Is traditional village life dying out in Yorkshire?

David Brown who has set up a group to try to save the  Rose and Crown pub in Sutton-on-the-Forest.David Brown who has set up a group to try to save the  Rose and Crown pub in Sutton-on-the-Forest.
David Brown who has set up a group to try to save the Rose and Crown pub in Sutton-on-the-Forest.
It has already lost two shops and a garage, now Sutton-on-the-Forest’s final pub has closed. Sarah Freeman reports.

On the door of the Rose and Crown in Sutton-on-the-Forest, right next to the stickers advertising its inclusion in succesive editions of the Michelin Guide, there’s a note from the owners. It appeared a couple of weeks ago and says simply: “Closed until further notice. Stuart Temple has ceased trading. Thank you all our customers. We apologise for any inconvenience”.

The closure wasn’t entirely unexpected. Some of the villagers had heard rumours the place was struggling financially a few weeks earlier, but most assumed it was just a temporary blip. The Rose and Crown was after all one of those picture postcard pubs. Just eight miles and a 30 minute drive from the centre of York, it had good passing trade, was well-used by the villagers and on TripAdvisor, the reviews were almost universally glowing.

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The last one, posted just a few days before it shut, read: “Called in as we were passing and just managed to get a table on a Friday lunchtime. Both had two courses and could not fault the food or service in any way. We were made to feel very welcome, not rushed and the risotto was the best I have ever tasted. Will definitely be back.”

Until last orders were called on November 2, for decdes the Rose and Crown had long been the focal point for village activity. It was where the local croquet and French boules club met, it was where the Old Farts - a group set up by some of the village’s more mature men - went at least once a month, often more and it was also where a number of Sutton-on-the-Forest’s retired population had already booked a Christmas lunch.

For Willie Anderson, senior partner in a local veterinary practice, parish councillor and one of the founders of the Old Farts, it’s sign of just how much village life has changed since he arrived in this picturesque corner of North Yorkshire 50 years ago.

“Back then there were 13 farms, three pubs, two shops and a garage. Now it looks like we might have lost everything. It wasn’t as though it wasn’t busy, it was and not just on weekends. I think that probably tells you just how difficult it is to make a village pub work.

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“Stuart did come to see us a few weeks earlier to say he was struggling. He also ran an air-conditioning business and I think he was finding it hard to juggle both. It is desperately sad, but to make a living from a village pub has become very difficult.”

Just a five minute walk down the road from the Rose and Crown is another now redundant pub. The Blackwell Ox closed last year and is set to be converted into homes. While the Rose and Crown, which sits in the centre of the village’s conservation area, may be protected from the same fate, there are no guarantees. If it does, it will change the character of the place forever.

“People say that community spirit is dead,” adds Willie. “Well, it isn’t here. We have a thriving branch of the Yorkshire Countrywomen’s Association, every year we host open garden events and we even have film club that meets once a month. Of course that doesn’t all disappear overnight with the loss of a pub, but it would have a huge impact.”

Nowhere is that community spirit more in evidence than on the village website. As well as asking people to be on the lookout for a lost guinea pig, a questionnaire has also been posted to try to gauge not only who used the pub, but what the village really wants from its local.

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“Yes, we still have the village hall that we can meet and use for social events, but it’s not the same is it?” says David Brown, who moved to Sutton-on-the-Forest seven years ago. By day he is a chartered surveyor, but in his spare-time he is also now spearheading the fight to save the Rose and Crown. “The pub was more than somewhere people went for a pint to. It sounds a bit of a cliché, but it really was the heart of the village.”

Flyers have now been designed, printed and posted through letterboxes and an initial public meeting attracted in excess of 80 villagers. The hope is to take it under community ownership. It’s a model which has worked successfully for village shops, including ones in neighbouring Stillington and Huby, but David admits that a co-oeprative approach to the pub trade is not so simple.

“With a pub you can’t run it just with volunteers, plus the amount of money we would need to raise is substantial. We have to be absolutely sure that we can make this work. There are two options, either we lease it from the owners or we buy it outright. My preferred option would be to buy it outright so we had absolute control over the future, but that’s something which will be up for discussion.”

David has already talked to a colleague in the hospitality industry who says the pub could thrive again in the right hands and with the right offering and the Plunkett Foundation is now supporting the villagers through the process of taking on the pub.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Foundation, which was set up in 1918 to support the co-operative movement in the UK, has seen an increase in enquiries from those like David.

“We are actively working with 97 pub groups nationally and in the past six months we’ve had more than 200 enquiries from communities looking at ways of saving their pub as a community, 16 of which were from Yorkshire,” says the organisation’s Katharine Darling. “There has been an overall increase from last year and while it is does take a lot of commitment to take over a pub, it is possible and there are four co-operative pubs already trading in Yorkshire.”

The rate at which British pubs are closing down has accelerated to 31 a week and many rural areas have been hit hard.

“For most villages a pub is a vital service; it is a meeting place, communication centre and an important lynchpin of village life,” says David. “Much of the appeal of our village rests on its sense of community. It is the reason many people have moved here and remain here and the pub is part of that. If we decide to go ahead then we basically have six months to get the co-operative up and running. It would mean organising an initial share issue and even at this stage there has been a fair amount of interest in what we are trying to do.

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“People do have an emotional attachment to the Rose and Crown and if we can see it re-open it would really mean so much to so many people.”

The villagers are still quietly optimistic that a solution can be found and a second public meeting, where there will be a presentation about the Plunkett Foundation will be held this Friday at the village hall.

Many of those that attend will have to walk past the Rose and Crown and the chalkboard on which someone has written, ‘Pub, Dining Room, Garden- These are the good old days’. Like many residents of Yorkshire’s villages, tradition is important and at Sutton-on-the-Forest they aren’t about to let centuries of history go without a fight.