Once upon a time, every village had a pub. It was the centre of the community, the cosy hub where locals gathered to gossip, relax, debate and celebrate. But in recent years, a combination of greedy “Pub-cos”, faceless bar chains, rising rents, and the trend for drinking at home have combined to destroy the Local’s hold on the community.
In fact, the most unrealistic thing about TV soaps now isn’t the high murder and mystery children rate, but the idea that neighbours of all ages will gather in the pub on a wet Wednesday night. Tom Kerridge’s current BBC2 series, Saving Britain’s pubs, is highlighting the profound problems they face – with the onset of Covid sounding the death knell for many. Because while the landlords featured are desperately trying to pivot to providing takeaways, most are losing thousands as lockdown rolls on.
Some village pubs, however, are at the vanguard of a new people-power movement. When a landlord isn’t willing to keep going, communities themselves are raising the money to buy and run the pub themselves. In Henley, for example, a community group has mobilised to try and buy The White Lion in a village called Cray’s Pond, while in Stoke St Gregory, Somerset, the Royal Oak pub was bought by the community in August and refurbishment is underway.
This week, The White Horse of Stonesfield, the only pub in its West Oxfordshire village of 1,500 inhabitants, has become the subject of frenzied transatlantic interest. For sale since July, a ‘Back The White Horse’ committee of villagers has been tirelessly raising money to buy it ever since.
But with a cut-off date of 30th November and still significantly short of target - £300,000 of the £480,000 target had been raised - hopes were fading. And then word spread to the United States.
A reporter for the New York Times, looking for a heartwarming story from England, stumbled across the campaign, and featured the story of The White Horse and its struggles last week.
Since then, donations have been pouring in, the plight of The White Horse having touched the hearts of pub-loving Americans. “I will probably never be able to visit the White Horse pub. But just knowing it is there, open for business, would be good enough for me,” said one benefactor, Kim Morris, from Connecticut.
Stonesfield resident Steve Callaghan, 63, began the campaign back in July and admits the committee are now ‘pinching themselves’. In fact, they are hoping to collect enough to refurbish tatty parts of the building too.
“I was furloughed from my job in hospitality,” says Callaghan. “I was a bit bored and I knew the pub was going up for sale. There’s a charity, the Plunkett Foundation, that helps with rural enterprises – they’ve saved 130 pubs so far.” Callaghan spoke to them and the parish council. “I had a week’s holiday and came back to find a full committee waiting for me!”
With over 600 villagers, including Hollywood actor Rupert Friend, who grew up Stonesfield, involved - either buying shares, or lending time and expertise - the campaign took off. “Almost half the adult population has put money in.”
But there is jeopardy in this festive heart-warmer – because despite all the hard work, they still can’t be sure that the pub won’t be sold to a property developer, stalwart baddie of all Christmas movies.
“We know there is someone interested, but we are in a very strong position now,” says Steve. “We’re able to show how much support there is for a local pub, and it will be hard for anyone to get permission for a change of use."
"We’ve had the maddest weekend,” he adds. “The website was pinging away all night with donations. I was sitting up till dawn watching it grow and we’re so grateful.”
The pub's survival is not just a case of having somewhere to drink, he explains. “It’s the hub of the community - if you don’t have young kids, where else can you meet people? We want to help vulnerable residents with fundraisers, and we have plans for a café so it can be used during the day too. Without a pub, a village can be very insular.”
Currently the pub is now just £20,000 just short of the £400,000 required to save it. And with so much support, surely the ending to this tale must involve sparkling snow and cheering villagers?
Because after this bleak year, sitting down for a pint in a cheerful community pub is a future hope we can all buy into.
Donate here: backthewhitehorse.com. The deadline to buy shares has been extended by a week.