Graham Shelton: We will survive!

Graham Shelton on how the Red Lion in Northmoor got through lockdown and beyond

There is something uniquely scary for a writer about having no word limit and no deadline, and when I looked inside my brain to find inspiration for a new Oxford Drinker blog about Community-Owned pubs and especially the Red Lion Northmoor, there was nothing there! This is despite all the millions of things I had thought I could write about when not under pressure. 

In moments of crisis one finds oneself turning to the great leaders of the past for guidance, and I realized that Churchill (a tremendous writer himself) had the answer to writer’s block, as he did to so many of our great problems. And it didn’t involve invading Europe, this time, although judging by recent reports that might still be a good plan!

No, many of Churchill’s greatest ideas were hatched in the bath. So welcome to a world first for Oxford CAMRA: the first Community-Owned Pubs blog constructed entirely in the bath! It’s impossible to be negative when the whole world is warm and soapy, so here is my upbeat take on the last terrible few months and how we may yet come to better times.

Funnily enough, I was having a pint in our pub when lockdown struck. Pubs were going to be closed that evening and with no idea when they might re-open. First things first, and landlady Lisa Neale called all the staff to reassure them and offer them furlough. This was a generous and courageous move, as no-one knew at that stage what the future held, especially when or if it would be possible to re-open. There was quite a lot of beer left, of course, never mind husband Ian’s food stocks in the kitchen. What could be done?

This is where being a small pub in a fairly isolated rural community proved an asset. With many people at home, self-isolating and unable or unwilling to venture out, a whole new opportunity opened up. In what seemed no time the Red Lion was leading the way offering groceries, milk, bread freshly made by Ian in the kitchen, restaurant standard but take-away fish and chips, take-away burgers, wonderful home-made ready meals and beer to take away by the jug. When people couldn’t come to pick things up, Lisa kindly delivered them. This was a life saver for the village and was quickly emulated by other pop-ups selling local produce.

The objective throughout was to offer an outstanding service to the local community but to do so in a responsible way with intensive cleaning, sanitizing and social distancing from the very start of what was effectively a new business. It turned out that this was hard work and no ticket to quick riches for Lisa, Ian and little Molly. But at least we still had a pub! And with community shareholders being in control of key variables, such as the rent, it remained throughout a viable pub. Sadly, others in the Oxfordshire Community-Owned Pubs Network have not fared so well.

We have always tried to be forward-thinking in Northmoor, so from the beginning of lockdown were busy planning for reopening, recognizing that the Red Lion would have to open in a new and socially distanced way. Happily the weather was kind and we have a lovely pub garden so we did a lot of pressure washing, scrubbing and painting of everything outside from the walls of the pub to every table and chair. When we did that we realized that the old Greene King pub sign was looking a bit tired, so with scaffolding and telehandler took it down and quickly had a spanking new and improved one up. This looked a bit more “us” (local Community-Owned free house) and a bit less “them” (Greene King, as was). New lights strung right across the garden and the erection of an open-sided marquee completed the outside work. 

Inside there was work to do too, including the repair and commissioning of a second-hand pizza oven, construction of a new servery, and a fair amount of redecoration. It turned out the pizza oven drew a current of 41 amps, which is huge, so it needed a heroic electricity supply. Happily this could be safely connected to our new super-duper 3-phase supply that we had had to install for the shepherd’s huts. Remember those?

The three new shepherd’s huts have proven a godsend, and have been heavily booked from the moment that lockdown eased. Warm, modern, with a huge double bed, hot water, shower, loo, TV, wifi and a top spot in the rural pub garden, the huts have been hugely liked by people coming to stay for a staycation instead of trekking to far-flung places. Everything is cleaned and sanitized after every guest, and when there are back-to-back bookings the huts are deep cleaned using the same specialist equipment and materials used to clean aircraft between flights. I have to say we are quite proud of that.

So here we are today with the new “rule of six” to contend with. 

Graham Shelton, who led the community buy-out of this pub

A changing selection of local, well-kept ales (Brakspear Gravity, North Cotswold IPA and Loose Cannon Abingdon Bridge on today) have always been a strong point for the Red Lion Northmoor, and we hope will continue to attract people because they are worth seeking out. The pizza oven has also proven very popular, delivering lovely 12-inch pizzas with crispy thin crusts and yummy toppings at a rate of knots. As before, the a la carte menu is also back in operation with autumn specials coming soon. Hut guests also have a super breakfast delivered to their doors by Lisa. Obviously socially-distanced inside dining accommodation is limited in a small country pub, but we are hoping for an Indian Summer and a bit more al fresco dining, and also have a lovely heated marquee for when things turn a bit colder.

Overall then, we are cautiously optimistic that our little pub will survive, and are grateful for every customer who makes the journey to Northmoor to try our wares. We are a community in this village, and are thankful to still have our little community pub now in its seventh year of trading. Without Ian and Lisa doing all the work it just couldn’t have been done, so we offer them our warmest thanks.

Coming next: our plans for a new brew of our exclusive ale Community Endeavour, and news on how our friends at the other nine community-owned pubs in Oxfordshire are doing.

The 10 Community-Owned pubs in Oxfordshire are:

  • Abingdon Arms, Beckley
  • Ampleforth, Risinghurst
  • Bull, Great Milton
  • Crown, South Moreton
  • Plough, Great Haseley (now French restaurant La Table d’Alix)
  • Plough, West Hanney
  • Red Lion, Northmoor
  • Seven Stars, Marsh Baldon
  • White Hart, Wolvercote
  • White House, Bladon (re-opens in October)