New move for saviours of the village pub

Michael Ibbotson and Chris Blundell
Michael Ibbotson and Chris Blundell
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Television star Neil Morrissey backed a loser when he bought a Yorkshire country pub to great fanfare. Chris Berry talks to the latest owners about their winning formula

VILLAGE pubs are calling time on their businesses at a rate of over 300 a year.

In Yorkshire there are now many villages with no pub at all or just one were there were previously two or three.

Criticism has been levelled at large pub companies charging heavy rents to their landlords. Other excuses include cheap beer from supermarkets and the smoking ban. But it’s not all doom and gloom behind the bar in the countryside.

Two dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshiremen are bucking the trend and this weekend sees them reopen their third village pub in just over a year, Ye Olde Punch Bowl in Marton-cum-Grafton.

They recently picked up one of the Oscars of the pub trade in the Great British Pub Awards for the Carpenters Arms in Felixkirk, near Thirsk, and they have grand designs on adding to their rural portfolio next year.

Michael Ibbotson had run the Durham Ox in Crayke for a dozen years, before getting together with ex-Morrisons executive and beef farmer Chris Blundell. Two years ago they formed their pub company Provenance Inns.

The Ox and the other three, which includes the Oak Tree at Helperby, form what they describe as a “collection”.

Whatever they call it, Michael is not one for too much sentiment in the pint-pulling business.

“I might not make many friends by saying this, but some pubs need to close and they shouldn’t reopen again,” he says.

“People can blame smoking, or drink driving regulations, but at the end of the day those are good things. It’s about standards and sometimes I feel people just don’t help themselves.”

The pair have a clear strategy for cherry-picking additions to their collection. In talent-spotting North Yorkshire’s village pubs, Chris Blundell found very few that have the required X Factor.

“In the past year I have looked at 250 pubs and there are probably only 20 that would ever satisfy us by being in the right location, the right size of site and offering the potential to develop.

Their formula is based on food, accommodation and drink. “We make our own stocks in the good old fashioned way, in big copper pans,” he says.

“We bake our own bread, make our own ice cream. But our inns are pubs where you can still come in and simply have a drink.

“The days of the plastic cloche at the end of the bar with sandwiches wrapped in cling film have gone.

“We have a love and passion for food and I don’t accept a ‘we’ve had a bad day’ or ‘it’s chef’s night off’.

“We see ourselves as providing village pubs that serve great locally-produced food, rather than being a restaurant with a bar.

“I love it when you walk in and everyone’s dirty boots are at the front door and everyone is stood at the bar in their stocking feet.

“Every customer is important whether they are drinking or eating.

“My formal training was in hotels, restaurants and the wine trade, but my mentor gave me one very important lesson.

“He said that it doesn’t matter if it’s a glass of Dom Perignon or a pint of beer, it still wants to be served at the correct temperature and in a clean glass.”

Felixkirk has a population of just under 100. Many villages of its size have no pub at all but Chris believes that’s where its location counts.

“We want people to come into their village pub, but for the sustainability of the pub business we need to attract people who would like to come here for a run out from perhaps a more urban area.

“People who are drawn here because of the village and how nice it looks. Pubs in small villages must have a food offer. If they do not, then they’re not going to survive.

“The Carpenters Arms has just received planning permission for 10 guest bedrooms. That will further ensure its longevity and keep the village pub in Felixkirk.”

Ye Olde Punch Bowl was in the headlines three years ago when the TV actor Neil Morrissey from Men Behaving Badly and restaurateur Richard Fox bought it.

But their reign was short-lived and there have been other owners since.

It’s another challenge for the dynamic duo of the village pub game and this week saw a Changing Rooms style transformation to the interior as Michael and his team raced to be open in time.

“People don’t like change and one of the things we’ve been very aware of is that the last thing the Punch Bowl needs is another facelift.

“But from a professional point of view it needed a new kitchen and the wiring had been condemned.

“We’re bringing it all up to date, whilst highlighting its charm. The five individual rooms all have great character and we are not going to lose them. We are hoping that the pub will have a broader appeal than has been available previously, and we’re bringing back the Motoring Bar, as it used to be called.

“One of the key things is that we have the freehold, as we have across all four of our pubs. That means we can do what we want with each pub our way, without being beholden to other landlords.”

Chris believes that their success so far has been in attracting both the villagers and those out of a village to each of their pubs.

“There are certain things you have to get right. Service levels are vital. It’s about being open seven days a week and having something sufficiently appealing to people. That can mean you offer different things in different places.

“Any village business is about standards, availability and usage. If you have a bus service and don’t use it then it will inevitably stop being provided. The same goes for the village shop – and the village pub.”

Divine intervention may help too. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, turned up to bless the Carpenters Arms last year.