Year of mixed fortunes for country pubs

Which of these is more likely to be full on Christmas Eve in the countryside – your village pub or the church? While it’s a fair bet that both will enjoy their own share of patronage at that time what about the rest of winter?

Rachel Armstrong at Feversham Arms

Even the Prince of Wales has acknowledged the important role that village pubs have to play in rural life in his support of the organisation “Pub is the Hub” set up by Harrogate-based John Longden over a decade ago. It promotes the rural alehouse as the hub of a community, which is all very well, but if the trade that comes through the doors annually does not add up to a living they won’t stay for long.

Many country pubs rely upon the tourist trade during the spring and summer months to see them through the winter, but this year has been somewhat difficult. The weather from January right through to May didn’t just cause mayhem for livestock farmers, it also took away what is normally the first spike in the country pub trade in the spring and during Easter.

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Rachel Armstrong is the landlady of The Feversham Arms in Church Houses at Farndale in the North York Moors. She has been here six years and loves the pub. It’s her life and combined with three B&B rooms and a cottage, trade is usually strong through spring, summer and into autumn.

This year her business was hit hard early on. “Farndale is famous for its daffodils as everyone knows, but the weather in the months leading up to the season was just awful. Understandably the coach parties had to cancel because the daffodils were extremely late.

“Fortunately we’ve had a good summer and the numbers in the beer garden and in the pub itself have been pretty good.

“As we’re the only pub in the dale we do have a decent amount of regular trade although it wouldn’t be enough to sustain us on its own. This really is a wonderful part of the world, but we do get hit hard when the bad weather comes.”

In Swaledale, just four miles from Richmond, is the Bolton Arms in the village of Downholme. Two years ago this village was almost wholly up for sale as the Ministry of Defence sold off its property, but properties were largely purchased by those who already lived there, including Nicola and Steve Ross who now own the pub. Having run the Bolton Arms for 15 years they are fully aware of the way the trade goes.

“It always quietens off for us in the months of November and February,” says Steve. “We do a good Christmas trade so December is usually a reasonable time for us. Where we score nicely is with shooting parties and our food. Out here we don’t see too many of the locals from the village, we’re a food-led pub.

“Probably like all other country pubs we had a quiet start to our trade in spring, but this summer’s trade was good. We also have two bedrooms for holiday accommodation and that helps.”

But country pubs are still closing and The Plough Inn at Fadmoor appears unlikely to ever reopen. The Crown at Shiptonthorpe in East Yorkshire is now a land agents’ office. There are similar tales all around the county.

Further over into Holderness is the CAMRA award-winning Plough Inn in Hollym run by Steve and Sue Martine. They’ve run the pub for the past eight years.

“We do attract a lot of tourists during the summer and it has been good this year but we have noticed that some of those who have caravans at the coast have been likely to go to the supermarket for their beer this year as it is cheaper. Withernsea Rugby Club is just behind the pub and that always gives us a lift during their season.”

Kimberley and Alan Brereton moved to the Foresters Arms in Carlton-in-Coverdale in North Yorkshire two years ago. Kimberley echoes Rachel and Steve’s comments.

“Our most difficult months are also November and February. When the snow came during the early months of this year we let people know through social media and word of mouth that we were open for hot chocolate and soup.

“We spend a lot of time in November planning for December and run our own 12 Days of Christmas that are twelve event-based activities that involve families and keep up the momentum.

“Running a pub in the countryside is a life choice and keeping the doors open every day is vital. Our pub is very much, we would hope, a hub of this community.”

How is your village pub surviving? Have you lost yours? Let us know.