In one village after another across the country, pubs are closing, as many as 25 a week by some counts, and this is accepted with English fatalism. But the people of South Stoke, near Bath, chose not to accept the loss of the Packhorse mutely; the locals decided to save their local. And in the process they may have demonstrated that ‘community’ and indeed ‘local’ or localism are not merely empty rhetoric.
Part of the charm of Bath is its setting, lying in a valley ringed by hills, a town surrounded by villages. Some of them, Widcombe or Weston, have been absorbed into the town, like those former villages called Hampstead and Clapham, but just to the south of Bath are true villages, Monkton Combe, Combe Hay, Wellow — and South Stoke, still separated from the city by open country, was praised by the great Pevsner as a rare example of a real village almost within walking distance of a mainline station.
Much of the farmland between Bath and South Stoke, despite its being an area of outstanding natural beauty and an English Heritage site, has been marked down for a new estate with hundreds of houses. This is also happening across the country, under relentless pressure from the government, or the building lobby (if they can be distinguished), but that’s another story.
The Packhorse is — or was and may be again — a handsome inn, a Grade II–listed 15th-century building which had been serving pints for generations before it was closed four years ago. Gradually the people of the village organised their campaign. They fought a skilful battle against corporate interests and property developers. And they invoked two of the better legacies of the coalition government.
Under the 2011 Localism Act, the Packhorse was declared an asset of community value, the first time this had been done by Bath and North-East Somerset Council (known as ‘Banes’, and sometimes the bane of one’s life, but on this occasion on the side of the angels). Then the Pack Horse South Stoke Ltd was registered as a society under the 2014 Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act, selling £500 shares. More than 1,600 pubs are now protected under the 2011 Act, according to the Campaign for Real Ale, and several dozen are being kept open by local co-operatives.
The rural life described by George Eliot or Hardy has been transformed beyond hope of recovery. You can tell what has happened to the English village by the addresses where the literary, professional, financial and media classes live. In South Stoke we have the Old Vicarage, the Old Post Office, the Old Brew House and the Old School House, but in my address book are also, from Dorset to Durham, the Old Mill, the Old Rectory, the Old Police House, the Old Station, the Old Coach House, the Old Shop, the Old Chapel.
When I said to my wife that there was no Old Pub but that was a matter of time, she corrected me. Half an hour away in Wiltshire is a little hamlet where friends — a prosperous City solicitor and his family — spend their weekends and holidays in a cottage very ornée called the Old Bell. Not so long ago it was the solitary inn in that hamlet, whose thirsty rustic denizens now have a long trudge to the next village for a pint. And it might so easily have been the Old Packhorse as well.
Just how the Packhorse was closed by Punch Taverns, who owned it, seemed a murky business, as did the subsequent transfer of the property through several hands. As to why, there’s a sorry contrast between those disappearing village pubs and the burgeoning megabars in our towns, including Bath, where young people swill all evening before they erupt on to the streets noisily and messily. Village pubs were hit by the smoking ban (not that I regret it) and by the campaign against drink-driving — or just-drinking.
A deeper truth may be that the big chains that own so many village pubs have shown no very lively enthusiasm for keeping them open. When village pubs do survive, they are usually owner-occupied free houses, like the Wheatsheaf at Combe Hay, which has become a successful restaurant with a pub attached. Or like the Fox and-Badger at Wellow, which serves good food but is still more inn than gastropub, and which is the example the Packhorse brigade have in mind. (My familiarity with all these hostelries, I should like to emphasise, comes from pausing for refreshment while healthily walking the whippets.)
One of the resistance group is a farmer, although Bob Honey is an unusual one. He spent much of his life building up his business in pre-stressed concrete, while he returned at weekends to the farm in Cam Brook valley where he had grown up. Eight years ago he sold the business and came home to work the farm and grow apples for Honey & Daughter cider, served in other local pubs.
Maybe more characteristic of the modern village are Dom and Roz Moorhouse, who moved here a few years ago with their children. He is a Royal Marines officer who turned to management consultancy, she is an art teacher. Roz painted the large hoarding which stands at the crossroads, a thermo-meter representing funds raised, with the red paint creeping up week by week toward the target. Among others I could mention are Trevor John, chairman of that management committee, with Bob as treasurer and Steve Gourley as secretary, and Michael Devenish, a former chairman of the parish council. They have all been joining the party every Wednesday evening to hack away and clear the pub garden, which had reverted to jungle.
There is an amusing or ironical side to this story. If the villagers were ploughmen and shepherds and the other yokels lovingly portrayed in the kind of nostalgic reminiscences of country life which infest the bookshops, they might not have known how to go about saving the pub. Because South Stoke is a modern village, our little platoon included a barrister, who knew friendly accountants, and others who were ready to help with advice at ‘mate’s rates’. There is also a campaign website, at southstoke.net.
On Saturday evening, we gather outside the pub and then in the village hall. The deadline for meeting the target is getting closer, but then the red paint on Roz’s thermo-meter is rising nearer the crucial point, with £448,850 already raised from over 134 investors, and just £76,150 still needed. Although I’m rather averse to feelgood movies with happy endings, if before long I sit once again outside the Packhorse with pint in hand, it might actually feel pretty good.