in Welcome to Yorkshire’s Pub of the Year.

“When the programme first came on television we were flat out with 30-40 covers every lunchtime and evening. It really put us on the map. The Welcome to Yorkshire award was another real feather in our cap. There we were, a little village pub doing nice pub food alongside some real heavyweights.”

But has the pub done what it set out to do when the villagers made a financial commitment to revive it?

“Hudswell only has around 200 people so it can’t justify its existence purely from the village trade. We have around 30-40 regulars but we need the diners, the walkers and holidaymakers from our local caravan site and lodges.

“There was an excitement at the beginning and those who have always been regulars were quick to point out the ones they hadn’t seen in the pub for a while, but one thing we have always had in here is a great spirit.

“The banter around the bar varies from friendly to at times extremely surreal. Our 6pm trade is particularly fun. The great thing about this place is that everyone is welcoming. This isn’t one of those pubs where they all look at a new person coming in for a few seconds as though they shouldn’t be here. Everyone is brought into the conversation. Mum and I couldn’t have landed on a better pub or community, and the views, well we now tout the pub as the pub with a view.”

The end of July will be a sad time for Jackie and Margaret. It is to be hoped that the George & Dragon will find another such committed couple.

What it takes to run the pub

Jackie and Margaret have learned a great deal in their four years. They haven’t regretted a thing about their move and have lived their dream. They’ve also learned lessons and have a few words of wisdom for the future incumbents who will go through as tough an interview process as they had with the pub’s management committee.

“You have to tolerate each other when you live and work together 24/7 in a business like this, but it’s also a great life. You’ve also to remember that your local customers are your bread and butter. You must also have a good sense of humour and would also be extremely beneficial if the new tenants are dog lovers. Mum and I would like to thank everyone who has supported us over the past four years.”