Monday, 30 January 2017

Do small rural pubs have a future?

The lack of a car park doesn't help

At the risk of sounding boring and focused solely on a single topic, I want to mention the Greyhound again. I am doing this partly because I promised to reveal more about some issues which might prevent the pub from ever reopening, but also because some of these points could equally apply to other threatened rural pubs. I walked passed the now sadly closed pub this lunchtime. It hasn’t been boarded up yet, but I suspect it will only be a matter of time before this happens.

So what future, if any, is there for the Greyhound? Well, as mentioned in a previous article, a group of concerned local residents have applied to have the pub listed as an ACV (Asset of Community Value). The result of this application should be known by the third week of February, but having ACV listing provides no firm guarantees that the building will continue as a pub; it just makes it a little harder for a potential purchaser to succeed in obtaining permission for “change of use”.

A garden definitely helps
There are a couple of factors which I know have already persuaded two potential investors, to not go through with buying the pub as a going concern. The first is that, somewhat unusually for a rural pub, the Greyhound does not have a garden. 

There is a strip of land to the left of the pub, which is used as a beer garden, but it actually belongs to the property behind, and is currently leased to the pub. Whether this arrangement would continue, if the pub was to acquire new owners, is uncertain, and there are no guarantees that it will.

The second and rather more serious concern is the pub has no car-park. It is possible to park on the road, either side of the pub, and even opposite, whilst still leaving room for cars to pass, but the number of spaces is limited, and too many cars parking along the lane could lead to complaints from local residents. This is a serious handicap for a country pub which relies on people arriving by car, for the bulk of its trade.

Of course, both factors could also weigh against conversion to a private dwelling, as most people who move to the country, desire a garden of some sorts; and most would also want off-road parking. The alternative would be to convert the pub into two separate dwellings, but even then both a garden and off-road parking are desirable features; if not essential.

Whatever the effect of the lack of these amenities, there is no future for the pub as a “wet-sales” only establishment. I know roughly what Larkin’s were taking each week, and I suspect that it barely covered the rent. It is therefore essential that a re-opened Greyhound offers food. The pub was doing this before it closed last summer, and often when I walked by on my lunchtime constitutional, I could see people inside getting tucked to a meal. I can’t, of course, advise as to how busy the pub was in the evening, but I think it must have been ticking over ok.

At the moment then, it remains very much a case of “wait and see”, but the fact that Larkin’s had been asked to terminate their temporary lease, does indicate that someone has made a firm offer for the Greyhound.

So does a good beer range - providing the turnover is there!
The thing which emerges from all this is that rural pubs, of the type I remember drinking in whilst coming of age, have virtually disappeared. Larkin’s valiant attempt to prove otherwise, during their brief tenancy of the Greyhound, unfortunately failed. More than ever, country pubs need to offer food, and good food at that; food which people are prepared to travel for, in order to enjoy. 

Some rural pubs also manage to stock a good range of local, and sometimes hard to get beers, on top of their food offer. Such places become “destination pubs”; places which discerning drinkers (and diners) are prepared to seek out and make the effort to travel to. The Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald is one such pub which springs to mind, but there are quite a few others, not just in this region, but all over the county. 

Local beer enthusiasts soon get to know these places, and actively seek them out, so the future is definitely not all bad for rural pubs. Some of them just need to up their game a bit.


Curmudgeon said...

Presumably originally this pub would have mainly catered for village residents, and so wouldn't need a garden or car park - but people nowadays are much less likely to just pop down to their local for a couple of pints.

Anonymous said...

I think one subject can often give rise to a number of blog posts Paul.

You do still see residential wet-led pubs survive (e.g. the one at Ightham not far away. I wonder how many destination pubs like the Windmill can thrive though, particularly pubs most people would have to drive to (though Penshurst station close by). I don't there's enough demand to support that many specialist beer houses that get regular, rather than occasional visits.

Curmudgeon said...

There are examples of village pubs that survive on a mainly wet-led, walk-in clientele, but they need enough population within walking distance, and for the licensee to cultivate the local population over a period of time. Sadly, too many licensees seem to have a knack of alienating their regular customers.

I would guess that pubs like the Old House at Ightham aren't run on a strictly commercial basis - to some extent they're a labour of love by the owners like preserving vintage cars.

Liam K said...

Curmudgeon has a point though I do feel the number of wet led village pubs is fairly low. I do live in London but on the outskirts and have quite a few pubs I would consider rural as the only way to reach is a pleasant walk or a car ride. All these pubs are busy on Sundays as their known for their roasts. I can only guess that Sunday is their biggest takings day.

Though in your example with the Greyhound there are external factors. Firstly why did Larkins not invest in the kitchen? Was it because the terms of lease meant it could be terminated at anytime hence why throw good money at it? If this was a Larkins owned pub would the fate have been the same? And finally what were the motives of the actual pub owner?

Yes we can try to work out similarities which probably do exist, and we can't ignore, but we do need to exaime each closure on it's own basis as well, taking in facts before perhaps jumping to a conclusion.

Paul Bailey said...

In answer to your comments, Mudge and Martin, you are correct about the Greyhound having no need for a car park, as it dates back to the late 19th Century. I’m not sure about the garden though; are pub gardens a fairly recent innovation?

The pub would certainly have catered mainly for local residents; although ironically with the addition of modern properties, a few decades ago, there are now more houses in Charcott than there would have been 100 or so years ago.

Today, the pub can, quite easily be reached by public transport; although we all know people are so wedded to their cars that most wouldn’t dream of making the effort to do so.

Ironically, the Windmill - the destination pub I mentioned, doesn’t have a car park, and the public transport connections (bus), disappear completely in the evening. Again, few people would make the effort to walk there, so I do wonder how the pub manages to turn over six beers so quickly.

The Old House, at Ightham Common, is run purely as a “hobby pub”. It has been in the same family for decades, and its current owner has a full time job; which is the reason the pub only opens evenings and weekends. Definitely a real labour of love!

The point about too many licensees alienating their regular customers is a valid one, and one which is often overlooked. A bad licensee can kill a pub, just as effectively as a good one can make a success of one. There seems to be far too many members of the hospitality business who don’t like people, so why in heaven’s name are they running a pub?

Many new entrants to the licensed trade go into it with their eyes closed, oblivious of the long and often unsocial hours required to make a success of things. They end up taking their disillusionment out on customers; the very people they need to make their businesses a going concern. This is a subject worthy of a blog post. Any takers?

Liam K said...

I do agree with that post. There are either many landlords stuck in a past era where they felt anyone disagreeing with then should be barred. It's only a matter of time before you disagree with everyone on something.

Also there are in the pubcos and especially the managed pubs a career style landlord coming through. They don't do customer service but like the idea of a pub. Graduate schemes in lots of managed pubs exists to push people with no experience into the higher realms of pubs without thinking about the overall purpose. Which is a love of people,conversation, drink and business.

Paul Bailey said...

Larkin’s felt unable to invest in the kitchen Liam K, because they were on a short term lease which could be terminated at quite short notice. They have run a pub before – the Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath, but surrendered the lease because the pub required some quite substantial repairs.

I am fairly certain that had they been able to obtain a longer, and perhaps more flexible lease on the Greyhound, they would have made a real go of the place. Customers, including several locals, were starting to return to the pub and a rapport was beginning to develop between them and the temporary landlord. I noticed this happening over the four month period of Larkin’s lease.

Unfortunately owners, Enterprise Inns were determined to sell the freehold and the asking price was rather too high for a small brewery.

It’s interesting what you say about pub management schemes. It’s all well and good training people in the various aspects of pub management, but if they are lacking in people skills, they are on a hiding to nothing. The practice of moving people on to other pubs within the organisation also means there is little time for them to build up and establish a proper relationship with their customers. A long serving licensee was very much the norm when I started drinking (over 40 years ago); now it is the exception.