We pay tribute to landlords who have run their pub for over 25 years
It takes a lot of dedication to run any pub successfully, and over the last few months Oxford CAMRA has presented the longest serving landlords in our branch with awards to recognise their work. The full list is below and some awards have been featured here before, but there are two more landlords that we know of who have served more than 25 years at one pub, so we went out to meet Steve Mace at the Morris Clown and Tim Bowring at the Plough in Wolvercote.
First we headed for Bampton in West Oxfordshire to see Steve, now in his 33rd year at the Morris Clown and clearly held dear by his band of regular drinkers. That loyalty is reciprocated, and during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 Steve took to his bicycle – they called it the “Maceroo” – to deliver ale to his customers’ homes, often in harsh winter weather and still in the shorts he always wears. Two real ales were waiting for us on this occasion – Butts Traditional, a beer from an organic brewery near Hungerford, Berkshire; and a golden seasonal ale from Abingdon brewery Loose Cannon called Marzen Boy. The blackboard listing people who were barred caused amusement – in addition to the partners of some regulars (only joking!) it listed V. Putin and L. Truss.
So how did Steve come to be here? “I was working in printing in London, but in 1990 I was made redundant,” he recalled. “I was at a loose end and my Dad wanted away, as he’d been ‘made redundant’ by my stepmother. He was a character, and at his funeral all three of his exs were there.”
Steve’s father Thomas took on the Morris Clown in 1976 as he ran a pub in London but with a large family, wanted one with five bedrooms. The Morris Clown, then a Courage house and recently renamed from the New Inn, actually had six. The Mace family have been in the licensed trade for about 200 years and come from Yorkshire, with his grandfather running the Oddfellows Arms in Bedale (now the Three Coopers) until 1965.
When the infamous “Beer Orders” of 1989 forced large breweries such as Courage to dispose of many pubs, the Morris Clown passed to various pubcos including Phoenix and Namura with Steve buying the property in 1998 – as a sitting tenant, he got a good deal. Since then it has been a free house and, unusually for a small country town, does not serve food but only drinks, opening in the evenings only except at weekends.
The Morris Clown is a Grade II listed stone building dating from the 18th century, with some of the stones in its large rear garden coming from a demolished castle. It has character inside too, with murals painted by his first stepmother in the 1970s, depicting the Moulin Rouge and other French scenes in the style of painter Toulouse-Lautrec. The name Morris Clown was/is actually very controversial, and this is the only pub so named in the country. The pub sign actually depicts a Morris Fool (which dancing teams have) rather than a clown, and although Morris Dancing is a popular local pastime, the town’s dancers boycotted the pub because of its name for many years. Monday 29 May will see the traditional Whitsun dancing day when festivities start early.
Steve seems very happy in the pub – also his home – explaining: “I don’t have a wife, children or mortgage, so I’m very cheap to run. We’ve always had loyal customers and most are good friends. The most important thing about retirement is having something to do – but this is my life. When I lived in London I always wore trousers, but now I’m the boss of an old boozer I wear shorts. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
On then to Wolvercote on the edge of Oxford, where Tim Bowring has been in charge for 27 years through various changes of ownership, having run a pub in Woodcote, near Reading, before that. The Plough was then owned by Oxford brewery Morrells, which was to cease brewing only two years later, and was one of four Morrells tenancies available at that time. He was attracted to the Plough because he liked Oxford and it had good living accommodation, and he and his wife could see opportunities for their teenage children.
“Morrells came to a messy end, and many of the pubs were sold to an outfit which did no work on the pubs and treated us badly – it was like dealing with the Kray Twins, a horrendous time,” said Tim. “But I managed to acquire the lease, and when Greene King bought most of the Morrells pubs, they had to honour that for six years. Greene King has always left us alone, as long as we pay the rent and sell plenty of beer. We can sell any of the real ales on Greene King’s guest list.”
On this occasion the real ales were Butcombe Original and GK’s Olde Trip and Old Speckled Hen. The Plough is a popular food pub with plenty of outside seating on Wolvercote Green, and was once used by bargees along the nearby Oxford Canal but now mainly by locals and visitors. Tim now spends most of his time in the kitchen, and his daughter Katy mainly runs the administrative side with Tim Catlin, here for 22 years, being a loyal bar manager. Long service at the Plough applies as much to the staff as the two Tims, with chef Mark Edwards and Jane Goodman also here long-term – as are others ranging from bar staff to cleaner.
“The worst time was undoubtedly during Covid, as although we got Government support which was taxable, Greene King only deferred the rent and then clawed it back,” says Tim. “There is still nervousness among customers about Covid, and people don’t generally stay as late. The future of this pub looks OK, but I fear for the future of many.”
As for his own future, that is yet to be decided as Tim is of retiring age and his current agreement with Greene King only runs until the middle of 2024. We wish him well whatever happens, but wouldn’t be surprised if he’s around for a while yet.
- You may already have read about the Hall family of the Rose and Crown, Oxford (longest serving of all at 40 years); David and Jenny Rhymes, who retired last November after nearly 30 years at the Gardeners Arms, North Parade, Oxford; and the Meeson family, who celebrated 25 years at the Masons Arms, Headington Quarry, Oxford, last September. We then moved on to recognise Gerry and Chris McGrath at the King’s Arms, Kidlington (retiring after 28 years); the Rose family at the Angel Inn, Witney (31 years); the Semaine family at the Royal Oak, Witney (24 years); and Matt Kearney at the Mason’s Arms, North Leigh (35 years) – read it again here.
Have we missed anyone? If you know of the landlord of a pub selling real ale in our branch area who has served more than 25 years but isn’t mentioned here, please email the editor using the contact details provided.