On the day of the Packhorse’s grand reopening exactly five years ago it snowed heavily. “Boy did it snow,” said Phil Legard, one of the hundreds of shareholders who together had raised more than a million pounds to save the beloved pub near Bath.
“By 9am the village was cut off and the first thing we had to do was organise a team of people to grab their shovels and dig so our first customers could actually get here,” said Legard. “But that is what the Packhorse is about. Community spirit, finding a way.”
The weather for this weekend’s anniversary – a fiesta of drinking, music and birthday cake eating – has been kinder and villagers have been reflecting on the value of the 400-year-old pub to the community. “We don’t have a post office or a village shop,” said Legard. “So the Packhorse is vital. The pub is the hub.”
At a time when pubs continue to close at a rate of more than 30 a month in England and Wales the story of the Packhorse – which the shareholders billed as the biggest community buyback project in British pub history – is as cheery as the blazes that burned in the fireplaces this anniversary weekend.
In 2012 the pub in South Stoke was shut and earmarked for housing but the villagers fought back. Lovers of the pub raised money to buy the building and donated knowhow and skills to restore it and turn it into a going concern.
Since the reopening its customers have got through more than 1,000 casks of real ale and cider, 16,000 bottles of wine, almost 30,000 bags of crisps, 13,600 plates of fish and chips and 14,000 Sunday roasts. During the Covid lockdowns the pub distributed vegetables and flour and organised virtual gigs.
Their annual sales total around £500,000 but the margins are tight and last financial year the pub made a pre-depreciation profit of a modest £20,000. The equipment and asset depreciation runs at just that sum – £20,000 a year.
Making money was never the point but it does need to pay its way. “The pub doesn’t need to make much profit to be sustainable but the commercial side has to work so it has a has a long-term future,” said Dom Moorhouse, one of the project leads. Asked what the future plans were the answer was simple: to keep going for another five years, then another – and so on.
The key seems to be a professional, motivated, happy staff overseen by a keen-eyed group of volunteer leaders. The Packhorse is lucky that it has talented residents with entrepreneurial expertise and the time and resources to lend a hand.
The Packhorse gets regular approaches from other villagers who see community ownership as the only model to keep a cherished pub alive. “We hope to be a reference point, an inspiration for other places,” said Moorhouse. “This is an incredible place of social connection. This village might be a moribund retirement home without it.”
Diana Cochran, whose roles includes events co-ordinator, bar worker and – away from the pub – volunteer nurse, reels off the pub’s packed diary. They hold charity coffee mornings, a book club, film night, quizzes, regular gigs, art workshops, an apple-pressing party, even a music festival, PackStock.
The pub is proud to employ about 12 local people and keen to develop their skills, putting them through courses and apprenticeships.
The assistant manager Molly Cross said she joined the team “because I wanted to become Peggy Mitchell” [the redoubtable boss of the Queen Vic in the BBC soap EastEnders] – and loved the pub. “I grew up in and around here. I remember bike rides to the Packhorse with my dad and throwing pennies in the wishing well.”
She likes the work, the fun, even the ghosts. “There are at least three or four of them. You don’t seem them but there are unexplainable happenings. The pub is lovely but it’s the people that make it so special. That’s what it’s all about in the end.”
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