Have you heard the one about the doctor, surgeon, scientist, restaurateur, civil engineer, patent lawyer and supermarket product buyer who went into a pub? Neither had I.
So I went to the Star, a 16th-century pub in the village of Lidgate in Suffolk, to find out the punchline. The Lidgate Star once shone brightly. The menu went Catalan and profits were catapulted skywards. Acclaim from a national newspaper and even local papers in Washington DC brought in the tourists. Wealthy punters came from nearby Newmarket on race days. But the locals didn't feel entirely welcome.
Nowadays, the Star has all but lost its way. After 18 years, the proprietors have returned to Spain to focus on business there. Determined not to let it fade away, three of the regulars got together with Steve Cook, the Star's manager of just six months, to take the pub into their own hands. Soon they were joined by three more locals.
They believe that their wide-ranging business experience will turn the pub around. They are all bursting with ideas and have each stumped up an equal stake of money with which to buy the freehold from Greene King.
But local GP Anthony Gunstone says: "We want the whole village to buy into it. First the staff, then the people of the village will be able to buy a share in the pub, and drink and eat their dividend higher."
Lidgate has 103 houses but the village hall is seldom used. The church can only draw seven people. The post office and village store have closed, so 10 people take turns to fetch the Sunday papers. This is just one small seed of community spirit that they want to bring into the pub and grow.
Not everyone in Lidgate has the spare capital to sink into reviving their ailing local, but the group say they do have the full support of the community. There is a real fear of Lidgate becoming a "ghost village".
Civil engineer John Henry says: "Without this pub, the village will suffer." My guess is that house prices would suffer, and I suspect that thought alone spreads fear.
"This is not an investment opportunity," scientist Matt Baker argues. "This is a community project. It has to work." To this altruistic end, the profits will be ploughed back into the project. Prices have already been cut by about a third to boost attendance.
"The writing is on the wall for leasehold pubs," says Baker. In neighbouring Wickhambrook, Greene King has put the last remaining pub in the village up for sale. Many moons ago, Wickhambrook had at least 10 pubs, at a time when pubs offered the whole community welcome respite from hard rural life.
But what of the villages that don't have wealthy, community-spirited consortiums to rescue their pub? There are grants available, but onerous paperwork can deter many. Perhaps the pub "model" itself has had its time? Television, supermarkets, the internet and the smoking ban are all blamed for contributing to the demise of pubs, but don't people choose to meet in different places and in different ways?
In the smaller Suffolk village where I live we have no pub, though there is a monthly tea where we can go and chuck the brew back like there's no tomorrow. I suppose it is more "family-friendly", though. Our nearest pub is two miles away. It would be great to have somewhere nearer to meet old and new friends alike, on neutral ground, on any night of the week.
A more DIY approach may work, with home-brew and some ingenuity, avoiding red tape and providing a public meeting place that is "custom-built" for the community it serves, rather than just providing an income for a few and swelling a brewery's coffers. And maybe offering cheaper beer and a stake in the place? It's no punchline but it could make for a happy ending and be part of a blueprint that could save our pubs.
- This article originally appeared in The Guardian and is reprinted with permission.
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