Raising a glass to people power
PUBLISHED: 07:00 05 October 2019
A village pub is traditionally the centre of the community - a place for people to meet socially, eat and drink, enjoy live entertainment and catch up with the local gossip. But in the East Devon village of Stockland, the pub has drawn local residents together in a very different way.
Six years ago The King's Arms closed down, with the owner proposing to redevelop the site for housing. But the Stockland community refused to accept the loss of their much-loved, Grade II listed, 17th-century thatched inn, which had been a thriving gastro-pub until around 2007. So they joined forces to buy the pub themselves, renovate it, and get it reopened - and are on the brink of being able to raise a glass to their success.
The astonishing venture has been led by a small group of local residents, and supported by the whole community. Among the main instigators were Damian Clay and his wife Sheilagh, Jane Yates, Andy Kippax, Brian Johnson, Martin Gundry, John Vickery and the late Peter Maitland.
"A pub plays a real part in helping community cohesion and helping people avoid being isolated," said Mr Clay. "A village pub is always the best way to meet people if you're new, and you can go there to find out what's going on, and keep in touch, especially in a rural community like ours where many people are living outside the village, scattered around the parish, some in rural farms."
When The King's Arms closed, following a series of short-lived unsuccessful tenancies, and the owner announced the development proposals, the village swung into action. The parish council successfully applied for the pub to become an Asset of Community Value - the first in East Devon. Then Mr Clay and his group set up a community benefit society, Stockland Community Pub Ltd (SCPL). Community benefit societies can raise funds by selling shares, provided that all money is used for the broader interests of their community.
Over the next few years, Stockland's residents united in opposition to a series of planning applications for the King's Arms site. Proposals to convert its outbuildings into homes, or build houses on its car park, were all refused. In one case, the application was taken to a public hearing in Axminster; so many objectors turned up that the planning inspector had to reconvene the hearing to the Guildhall.
"And that was in 2017, four years after the pub had closed," said Mr Clay. "From that you can gauge that the community was really behind trying to save that pub."
Meanwhile, fundraising continued, with events and grant applications in addition to the selling of shares. By October 2018 a total of £278,051 had been raised in share capital, from 273 investors. Three months later the pub was officially handed over to SCPL, and the next stage of the project - repairs and renovation - began.
This was a challenging prospect. There were problems with the electrical wiring and the plumbing, and during the period of closure there had been a flood in the kitchen, damaging catering equipment. The roof needed re-thatching and furniture needed restoring. But once again, the whole community rallied around to help. Local people with DIY skills gave up their free time, contractors reduced their charges, waived their fees altogether, or provided materials free of charge. The Stockland Fair Committee contributed the funds for the kitchen to be refurbished. One man, who had been unable to buy any shares, instead spent hours restoring the pub's wooden settles. "It's really painstaking work and he's done it really lovingly, sometimes having a can of beer while he worked," said Mr Clay.
The job of sprucing up the pub's garden also attracted an army of volunteers, with up to 20 people turning up for each session.
The two men who repainted the dilapidated pub sign, John Curnoe and Alan Jackson, both live near the building, and painted one side each - the side facing their respective homes. The restored sign was triumphantly hoisted into place in August, in something of a symbolic moment.
The King's Arms project has attracted the support of Devon's folk star Steve Knightley, one of the acclaimed duo Show of Hands and a popular solo performer. Steve used to live in West Dorset in the late 1990s, and not only loved visiting the King's Arms - he also wrote some of his music there.
"If ever I needed a place to go and write some songs, if we had an album or something to finish, I used to book a room there for a couple of nights, as a sort of creative retreat," he said.
"When Phil Beer and I started playing we did a lot of work in pubs, and to see them all close down is heartbreaking.
"I've always had a soft spot for country pubs, particularly community pubs, and for that one in particular.
Steve will be playing a benefit gig for the King's Arms on Saturday, October 5. He will be performing songs from his West Dorset days, so some of them may well have been written in the King's Arms - where he looks forward to raising a glass again, when it opens its doors.
The gig, Old Songs and New Songs, will take place at St Michael and All Angels Church, Stockland, from 7.30pm. Tickets are £16 advance, £18 on the door; to book call Wendy on 01404 881 207.
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