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District's village pubs facing a bitter battle for survival

Charlie Masters

Charlie Masters

charlie.masters@newburynews.co.uk

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District's village pubs facing a bitter battle for survival

Village pubs across West Berkshire are closing at an alarming rate, prompting an outcry from locals.

Around 25 rural establishments have shut since 2010.

This figure includes pubs that have been in more-or-less continuous operation since the 18th century.

In many smaller communities, these pubs represent the only social hub and their closure deprives residents of a meeting place.

Among the most prominent closures of the past five years are the Falmouth Arms, Woolhampton, the Red Lion, Theale, the Pineapple, Brimpton, and the Lord Lyon, Stockcross (a CAMRA award winner).

Many of the buildings have been turned into housing or become restaurants or takeaways.

As the premises tend to be of historic interest, residents are keen to preserve them, even when the pubs themselves are not financially viable.

This can provoke lengthy disputes with proprietors and developers.

The Winterbourne Arms was until recently at the centre of one such controversy.

Owner Nicholas Roffe had announced plans to convert the building into a dwelling, despite assurances by the previous landlord that the pub would reopen.

A ‘Save The Winterbourne Arms’ campaign mobilised dozens of villagers, who succeeded in having the building designated an asset of community value (ACV).

ACVs are properties of symbolic or practical significance to local people.

The status allows residents a final say in matters relating to the sale and development of the sites.

In effect, communities are able to ‘take over’ their pubs.

Chief among Mr Roffe’s justifications for his plans was the Winterbourne Arms’ profitability, a major concern for landlords in isolated rural areas.

But not all villagers view these issues as insurmountable.

John Handy – who campaigned to save Hamstead Marshall’s White Hart Inn – argues that good management can make a success of even the most remote pubs.

“You’ve got to have the right person running [the pub],” he says. “It’s a very specialised job.”

The White Hart owner had repeatedly filed for redevelopment, citing the inn’s poor commercial prospects.

Like the Winterbourne Arms, villagers successfully petitioned to prevent the pub’s demise and it reopened in March after being closed since 2015.

Many pubs are now owned by large franchises and breweries, bringing greater publicity and capital.

Yet some believe this robs small establishments of their independence and character.

Winterbourne Parish Council chairwoman Jill Hoblin – who organised efforts to save the Arms – warns of pubs losing their “individualness” as a consequence.

She said: “You’re no longer a free house and you’re constrained with what beers you can actually offer and what menu you can offer and the pricing of that menu.”

Money is only one of many factors in the decline of West Berkshire’s pub scene.

Tom Simpson, owner of the Falmouth Arms between 2014 and 2016, writes on the Lost Pubs In Berkshire website of the problems he faced maintaining the aging building: “The elaborate roof, installed in the 1930s, was held up by massive steel trusses which were causing ‘bowing’ issues with the walls, exacerbated by the heavy traffic.

“Also, we had problems with the drains, input water, electrics and the heating system. The village had no gas, so the oil-fired system was very expensive to run.”

West Berkshire CAMRA pubs officer Paul Worsley said: “Nearly all of the pubs outside of Newbury have been converted into restaurants.

“It’s the super-pubs that have taken the place of smaller pubs.”

But it is unlikely that these tough financial considerations will dull the passion of villagers for their public houses.

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