When the Queen’s Arms at Litton closed earlier this year, most thought it would never reopen. Amanda Wragg is given a lesson in how to save a rural pub
Bowling along rolling lanes through the Dales on a perfect summer’s morning, a bucolic, quintessentially Yorkshire scene unfolds.
The countryside is dotted with farms, bright white newly-shorn sheep graze, and the prospect of a good pub lunch is on the horizon. But up until a couple of months ago, if you happened to be heading for Litton, you’d have gone hungry.
The Queens Arms has been feeding and watering locals and visitors alike since the 17th-century, but after a decline in its fortunes over recent years the somewhat dog-eared, battered old boozer finally called last orders in February. It’s a shocking fact that almost 10,000 pubs have closed in Britain in the last 10 years. It’s no comfort that the rate of closures has fallen from nearly 200 a month in 2008/9 to around 50 a month in 2012. Perhaps the most devastating effect of a pub permanently closing its doors is felt in rural communities, where four pubs close every week. Today, half of Britain’s villages don’t have a pub and many of those that remain are struggling to survive.
But deep in Littondale they’re bucking the trend.
Local couple Mark and Heather Hancock stepped up to the plate and bought the Queens in May and refurbishment began soon afterwards. They’ve lived in Littondale for the last 16 years, and as chair of Skipton-based company Rural Solutions (“regenerating property is what I do”) Mark is a passionate advocate of Prince Charles’s “pub is the hub” concept.
“Once such an integral part of village life ends, the heart can go out of a community” says Mark. “And once it stops, it’s hard to bring it back to life. If we can’t provide jobs for the youngsters, we’ll lose them too.”
But surely, buying a crumbling building in a remote corner of the Dales in the current economic climate must be a risky move?
“Rural employment is very important, and when you lose a pub, the community stops firing on all cylinders. Our real drive is to bring it back to life so the village can thrive. The Queen’s has always been a good local employer.”
Driving through neighbouring Arncliffe I’d noticed a “For Sale” board in the playground of the junior school. “It closed last July after 135 years, so it’s even more important that we find jobs for people, and a reason for them to stay here” says Mark. “Otherwise the village will become dormant again.”
Littondale comprises three settlements; Arncliffe, Litton and Halton Gill, with historic Yeoman’s houses dating from the 17th-century scattered throughout the dale.
Litton itself (population around 250) is an achingly pretty place so it’s hard to conjure up its notoriety in the 18th-century as a cock fighting and badger baiting Mecca. More gentle pursuits are in evidence today; ponies trot past the pub followed by a couple of fat spaniels and rather endearingly, cats.
The face-lifted, newly whitewashed exterior gleams in the sun. Judiciously, the inside hasn’t been ripped out, they’ve just peeled away the layers and kept all the good bits (stone flags, beams, open fires, dart board) but a lick of paint and a great deal of tidying up had transformed a grubby old boozer into a cosy, welcoming space.
Deftly pulling pints in the re-booted Littondale bar, manager Emily Cowan looks like the cat that got the cream. She’s just landed the job she’s always wanted. “Always” is a bit of a stretch, since she’s only 20, but as it was soon to become clear, that’s one wise old head on a pair of young shoulders.
“I worked here when I was 13, pot-washing and waitressing – if anyone had told me then that in seven years time I’d be running the place I’d have laughed in their face,” she says, making a perfect top on a pint of Goose Eye Chinook. “I brought my little sister here for her interview to work in the kitchen and I think I must have impressed them because they asked me if I was interested in applying for the manager’s job.”
Owner Mark Hancock is as good as his word and has recruited locally. “We’ve brought a young team together and we’re all very excited about it. They’re not the most experienced bunch, but they’re all enthusiastic – and the best part is, they were all born in the village. And between you and me, I think Emily is a bit of a star.”
But is it too much responsibility for someone of such tender years? Emily is the licensee as well as manager but she bats away any concerns.
“I’ve always been 50 inside and just seem to be able to take things in my stride, but I couldn’t do it without the team behind me. I know Mark’s taken a big risk with me but I don’t want to let him down so I’m determined to make it work.
“My background is in hospitality; my family have had pubs, I’ve always worked in bars and cafés in and around Settle – it’s always been a massive part of my life, and I absolutely thrive on it. This pub is so close to my heart; my parents met here and I’ve lived in this village all my life.”
Veteran chef Chris Monkman (ex-Pool Court, the Fleece in Addingham and The Grove) is buzzing about in the scrubbed-up kitchen (which must have one of the best views of any pub in the country) and overseeing the menu until a full-time chef is found; he’s enjoying a different challenge after years of running his own fine-dining restaurants throughout Yorkshire down the last 30 years.
“Mark approached me to run The Courtyard (a contemporary complex of bistro, shops and local producers in Settle, and Hancock’s mothership) and then the chance to get stuck in here came up, and I’m loving it.
“Food-wise, the aim is to design a simple menu delivering good pub grub, hearty sandwiches and classic dishes using local ingredients where possible – we’re working with local farmers and producers.”
With immaculate timing, a woman walks in with a tray of fabulous-looking home made puddings. A broad grin creases Chris’s face “Joanne’s carrot and ginger pud is a winner. And no air miles!”
Monkman is a man clearly relishing the role. Like everyone else he can’t seem to stop smiling. But he’s got other fish to fry so heads off back to his kitchen, saying over his shoulder “I heard one of the locals the other day saying they’d got their pub back – that’s the best incentive there is to get this place back on its feet.”
Local B&B owner Bryan Morgan takes up what appears to be his customary position at the bar, pint in hand. He’s another satisfied customer in more ways than the obvious.
“Now we’ve got a proper pub I’m more than happy to send my guests here – it’s great that they can just walk across the road and get a warm welcome and a good plate of food.”
Bryan’s been running his business in Litton for the last 15 years and the last 12 months have been the quietest they’ve ever known it. He puts it down to the recession, but is optimistic about how the re-vamped pub might have an impact not just on the B&B but on the wider community.
“We’ve taken a big hit in the last year, but we’re hoping that if the pub’s reputation grows, people will come and stay with us.
“It can only be a good thing for tourism in the Dales generally.”
A separate bar/dining room is earmarked for use by local groups who are being encouraged to hold meetings there. Plans are underfoot for a micro-brewery in the autumn (they’re going to call it Litton Ale. Nice) and four comfy letting bedrooms are almost ready. The local darts team is polishing their arrows in readiness for the league to spark up again. The sense of renewal is palpable.
Meanwhile Emily is multi-tasking, moving seamlessly from bar to kitchen, chatting to the drayman, overseeing the workmen laying a new floor upstairs, at the same time running off today’s lunch menu.
“Getting this job’s kept me here, and that’s what I wanted. It’s a family affair; my cousins live across the road, my sister works here and I rope my dad in to move beer barrels around from time to time. I went to school with every single person in the building. I want to stay here as long they’ll have me and it’s working, there’s so much to build on. And it means I get to stay in the Dales, where I belong.’”
Littondalers can breathe a collective sigh of relief. They’ve got their pub back. It certainly feels like a hub, and if Emily’s got anything to do with it, it’s here to stay.