on the day of of the packhorse The grand re-opening was exactly five years ago when it snowed heavily. “Boy did it snow,” said Phil Legard, one of hundreds of shareholders who raised more than a million pounds to save the beloved pub near Bath.
“By 9 a.m. the village was cut off and the first thing we had to do was organize a crew of people to grab their shovels and dig so our first customers could get here,” Legard said. “But that’s what Packhorse is all about. Community spirit, finding a way.”
The weather for this weekend’s anniversary – a celebration of drinking, music and birthday cake eating – has been kind and villagers are reflecting on the 400-year-old pub’s value to the community. “We don’t have a post office or a village store,” Legard said. “That’s why the Packhorse is essential. The pub is the hub.”
At a time when pubs in England and Wales are closing at a rate of more than 30 per month – the story of Packhorse – billed by shareholders as the biggest community buyback project in British pub history – is as interesting as a wildfire. At the fireplaces this anniversary weekend.
In 2012 the pub in South Stoke was closed and earmarked for housing but villagers protested. Lovers of the pub raised the money to buy the building and donated the knowledge and skills to restore it and turn it into a going concern.
Its customers have already received more than 1,000 casks of real ale and cider, 16,000 bottles of wine, around 30,000 bags of crisps, 13,600 plates of fish and chips and 14,000 sundae roasts. During the Covid lockdown, the pub distributed vegetables and flour and organized virtual gigs.
Their annual sales total around £500,000 but margins are tight and last financial year the pub made a pre-depreciation profit of a modest £20,000. Equipment and property depreciation only runs on that amount – £20,000 per year.
Making money was never the point but paying its way was necessary. “A pub doesn’t have to make a lot of profit to be sustainable but the commercial side has to work so it has a long-term future,” said Dom Moorhouse, one of those leading the project. When asked what the future plans were, the answer was simple: to continue for the next five years, then the next – and so on.
The key seems to be a professional, motivated, happy staff overseen by a keen-eyed group of volunteer leaders. Packhorse is fortunate to have talented residents with entrepreneurial expertise and the time and resources to lend a hand.
The Packhorse receives regular contact from other villagers who see community ownership as the only model to keep the beloved pub alive. “We hope to be a reference point, an inspiration for other places,” Moorhouse said. “It’s an incredible place of social connection. Without it this village could be a moribund retirement home.
Diana Cochran, whose roles include events co-ordinator, bar worker and – away from the pub – volunteer nurse, leaves the pub’s packed diary. They also hold charity coffee mornings, a book club, movie nights, quizzes, regular gigs, art workshops, an apple-pressing party, a music festival, Packstock.
The pub is proud to employ around 12 local people and is keen to develop their skills, putting them through courses and apprenticeships.
Assistant manager Molly Cross said she joined the team “because I wanted to be Peggy Mitchell”. [the redoubtable boss of the Queen Vic in the BBC soap EastEnders] – and liked the pub. “I grew up here and around. I remember riding the packhorse with my dad and throwing money at will.”
He likes work, fun, ghosts too. “There are at least three or four. You may not think of them but there are unexplained events. The pub is lovely but the people make it special. That’s what it’s all about in the end.”