Not a mystery but still magical

Graham Shelton reflects on a branch minibus tour of Community-Owned pubs

It’s a fact! None of us is getting any younger, and many of us can well remember those wonderful, pungent days of 1967 when on Boxing Day of that year the Beatles released their third film: Magical Mystery Tour. Quite where the magical experiences sprang from is a matter for debate (but not very much)…..

On the other hand, there is no doubt where the magic comes from at all 10 of our lovely Oxfordshire Community-Owned pubs, and it was my privilege to be on Tony Goulding’s Magical Bus which managed to visit seven in a single day.

Having had the fun, the stress, the cost and the work of helping to set up the Red Lion, Northmoor as a community pub nine years ago, I thought you might like a couple of brief reflections on this excellent tour. First, it’s clear that the Community-Owned formula works and can breathe new life into a pub that otherwise would have closed. In the 10 or so years that the concept has been tried in Oxfordshire, all of those pubs are still running, albeit that one, the Plough, Great Haseley, has become a very good restaurant rather than a drinks-led operation. 

The Ampleforth Arms has thrived under community ownership on an Oxford housing estate

We didn’t manage to visit the Seven Stars in Marsh Baldon on this trip, but this ranks as the first pub in Oxfordshire to become Community-Owned in 2013. It’s still good, still Community-Owned and still going, though now under the management of a small pubs chain.

In every case, the motivation for attempting the community ownership route is to keep a thriving pub in the community at a point where it might otherwise be lost. That was certainly the case at the “Amp” (the Ampleforth Arms, Risinghurst, which we were able to visit. The community owns a lease on the building, rather than the building itself, and it was great to see it looking fine and massively improved since they have taken it in hand. Good beer too. The lease is coming up for renewal and I hope all will go well now that the principle is firmly established of that pub being open as a focus for community activities as well as a great place to eat and drink. 

The Bull Inn, Great Milton is another long-standing Community-Owned pub: small but perfectly formed. It shows what a tiny pub can do in a rural community and still stay viable.

The Bull at Great Milton was one of the first Community-Owned pubs in the county

The Crown, South Moreton is now a huge success under Di Humphrey’s energetic management: busy and warm with a good food offering and great beer on tap. So happy to see it awarded 2022 Pub of the Year by the South Oxfordshire CAMRA branch. With colleague Katy from the original ownership team, they have made their own success.

One of the joys of an Oxford CAMRA minibus tour, of course, is Tony’s wonderful and compendious knowledge of country byways, really needed as so many of these pubs are a bit off the beaten track. It was certainly worth the trip to the Plough, West Hanney. This has seen quite a few changes of operator since it became a Community-Owned pub, but now things feel good and settled with Mine Host Owain Jones jovially presiding over the bar and Luke Mayor doing well in the kitchen.

The Red Lion, Northmoor, my local and my favourite, is one of the longest-standing Community-Owned pubs in Oxfordshire and the only one to have retained its tenants, Lisa and Ian Neale, throughout its community ownership. They are now joined by their daughter Molly, born into the village and already going to the local school, Benny the dog and a splendid collection of chickens in the vegetable garden. It’s a bit of a destination pub these days, as a result of Ian’s top food offering, but rightly retains its place in the Good Beer Guide for consistently well-kept local real ales.

Crown, Souith Moreton landlady Di Humphrey is joined by community committee members Roger Manion (left) and Ash Johnson

Our tour became more magical as we went (we had drunk quite a few pints by then) and took in two more pubs well worth visiting: the White House, Bladon and the White Hart, Wolvercote. The White House, like so many, had a few ups and downs but is doing well now after a change of tenant and was very busy when we were there. The White Hart was also buzzing and shows what a community-centred beer drinkers’ pub can achieve (in this case under Amanda Jones’s good management) even in the teeth of another, more food-orientated pub literally next door. It benefits massively from strong community support led by Matt Todd and his team.

On this occasion we didn’t visit the newly-reopened Lamb & Flag in St Giles, Oxford, but I don’t doubt that we will. The last time I was there it was thronging with students again, and it will give the currently closed, but just back on the market, Eagle and Child a good run for its money. 

The community ownership group leasing the Lamb & Flag style themselves “The Inklings” after the authors’ group of the same name who used to meet there. An Inklings-only event was planned in the front room of the pub in November when it hosted Ed Balls and George Osborne for a discussion about the future of the UK. Sounds like a discussion in the best Oxford tradition: fun, beer-fuelled but unlikely to change the world.

The Plough at West Hanney, an archetypal village pub saved from closure by the community

There was one other Oxfordshire community-owned pub that we didn’t get to visit this time and that is the Abingdon Arms, Beckley. It’s one of the best, drawing in locals as well as visitors with its lovely food and top ales. It would be a magical way to end our next pub tour.

And then, of course, there’s the ongoing campaign to secure a community buy-out of the White Horse, Stonesfield, a village near Woodstock. We trust the villagers will be successful in persuading the private owner to sell to them (it’s their second attempt), as the success of the existing 10 Community-Owned pubs in the county indicates that this could once again be a thriving village hub.