This Side of the Pond – Apr. 12

By Sarah Pridgeon

The desire to preserve that which we love is a universal thing. Here in Crook County, a group of dedicated souls have worked tirelessly to transform Old Stoney into a cultural center; back in England, a community came together to save a beloved pub that had stood in the village for four centuries.

The story begins in 2012, when the Packhorse Inn, located in the county alongside my own, was put up for sale.  It had been the heart of the community for as long as anyone could remember – one lady recalled cycling there with her father at the age of ten, over 60 years ago, while another waxed lyrical about playing impromptu folk music in the lounge bar while drinking draught cider in the 1960s.

Now, I should probably pause here to note that a pub in my homeland is a slightly different animal to its sibling, the bar. While, in general, the latter is specifically intended as a place to buy a cocktail, a pub like the Packhorse is often more of a family establishment.

Sure, you can buy a beer – several, if you like – but you can usually also have a meal or snack, drink a coffee, let the kids play on the slide and roundabout in the garden area, even play board games or read the newspaper. The evening may bring a pub quiz or some live music, so you might as well stick around.

The Packhorse falling into this category, it was well loved by everyone in the village. You can imagine their dismay when the owner, Punch Taverns, announced it would be selling the premises.

Ordinarily, this would be no cause for alarm, so long as the new landlord was up to the task of providing decent grub and the right draughts on tap. But the company had apparently rejected offers from experienced landlords and sold the old gathering place to someone who wanted to turn it into an apartment and ground floor office space.

You can’t have a cider in an office and you can’t wander into someone’s apartment and demand they bring you ham and eggs. This plan went down so well that the locals gathered outside with what they called metaphorical pitchforks and birthed the “Save the Packhorse” campaign.

Because we Brits do like to ensure there is a sense of order and calm even in the case of public protests, they elected a chairperson and began to organize themselves, but it did no good. The pub was sold and closed – perhaps forever.

The campaigners called an emergency public gathering that filled the village hall to the rafters (I’m aware this is starting to sound like a period drama). That’s when the local council stepped in.

Now, I know most of us believe that a good government assists by getting out of the people’s way, but in this case it was the opposite that did the trick. The council had unearthed a community policy that said the new owner could only convert the building if he could prove it was no longer viable as a pub.

The pub was added to the council’s “Assets of Community Value” list, which required that the local community be given up to six months to put together a bid if the owner decided to sell. They got going right away, hosting a pop-up bar in the middle of the town that became an annual festival of music and cider.

The owner gave up and decided to sell in October, 2013, but negotiations with the community stalled because he was simply asking for too much money. I’ve no idea if he did that deliberately, but soon he was free to sell it to whomever he pleased. Curse that dastardly villain.

Luck was on the community’s side, though – nobody wanted to buy a pub that was all over the national news and was fast becoming a tale of good versus evil. The dastardly villain made a last ditch attempt to submit a planning application for those unwanted offices and the council was bombarded with objections.

He withdrew the application, no doubt heaving a heavy sigh, and negotiations began again, this time in the hands of a newcomer to the village who spent months patiently building a relationship. He was successful – the owner finally realized how genuine the community’s passion was and agreed to sell the pub for a tenable price. The group had three months to come up with half a million pounds – and, remarkably, they did.

The pub had come back to the people, and all that was needed now was a feather duster around the place. Well, seeing as it turned out to be far more tumbledown than anyone had realized and badly in need of expert repair, 1000 hours of community toil and sweat just to clear the grounds of weeds and re-landscape and a lot more money and volunteer work to get it ready for opening.

All in all, the team raised over £1 million from 430 shareholders and, owned now by the community, the Packhorse Inn swung open its doors again last month, precisely 400 years after its first days as an ale house. It just goes to show, if you think about it: to meet impossible goals, sometimes all you need are improbable expectations.