In it to win it

Graham Shelton, of the Red Lion in Northmoor, considers the value of awards

This article first appeared in the August-September 2022 edition of Oxford Drinker magazine

Today I have brought my diary up-to-date, written loads of e-mails, made numerous telephone calls, and cleaned the car: every one a Grade A displacement activity! 

I always struggle to find the right way to start. It’s a good job the deadline is just a few hours away or I would have ended up mowing the lawn and cleaning the drains, even though it’s dark!

The topic this time is “Awards”. I have to tell you that there are some pretty rough pubs out there, and not every award is for being good. I was concerned to see one pub (not in our area) described as suffering from “ineffective management, no food, no investment and a fight involving an axe which required police involvement”. Another “had a reputation for being a bloodbath – ‘I don’t know how many times the carpets have been changed’”.

Happily, our Community-Owned pubs are of a different ilk and are uniformly at the other end of the spectrum! Top of my list is the Red Lion Northmoor because it’s my local and because it’s very good, meriting its regular place in the Good Beer Guide and its Michelin Plate for serving consistently lovely food. In their very first year of opening, over eight years ago, Landlords Ian and Lisa Neale won a Best Newcomer award, and they have been quietly salting away the trophies every year since. Last year they were Countryside Alliance South of England champions, the year before, it was Oxford CAMRA Town and Country Pub of the Year runner-up, and the year before that it was a national Community Pub award from the Sawday Guide. This year they have scooped a Muddy Stilettos Best Destination award.

Muddy Stilettos styles itself as “the ultimate ‘urban guide to the countryside’ – a witty, super-useful insider’s guide to the very best food, walks, boutiques, day trips, hotels, interiors and events for smart, fun-loving women living outside London”. In these gender-inclusive times I believe that men also find it useful..…

Lisa takes up the story: “It was an amazing surprise to win Best Destination Pub for Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and it doesn’t get much better than that for a small village pub in the countryside. It’s a testament to our team’s loyalty and hard work. We could not have won it without the support of our community, friends and family too, and will display our winning certificate with pride!

“It’s currently a really tough time for small businesses like ours where we are consumed by the constant day-to-day running of the pub with such a skeletal team. We rarely draw breath to see the bigger picture, and often we question what we are doing and whether we’re going in the right direction. It gives us a real boost to know that people value and appreciate what we are doing. It’s a great motivator and reward for the whole team, and it brings in new trade for the business.”

They’ve been having some major success at the Crown, South Moreton too. It’s outside the Oxford CAMRA area but it’s an Oxfordshire Community-Owned pub, so that’s good enough for me. The South Moreton team told me all about it: “From the sad, shuttered shell sold off by the brewery to housing developers in 2018, to becoming owned and fully refurbished by the community, the Crown at South Moreton now thrives. Its mix of pleasant location, friendly atmosphere, good honest food, and excellent local ales and ciders is working well, and the pub is firmly established at the heart of the village community. Indeed, it was the hub of the village’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

“The exceptional efforts, through trying Covid times, of landlady Diana Humphrey and her team in generating this vibrant atmosphere were recognized by South Oxfordshire CAMRA in May with their award of Pub of the Year and Cider Pub of the Year. This is now commemorated with a wonderful bench constructed from left-over oak from the newly erected gazebo in the garden. Everyone involved in the revival was overjoyed at the recognition for Di and her team, and at the footfall increase from pub-goers new to the Crown that has been generated by the award.”

Proudly Community-Owned: the Abingdon Arms in Beckley

Elsewhere around the county, it was also good to see the Abingdon Arms, Beckley named runner-up in the Best Pub in Oxfordshire awards by dining website Ox in a Box, presented by celebrity chef Raymond Blanc. Over 20,000 people voted in these very competitive awards, and this success has helped the pub become better known far and wide.

With some ten Community-Owned pubs already in Oxfordshire, we have proven how good this model of pub ownership and operation can be. It is great to hear how the Plough, West Hanney, has been given a boost with two accomplished personnel joining from the White Hart in Fyfield. We have great stalwarts in the White Hart in Wolvercote, always worth a visit, the Ampleforth Arms (“Amp”) in Risinghurst, and the Bull in Great Milton. The White House in Bladon is getting back up and running again too.

And that’s not all. There are plenty of Community-Owned pubs coming through. The White Horse in Stonesfield is putting up a good fight in its bid to become Community-Owned after a few setbacks. While over in Marsh Gibbon, the Greyhound Inn Community Pub Group has raised over £200,000 in a bid to make their pub a focal point for the community and, they say, “to have a bit of fun along the way”.

Graham Shelton

Such an important consideration, I’d say. The more so because it’s pretty brutal out there in the hospitality business and even if we can’t all own the pub in our community, every one of us has a duty to support and encourage the pubs that are still open in the places where we live. There is nothing inevitable about them always being there. Those splendid people who work so hard to keep our pubs running need our support, our nurturing, and every bit of encouragement. 

And finally, just remember that winning a prize provides a huge boost, so encourage your local to have a go. As the man in the TV show said, “you’ve got to be in it to win it!”