Meet the first-time publican who turned a wreck into Britain's Pub of the Year

The Wonston Arms
The Wonston Arms had been derelict Credit: Handout

Taking over a derelict pub is a challenge for anyone, let alone a complete beginner. “I was staggered at how heavy a cask of beer is,” says Matt Todd of his first day in charge of the Wonston Arms. “I picked up a nine-gallon and went: ‘Blimey!’ I picked up an 11-gallon and went: ‘Crikey!’”

That was four years ago, and at that point the idea of the Wonston Arms being named the best pub in the country was as realistic as the village football team winning the Premier League. The pub had been getting shabbier and emptier by the year, and was destined for redevelopment into housing when Todd, then working for Nokia in sales and marketing, had an idea. He would quit his job, he decided, and spend his savings on buying the pub. His wife, Lisa, didn’t approve, but Todd had fond memories of the convivial pubs of his childhood and thought he could make something similar of the Wonston Arms.

It was a huge gamble, he says, “but I believed the market was changing. I believed there was a lack of those places, what I remember pubs to be like in the Seventies, in the north of England.” Todd’s vision was of a pub that would offer the residents of the small Hampshire village a friendly place to unwind and get to know each other. It wouldn’t serve food, he determined, because sit-down meals are anathemic to meeting new people. It wouldn’t be part of a chain or connected to a brewery, and would therefore be able to to source a wide range of beers and spirits.

Four years ago, the pub was a wreck Credit: Handout

Todd, 50, had faith in his plan for a wet freehouse, but was shocked by the state of the pub he’d bought. “I sunk a lot of money into it” – hundreds of thousands of pounds – “and bought a basket case. I honestly thought: ‘Christ, what have I done?’”

Without the support of his neighbours, Todd might have failed to make a presentable pub of the Wonston. He and his wife Lisa, a singer who runs a music school, had moved to the village six years earlier, in 2009, because of Matt’s job, and in that time had made friends whose help would later be invaluable. “For two years,” says Todd, “I renovated the pub during the week with the locals and I pulled pints in the evening. We did it together.”

It was a dramatic lifestyle change and Todd (above) loved it. For years, he had hated going to work. Now his commute was a 600-yard walk to the pub, and as a result of being on his feet all day, he lost a stone and a half. He had started as an amateur, but was learning how to treat cask ales and, just as importantly, how to lift them. Villagers who had abandoned the pub years ago began to trickle back, first to see how the new management was doing, then out of habit. The pub’s calendar began to fill with quizzes, folk and jazz performances, photography club meetings and darts matches. The only hot food the pub served was from pop-up stalls, with local vendors coming to sell fish and chips, pizza and curry. Another upshot: Lisa started coming to the pub with her friends.

Todd’s had hoped to get the Wonston Arms into the Good Beer Guide published by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra). He managed it in 2017, just two years after buying it. Then, at the end of last year, he learned that his pub was one of the four finalists in Camra’s Pub of the Year category. The other finalists were the Cricketers Arms in St Helens, Merseyside; the Chequers in Little Gransden; and the Volunteer Arms in Musselburgh. To be part of that group, Todd recalls, was in itself “an amazing privilege”.

When the call came to say the Wonston Arms had won the top prize, Todd was in Antigua supporting a local, Sam Bolt-Lawrence, who was doing a sponsored row across the Atlantic. It was one of several causes that the pub and its patrons had supported, and Todd recalls being more focused on assisting Bolt-Lawrence than on enjoying the accolade.

But when it sank in, he says, “it was amazing. Blimey.” He says the prize is as much for his fellow villagers as for him. “I’ve changed from being a corporate boy to being a publican who’s renovated a derelict pub and brought it back to life, and it’s never felt like a day’s work, ever ever ever. I just love being part of this community, and everyone’s made it happen. I can pull pints now – I never could before – and they’ve all decorated it with me, doing building work, painting, relaying floors, carpets. Everyone's chipped in and given of their time to make this place what it is.”

The award, whose criteria were atmosphere, decoration, welcome, service, community focus and the quality of the beer, will be presented at the Wonston Arms today. Todd, who only learned to lift a cask four years ago, deserves to roll out the barrel.