In these days of austerity for the country pub industry, with tales of closures coming hard and fast, it’s heartening to hear of a success story. A model, perhaps, of what makes a country pub succeed where others have failed.
That’s not to say that it’s all been plain sailing for the Royal Oak in Ecchinswell. No, indeed, the pub had seen some very choppy waters before Chris and Laura Webb took over at the helm three years ago after a succession of landlords had tried and failed to mend its fortunes, including even the locals at one stage, who had tried to keep it afloat as a community pub.
That didn’t work either, but at least it showed the commitment of people in this tiny village (population 700) to keeping alive their only remaining facility. It is also no doubt why the couple were welcomed with such open arms. The gifts they received from regulars on their first Christmas there brought tears to their eyes, said Laura. Now, they are firmly rooted in the community themselves with a child at school in Burghclere and very much involved with many local events, such as the village’s annual May fair, which last year attracted some 1,200 people.
“Well, we were lucky with the weather,” says Chris modestly. But that would belie the hard work the couple have put into making The Royal Oak as solid an enterprise as its name would suggest. They start planning for the fair in January, for instance, while the famous rum shack in the garden (built in memory of one Caribbean-loving local) has been fitted with proper bar facilities for just such occasions.
But all this means that Chris, who does the cooking, and Laura who is front of house, are working flat out seven days a week. “We haven’t had a holiday since we arrived” says Laura. “We never expected this level of trade,” adds Chris. “But obviously we’re not complaining”.
No indeed, both Laura and Chris, who trained as an aeronautical engineer but learned the pub trade at the knee of his father, who runs a hostelry in Southampton, are delighted by their success, even though they thought they were coming to “a quiet village pub. It’s definitely been anything but quiet,” says Chris.
I can vouch for that. When I first reviewed The Royal Oak one Saturday night shortly after the couple had arrived, it was, it has to be said, rather hushed. This time round it was an altogether buzzier, busier place, with plenty of drinkers toasting their toes by the roaring fire in the bar in the front room, while members of the West Berkshire Ramblers rested theirs (muddy boots encased in plastic) in the dining room as they took a lunch break during one of their 10-mile hikes.
“We do get lots of parties in,” says Chris, from the grouse shooters on Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s nearby Sydmonton estate (“his wife also pops in from time to time), to family gatherings. “It’s a very mixed bunch,” he adds, “everyone from hedge fund managers to dog walkers”. There was evidence of this all round as children, who each get an activity bag, chattered happily in some quarters while quiet conversations were taking place in others the afternoon we ate our Sunday lunch.
This comprised of a starter of mussels in wine and garlic for both of us, breaking a rule that we choose different dishes but it’s such a favourite neither of us was willing to make the sacrifice... and we were happy we hadn’t when two steaming bowls of big fat molluscs arrived with butter and half-a-baton of warm, crusty bread to mop up the garlicky liquor. Mains for me had to be the roast topside with Yorkshire pudding – and I noted that many other diners did the same – while my husband chose the honey roast gammon with cider gravy.
Both plates were generous in their portions and came with tasty roasted potatoes, carrots and braised red cabbage, accompanied in my case, with a little pot of creamy horseradish sauce, in which, unusually, you could actually taste the grated horseradish. The beef was tender, the pudding high and crisp and the gravy rich. The cider gravy also proved a good partner for the gammon.
How I managed to squeeze it in I don’t know, but I also ordered Chris’s After Eight mint cheesecake, which was as creamy, crunchy and minty as the name suggests, a real treat and well worth the calories (which is how I judge puddings), while the vanilla crème brulee on the other side of the table, another irrestible old favourite, was also deemed worth them (not quite so crucial in that case, though, I have to admit).
The Sunday lunch menu is small – just three choices for each course – but perfectly formed of tasty, traditional favourites, which is exactly what Chris said he was aiming to deliver three years ago. “We are looking forward to the future with confidence,” he said then. “What we want to do is provide is good, honest, traditional pub food, all freshly-produced and pitched at a price that give superb value”.
Given that the cost of our meal was £14.50 for two courses, £17.95 for three – which is as much as some pubs are charging for their mains these days – this is something they have achieved. And it’s obviously widely appreciated, for not only was the pub full, they were also turning tables. Which is rare for a fairly remote pub on a Sunday. And provides a model for success which others could do well to follow.
At a glance
Style – traditional country pub with open fires. Child- and dog-friendly.
Facilities – bar, restaurant, large beer garden with rum shack Prices – starters and light bites from £5.95, mains from about £9.75. Sunday lunch – two courses £14.50, three courses £17.95
Special features – Real ales and local and guest ales
Upcoming events – Carol concert with mulled wine and mince pies, Sunday, December 13
Christmas – Menu to pre-order from December 1 to 24. Two courses £18.95, three courses £22.95. Open for drinks Christmas Day.
Location – The Royal Oak, Ecchinswell, near Newbury RG20 4UH Contact – telephone 01635 297355. Email firstname.lastname@example.org