My first experiences of running a Country Pub
One of my major mistakes in life was to buy a West Country Pub, trying to explain to my wife why we were about to give up our beautiful house and the boredom of a nine to five job, to live beside a raging torrent of a river on Exmoor, in initially a very dirty pub with very primitive facilities, took a lot of imagination and I am still regularly reminded about whenever I view a pub for sale these days.
In a moment of mental weakness and swayed by the fact that I had successfully advised two landlords on upgrading their hostelries, I agreed to buy The Rockford Inn at Brendon beside the East Lyn River on Exmoor.
Having viewed dozens of pubs in the most dreadful states and isolated positions, all reputed to be doing the most incredible business, or if not had the most impressive potential, as described by the Agents. The incredible business that was, in some cases would appear to have been during the War, I am not sure which War. My concerns were with up to date business not pre history.
The Rockford Inn was or is situated on the main access to the Doone Valley, on Exmoor, with four National Trust Walks finishing by the bridge over the East Lyn River outside the pub. This made me feel that we would at least have a regular stream of Walkers and Traffic arriving outside our door for a large part of the year. In addition Salmon and Trout fishing was a major attraction as well.
The owner at the time was a larger than life Character, who had made a fortune out of the Canvey Island Flood Disaster, he spent a lot of the money in the more suspect Clubs in London and beat a retreat to Exmoor when various people started enquiring about his welfare. This and other information was given to us by the Regional Crime Squad who were continually enquiring about his activities.
2. I had arranged to meet the outgoing Landlord for some instruction and general information on the running of the pub, which is customary and fairly essential if one has never owned a pub before.
Having left our house in Newton Abbot in plenty of time for the arranged meeting, the weather was foul and I had a dreadful head cold. I took the wrong turning and realised I was heading for Barnstaple, as I approached Barnstaple a Police Car appeared behind me and I duly drove at what I thought was the correct speed limit of forty miles per hour and found myself being stopped for exceeding the thirty mile per hour limit. I tried to explain to the Policeman that I thought it was a forty mile per hour limit, but he was feeling decidedly scratchy and gave me a ticket. Great start to the day.
Driving from Barnstaple to Rockford a black Daimler Limousine passed me with a vaguely familiar face, going in the opposite direction, I discovered to my horror later, that I was right, it was familiar, the about to be outgoing Landlord. Arriving at Rockford the pub was completely shut up, various people were knocking on the door to see if it was open and no sign of the Landlord or Staff. Enquiries at the shop opposite revealed that he had left for London in his Daimler Limousine to celebrate having got a Mug to exchange Contracts on the pub and would not be back until completion day, to pick up the Stock at Valuation cheque.
My heart sank for a second time that day and I had that horrible feeling that my Wife and I were about to go on a very rapid learning curve.
My potential new neighbour informed me, whilst I waited hoping that the latest information of the rapidly departed was incorrect, that he was in fact notorious for disappearing at a moments notice and responsible for some fairly outrageous activities when he was in residence.
The licensing laws were non existent in his book and wild parties were thrown at any time of the day or night. His party piece was to stand behind the bar (in its’ old position) wearing pyjama trousers and attempting to throw empty Champagne bottles through the front door across the road into the river, regardless of anyone coming along the road, this I found hard to believe, but was confirmed many times later. There were some large dents around the door frame and traces of broken glass beside the river.
His other trick was to have people staying, get them to give a hand behind the bar and then vanish for a day or two, causing fairly serious concern for normal people, the more abnormal, which there seemed to be a lot of, thought it a great joke.
Tom Chester my neighbour, told me that two elderly ladies booked in for a fortnight, were duly introduced to the bar, thought it great fun, my Predecessor said he was just going shopping in Barnstaple and would they keep an eye on things and disappeared. He sent a cable from New York telling them to enjoy their stay and leave the keys with Tom when their holiday had finished. The Ladies were terrified, Tom told them not to worry and do whatever they liked and leave him with the keys. Again this was confirmed many times later, I had the feeling that I was about to enter a “Mad House”.
3. Changeover Day was a chaotic blur, fortunately we used Stock takers and an Inventory was made by the Agents and fortunately for us recorded by our Solicitors.
The departing Landlord vanished as soon as the cheque for the Stock was handed over, taking only whatever he could pack into the Daimler Limousine (an incongruous car for Exmoor). He left, much to my Wife’s’ horror, dirty washing, every bed in seven bedrooms had been slept in, apparently with his boots on, and a white, cross Siamese, Persian cat called Sam who belonged to one of his Lady friends, to be collected later, he said.
The pub took a week of solid cleaning by every able bodied being we could talk into helping us. Most of the equipment did not work or required major repairs and when eventually made to work was totally unsuitable for the sort of business we were operating.
The Stock that I had inherited, consisted of the most impressive array of Liqueurs and Brandies, the beers were mainly out of date. There were numerous bottles of Champagne which my Predecessor took with him, I had grave doubts about selling Champagne on Exmoor, even though there seemed to be dozens of empty bottles in the Bottle Store.
The weather at the moment of our arrival proceeded to change from blue skies to black and deposit torrential rain for the next six weeks, my wife is not a fan of continuous rain and living in the bottom of a waterlogged valley with no view of the sun at any time during this period, which can only be described as highly stressed and emotional gave her serious doubts as to whether she had married a total lunatic.
We made the serious error of opening that evening, to be greeted by every freeloader of the district and the immediate locals, who viewed us in total disbelief, either they or us had just arrived from Outer Space.
Our attempts at cleaning and fumigating began to have very little effect, a pervading smell of sheep, cigarettes and beer became a very recognisable odour as the evening wore on. The majority were farm workers who very rarely changed clothes or boots before going to the pub.
My first serious problem was the pricing, all the prices were marked and it appeared straightforward, we stick to the established prices and don’t change anything to avoid upsetting the locals initially. After the first drink on the house, the next drink was to be paid for, the barrage of complaints about the prices was non stop, my predecessor had been working on London prices with the idea that you have a high profit and a low turnover, and visitors only came once. I promised to revise the prices by the end of the week, by the end of the evening I knew the prices had to be revised by the next day. The evening was a complete nightmare, my only recollection of the customers was a blur, with the exception of a slightly paunchy individual with lank blonde hair, no chin and a Roman nose, looking remarkably like a Sloane Ranger with a very camp, Exmoor accent.
4. Closing time arrived, much to my relief, and the struggle began to remove the customers, they had never left the pub at closing time in its two hundred year history. I had been grilled by the Police to keep law abiding hours and told that dire consequences would result if I succumbed to after hours drinking. They obviously knew more about the place than I did and viewed me as another lamb for the Exmoor slaughter. Eventually we removed the last of the customers to be left with a terrible smell of sheep most of which was on the carpets from the farmers boots, a constant problem for the whole duration, it could be classed as an endemic Exmoor aroma.
The next day after a very sleepless night, we cleaned and scrubbed and I worked my way through the prices trying to remember the relative figures quoted in the bar the previous night and reach a happy profitable medium.
The following day a couple of walkers came in and we sold them some over generous Ploughman’s Lunches feverishly watching to ensure they were happy and had good value. A large car pulled into the car park and a little Irishman came in and bought a Guinness, he asked if I was the new Landlord and I replied that I was. He then proceeded to tell me that he owned most of the working equipment, furnishings and oddments in the kitchen and bar and wanted to take them there and then, my first reaction was to give them to him, but the list got longer and I realised that I had fortunately bought them as part of the Inventory. I suggested that he contact my Solicitor and the Agents, which was not appreciated, but did resolve the matter. The rest of the week was taken up with similar claims from various people and companies and all were referred to the Solicitors and the Agents and I eventually became immune to these claims.
An old friend called Rona, whose Father had owned a pub next door to my cottage in Kingswear, helped us for the first week, retaining my Wife’s sanity and keeping us both on an even keel. Our rapid learning curve worked and we began to see daylight at the end of the first week.
Removing the rubbish and sorting through the debris revealed all sorts of curious knick- knacks, it appeared that years of curiosities retained by previous Landlords were at last coming to light, strange photographs with horses and coaches, odd items of equipment, two carved wooden Salmon. A box full of old pennies, a magnificent old Guinness Sign was found under the coal in the cellar, even Bats sleeping in the main roof.
One very strange discovery were Passports under one of the mattresses, they belonged to some fairly attractive Greek ladies, from their photographs. The second discovery was a bra strap hanging down from a small hole in the ceiling in the larder. By lifting a floorboard upstairs a host of extremely flimsy ladies underwear was revealed, why it was put there we could never work out, but it was obviously very recent by its’ condition.
Shortly after the Passport discovery the Regional Crime Squad appeared asking for all mail for my predecessor, since he had supposedly departed for Greece and they were keen to locate him. The passports we were informed belonged to certain ladies of the night operating in London and were duly taken away by the Police. The Regional Crime Squad called once a fortnight for details of phone calls and to collect any unredirectable mail. Over a period of time they informed me that certain people who were responsible for some of the more suspect operations in London were regular users of the pub and used two of the well known establishments in Lynton and Lynmouth for converting hot money into cold. At this stage I began to wonder whether a touch of fantasy was taking place, we were about as far from any Police Station as you could get and London crime was something you read about in the papers, not in a country pub.
Easter came and went, this was an ordeal by fire, the World and his Wife descended on us, we had no concept of what it would be like. If anyone suggests taking over a business before a Bank Holiday to enjoy the benefits, don’t ever do it, it is the quickest way to lose customers through lack of experience, we sold every bit of food and begged, borrowed and scrounged more to feed the World, floundering our way through and nearly having a divorce en-route.
Following Easters scramble life seemed quite easy, the initial problems had been resolved, the locals were happy with the prices, the pub had been filled with pub junk to make it look like a traditional Inn, the brass was gleaming and the food was good, the tourists were impressed.
We had the patronage of Jan Ridd, the only Ridd to bear the exalted name of Lorna Doone fame. I had thought it a “Wind up” when the locals told me that it was really Jan Ridd, especially since this was the main coach road into the Doone Valley and Oare Church. Jan’s similarity with the story stopped at the name, he was about five feet four inches in height very substantially built, hands like gnarled hams and a face like a battered red bus. His cap, when very rarely removed showed a bald white head and his occupation was farm labourer to almost every local farm at different times of the year. He would drink thirteen pints of Starlight Beer and the go on to Dubonnet and Lemonade, at this point anything could happen, usually a big grin appeared on his face, and the immortal words came out “Church or Chapel, let it Rattle” this tended to clear a large area of the Bar. On one occasion, after a particularly extended session he fell asleep in a snow drift opposite the pub for four hours, woke up and started work at six a.m. as usual, anyone else would have been a hospital case. On a particularly bitter Winters day he came into the pub with splits on his hands and fingers from the cold, that were unreal and it was only after a lot of persuading would he allow us to treat them, I am sure anyone else would have lost at least one finger if not two.
Our learning curve was not yet complete, at about ten fifteen a battered Land Rover rumbled in to the car park on a particularly quiet evening, the door opened and a character wandered in ordering a pint of Manns Brown. I had noticed that there were several crates of Manns Brown in the Beer Store, a beer that was reputed to guarantee failure of a National Service Medical after two pints the night before, something I was never able to prove, but was always curious.
I had heard mutterings among the locals about Dick and his brother in law the Farmer and various odd questions as to whether they had been in yet, I was not sure in the blur of faces initially. This was Dick, with a distinct smell of sheep and a broad Exmoor accent, he had been lambing and that was why he had not been in before, also this was really his pub and had been his Fathers before. I had found a picture of a large farmer being loaded on to an equally large horse, this was Dicks deceased Father, the horse had been replaced by a Land Rover.
Dick proceeded to consume about six pints of Manns Brown and paid cash, one of the very few occasions, ……….
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