Friday, 6 April 2018

The Village That Rescued Its Pub

Peter Frost writes:

We spent Easter with friends in Suffolk. For Sunday lunch I had one of the best meals ever in their village pub the Cross Keys. Marrow bones for starters, then two beefs from different joints cooked to rare perfection, served with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, cauliflower, kale, mangetout, red cabbage, various root vegetables and the best rich sweet gravy I’ve had for a long, long time.

All washed down with a pint or two of local brew. Rather than a pudding I returned to a very ancient, if forgotten, custom and chose a savoury final course. I caught up with my fellow diners who had opted for the cream of lobster soup for their starter. It made the perfect end to a wonderful meal.

So why am I making your mouths water with this description of my pub Sunday lunch? Well, because less than a month before the pub where I was eating had been closed and boarded up. It was in danger of becoming just one of thousands of British pubs being lost forever.

The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) released figures a year or so ago that showed 29 traditional British pubs were being lost every week across Britain. Pubs were being demolished or converted to other uses often without planning permission. 

Our Easter break was in the village of Redgrave on the Suffolk/Norfolk border six miles from Diss. The pretty village has a population of a little under 500. Of the 220 homes in the village, 50 are listed and many thatched. The attractive village green known as the Knoll has a pond with a fine, if noisy, population of wild ducks that don’t seem at all discombobulated by the biggest village business.

For Redgrave, long a centre for duck breeding, is home to the one of the biggest exotic poultry-processing factories in Europe. Gressingham Foods are most famous for Gressingham Ducks, a cross between wild mallard and Pekin duck.

The Redgrave plant produces both whole birds and ready-to-cook portions of these and other ducks, geese, guinea fowl and quail. Each Christmas up to 90,000 geese — almost half the British market — and countless turkeys are despatched from Redgrave to supermarkets and specialist suppliers all over the country. 

On the edge of the village is Redgrave and Lopham Fen, the largest area of river fen in England. It is home to the very rare Raft Spider (Dolomedes plantarius), featured on the village sign. The Fen is where two important rivers of East Anglia rise, the Waveney and the Little Ouse. The Little Ouse Headwaters Project is doing fine work opening up the river valleys for both people and wildlife. Redgrave, I discovered, is a village simply bristling with community spirit and practical community actions.

Just across from the village pond you will find the tiny, but inspiring, village shop. When the last shop in the village closed in 2003, locals decided to try to reopen it as a community shop. It took four years but the tiny but packed shop opened again in 2007. 

Today it opens every day of the week for newspapers, milk, fresh bread, meat, eggs and some locally baked goodies. All produce comes from local farms or suppliers. A keen team of more than 30 volunteers staff the shop and allow villagers to pop in for papers, provisions and perhaps to keep up with the latest village news, or do I mean gossip? 

Across the road, beside the village green, is the 400-year-old grade II listed local pub where we had our remarkable lunch. Today the Cross Keys pub, like the village shop, is owned and run by the villagers. 

The pub reopened just in time for my Easter visit. It took months of negotiations and work behind the scenes after the owners threatened that, if the village did not buy the pub, they would not put it on the open market but would instead close it and board it up. Their real plan was to build holiday chalets in the pub grounds.

Cleverly, the villagers had previously registered the pub as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) so the sale announcement triggered a six-week period in which a community group could indicate its intention to buy the pub, followed by a six-month moratorium on any sale. 

Villagers, with the experience of the shop to go on, formed the Redgrave Community Society with the aim of taking on the pub and, in October last year, they declared they would buy the pub.

To raise the money many villagers, along with pub enthusiasts from much further afield, bought shares in the pub. Shares which, like those of the Peoples Press Printing Society that owns the Morning Star only offer one vote however large the shareholding. 

Nearly a hundred villagers invested between £50 and several thousand pounds each to keep their pub alive. In total with share sales, fundraisers, grants and loans they raised the £300,000 asking price — a remarkable achievement for a village of less than 500 souls.

Fundraising events included among many concerts, quiz nights, auctions and a very popular big breakfast. One of the most imaginative events took place at Redgrave’s own Star Wing microbrewery. 

In 2017 the brewery planted its own hop garden and last September villagers gathered to pick the hops and enjoy a hog roast. Star Wing beer is on sale at the Cross Keys and also used in the pub’s exquisite fish and chips batter.

To run the pub the village has employed a keen young but experienced couple. Georgina (call me George) Earland is general manager running the bar and front of house in the restaurant.

Naomi Miller-Howard wields her undoubted magic as the chef. Naomi is determined to use only local and seasonal produce in the pub’s kitchen. The couple are also keen to keep prices reasonable and, when an amazing cream of lobster soup costs less than four quid, they seem to be on the right track. 

Real ale too comes from local brewers St Peter’s, Adnams and the village’s very own Star Wing. Just as with the shop there has been no shortage of village volunteers to refurbish the pub and help with waiting tables and bar work. 

The only problem is it is really hard to get a table at the Cross Keys. Delighted locals are flocking to the newly reopened pub. It is full every lunchtime and evening. It seems this community initiative to keep the pub open is already a huge success and I think we should all drink to that.

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