Small pub group now runs Community-Owned village hostelry
The new team running the Seven Stars in Marsh Baldon, six miles from Oxford city centre off the A4074 road towards Henley or Reading, is settling in after re-opening the pub on April 16. The large garden helped it through the first few weeks before indoor opening was allowed from May 17 and now – like all pubs – the Seven Stars hopes for restriction-free trading from June 21.
It was the first Community-Owned pub in Oxfordshire in March 2013, and is now one of nine. Run very successfully for the first few years by Matt Bowden-Ford, who now works for Loose Cannon, it is now the only Community-Owned pub in the county to be operated by a pub group rather than as a stand-alone tenancy. Drinkers can look forward to a choice of up to four real ales, while diners can savour an inventive menu with gourmet dishes as well as “home comforts” pub classics. A programme of special events is taking shape.
Freespirit, the company now leasing the Seven Stars as its fourth pub, wants to banish impressions that it is anything other than a small, enterprising business. The company’s founder, Mark Higgs, was named British Institute of Innkeeping Licensee of the Year in 2017, based on how he had transformed the Castle at Edgehill, a Grade II-listed historic inn and small hotel overlooking the site of a Civil War battlefield in Edgehill, Warwickshire. Hook Norton brewery owns the Castle and also the Sun Inn in Hook Norton village, taken over by Freespirit in 2017. The Red Lion in Hellidon, Northamptonshire, joined the group in 2018, with the Seven Stars bringing the total up to four.
Being free of tie, the Seven Stars is experimenting with its beer range with Timothy Taylor Landlord likely to become one of the regular ales. A beer rarely seen around Oxford but also in great demand during May was a pale ale called Dragan from Woodforde’s brewery in Norfolk, while Hook Norton’s Hooky Gold was also available. A fourth hand pump may be brought into use depending on demand, and Cask Marque accreditation has been applied for.
“It’s important for people to realise that we are not a pub chain,” says Sam Bridges, who handles marketing for Freespirit and may also be found working at any of its pubs. “You can tell our pubs are linked, but they are not the same as each other. The ethos is similar but we take each pub on its merits. We provide good quality beer and food, and whether it’s a table for two for drinks or a larger party, we can handle all occasions. The Castle is even a licensed weddings venue.
“The Seven Stars is a community pub, not just for the 130 shareholders but for everyone. Being just a few miles from the city centre, there is scope to attract a lot more people here. We are offering picnic hampers to take on the village green (one of the largest in England), a supper club tasting menu once a month, quiz nights, European Championship live football on a big screen, and open air cinema, which starts with Top Gun on July 25.”
Landlord is Kevin Bloomfield, who has worked in pubs since he was 18 and was most recently at the food-led Muddy Duck in Hethe, near Bicester, which is currently closed. Some of the other key staff have worked at the Seven Stars for years, including head chef Patrick Smith who has built up a fine reputation. Examples of his dishes include Costwold chicken breast with asparagus, confit wing, artichoke, fennel and spring onion (£17); roasted aubergine with baba ghanoush, chickpeas, ras el hanout, courgette, onion and sumac (£15); and haddock and chips (£15). Ice cream sundaes are a speciality, and a full list of Freespirit’s food suppliers is published on its website.
“We have had a full redecoration since we took over, to make it lighter, airier, and with more of a feminine touch,” says Kevin. “The team here is what makes the pub, and we are involving every member of staff in our plans. It is great to be trading indoors again where we are not beholden to the weather, and now we are looking ahead and starting to make plans. But we really need that certainty that we can open without restrictions from June 21.”
Current opening times are from 10am to close (variable) from Wednesdays to Saturdays, and from midday to 4pm on Sundays.