Hi-BEER-nation! Why can’t country pubs survive the winter?

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VILLAGE PUBS ARE A DYING BREED in the Borders. This week two more once-loved hostelries have succumbed to a premature wintry blast. . .

The Fisherman’s Arms in Birgham on the Scottish side of the Tweed just beyond Coldstream has closed its doors; and not for the first time since it was ‘rescued’ and revamped by a consortium of village investors in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Black Bull at Etal – a village on the River Tweed’s English tributary the Till – has gone into a winter retreat. Call it hi-BEER-nation, if you like.

Refurbished and reopened only six months ago after being closed for two years, the Bull has now closed its kitchen and will serve only drinks during strictly reduced hours from Wednesday to Saturday (noon to 3pm and 6pm to 10pm) and on Sundays between noon and 6pm.

Circumstances in both cases have come to a head very suddenly. Only a week ago the Black Bull’s website set out far more optimistic winter hours, serving drink AND food “from November 5th” with the kitchen closed on Mondays and a full lunch and dinner service the rest of the week.

In fact, the website made a special November offer: “Come along and enjoy a beautifully prepared flat iron steak, by Carl our chef, and a bottle of red wine for 2 people for £20.”

At the same time, rumour had it that the Bull was planning to close on November 7th. One disgruntled visitor said: “I have seen more lively cemeteries than the Black Bull at Etal.” Another occasional customer emailed to say: “The whole concept is way off the mark. Mourinho will last longer at Man U than that pub will survive. I am sorry for Ian, the manager, who seems a nice man.”

So The Clarion decided to investigate, resulting in this perplexing exchange to and from a website email address assumed to be that of the manager:

I have been told that the Black Bull is expected to cease trading this weekend and that staff have been told there is no more work.

Can you confirm? Is there something the management could/should say? – DAVID BANKS, The Clarion

This is not totally  correct we have finished the  part time staff reducing opening hours as it is winter time! – Anon.

Thanks for getting back to me, I’ve certainly no wish to publish a misleading story, could you expand a little?

How many staff have been let go? What are the new winter hours?

I’m happy to afford you opportunity to make a rebuttal of the ‘rumours’.

Hi we have finished  4 staff which were on hourly contracts as we were over staffed for the for this time of year 4 full time staff are currently still unemployed [I assume they meant ‘employed’]. It’s sad a local paper would print gossip!! And ruin a local amenity’s future

Iain [Dickson, the manager], The Clarion has no intention of publishing “gossip”, as you suggest. That is the purpose of my emails: to check with you before I publish anything. What will be your hours/days of opening?

Hi Dave, this is not Ian but one of the directors. Unfortunately I can’t at this point give you opening hours

Sorry, I assumed Iain. Is he still with the firm.? And can I know who I’m emailing? I originally used this address to contact Michael [Pickard, original director of the company which took the tenancy with Ford&Etal Estate, which owns the Bull] before his sad death. The only other director I’m aware of is his son-in-law. Is that you? I will hold off publishing if you can assure me that you will come back to me ASAP with trading details. I am sure this is a difficult time and I have no wish to cause you harm.

There are still 2 directors of the company, one who is his daughter  and Ian is still with the  company and you will have to ask him for the hours of opening.  We also object to the threatening manor[sic] in your last email!!

In what possible way can my last email be read as “threatening”? Would you prefer that I simply immediately publish what I currently know? Who are “we”?

We are the directors and that is all you need to know. 

Understood. In which case I will quote you as “a director who refused to be named”.

In that case you can’t have any simply[sic] with our circumstances.

Did you mean to write “sympathy”? In which case, of course I do.

The Black Bull had, in fairness, got off to a poor start, despite its thatched roof, quaint village location and a wonderful summer for the tourist trade. Michael Pickard, founder of the company which holds the tenancy, died shortly after the opening which had itself been delayed by the refurbishment.

Then, at the end of October, the Heatherslaw Light Railway’s season of popular hourly (half-hourly on busy days) train service drew to a close, depriving the pub of a regular stream of hungry and thirsty tourists disembarking.

Villagers whop moaned for years that they needed the village pub back now wait to see what will happen; the F&E Estate are at least sympathetic to their ‘white elephant’ that the Black Bull has become. Guy Sampson of Savills, who manages Lord Joicey’s estate, said: “It is certainly fair to say that the tragic and sudden death of Michael Pickard at the beginning of the season will have presented an unwelcome challenge to the business this season, however I think it would be hasty to draw too many conclusions at this stage.”

The Fisherman’s: Any reader up for the tenancy?

The late Michael Pickard, coincidentally, provided a link between the two struggling pubs: he was also a director of The Fisherman’s Arms (Birgham) Ltd., the consortium which owns that building.

The first, unexpected, announcement of The Fisherman’s demise came in a Bonfire Night Facebook message to regulars from the tenants which simply said: “Thank you all so much for the support you have given us over the last 18 months. We have really enjoyed our time at the Fisherman’s Arms.” – Scott, Lyndsey and family.

Three days later, the website announced: “Regrettably the pub is currently closed. Available for lease – any enquiries, please contact 07890 747505.”

Fiona Livingstone, a director of the Birgham consortium, said: “It is very sad. We hoped that the tenants could carry on but they decided they couldn’t.

“Hopefully someone reading this will be interested and get in touch. . . it really is a lovely village pub.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. The news about the Black Bull comes as no surprise. I went there with my wife on a beautiful sunny day in late June shortly after it reopened with the idea of reviewing it for the local and national media. We sat outside – me with my very average half-pint and she with a tepid coffee which came from a machine at the back of the pub (and took an age to be served). There were far more customers in the Lavender Tearooms opposite than inside and outside the poor pub – and significantly, they looked and sounded far happier than my diminishing handful of drinking companions.
    The card machine hadn’t been connected, the bar was taking cash only, and the kitchen was waiting for vital parts, which I found out had been the situation for some time, so no food.
    I’m well aware of pub refurbishment problems and God knows the Black Bull needed a refresher but the obviously expensive beige makeover and dreadful lighting has given it all the charm of an NHS walk-in centre and the ambience of a CIU club concert room on the night when there’s no turn on. The porch is all wrong, the hanging baskets were choking for a drink (although I’m willing to concede they might belong to the hall next door), the grass at the rear beer garden was long and untidy, and a stack of unwanted furniture had obviously been dumped there for some time.
    None of this said ‘welcome to our new pub’ (although my wife told me the toilets were magnificent).
    The exterior is totally bland. Whoever has advised on the makeover has not got a clue about pubs and where they sit in a community. The whole design appears to have come out of a catalogue. And this is where I lay the blame entirely.
    There is nothing inside or out that’s site-specific, namely references to local landmarks such as Etal Castle, or the wonderful surrounding landscape that has experienced hundreds of years of bloody warfare, save an A4 notice saying something anodyne about the pub and its thatched roof (which now sadly looks artificial). We could have been sitting in Surrey.
    The staff were very helpful, however, and I felt a bit sorry for them, particularly when the young lady offered to show me the function room, kitted out for corporate events. Yes, that’s the first thing I really want to hear when I walk into a pub: “We can seat 32 for meetings”. She clearly had to follow some sort of script.
    Needless to say, I ditched the idea of a review but I’m pleased its entirely self-inflicted plight has been brought to my attention and for the opportunity to get this off my chest. I thought it might have just been me and my picky nature.

  2. Pubs should be the heart and soul of any community; however they cannot rely on trade coming to them, they have to take positive steps to attract it, and, when they have enticed folk in, offer a welcoming atmosphere and value for money. These muted / minimalist colour schemes may work for fashionistas, but you don’t come to rural Northumberland for that kind of atmosphere. Unfortunately there are still too many poorly managed pubs throughout the country. Trade may be lighter at this time of year but with the right offer the silver, mobile pound can be enticed in

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