Ever walked into a pub and felt in your bones that it's something really special? Not just for the pint you're about to get, or the awesome food, or the company you're with... but in the very fabric of the building. The bricks and mortar. The heart and soul of the place?
Well, that's how we feel the minute we step inside The Packhorse, in the idyllic village of South Stoke, just outside Bath - and there's a very good reason for that. This Grade II listed 15th century tavern has been at the centre of an amazing story... and the people who live in this picturesque Somerset community have been on quite a journey to own it!
That's right... they joined together and raised over £1million to buy back and restore their beloved village pub, rescuing it from owners who were determined to turn it into office space and housing for profit. For a much-loved tavern that's helped to create so many brilliant memories for a whole host of people over the last 150 years, that was never going to happen without a fight!
As we sit in the sunshine in the beautifully transformed Packhorse garden, and try some tasters from the fab menu created by Head Chef Dan Vosper, we chat to Krow Coles and Dom Moorhouse, who both live in South Stoke and who were an integral part of the six-year campaign to 'Save the Packhorse' (back in the day, Krow might've had a few pints of shandy here as an underaged drinker too! ;) Hey... we're not qualified to judge, let me tell you!).
Anyway, Dom explains why it was so important that the pub wasn't lost:
"Every time I come down here, there's always people I know and The Packhorse was the only place in the village where everyone - old or young, new or long-term resident - would meet up with their neighbours and friends. If it had closed, the loss to the village would've been huge. The pub brings people together".
That feeling of belonging and social connection was definitely something worth fighting for if you ask us, and after an initial village hall meeting that was, to quote campaign chairperson Penny Townsend, "rammed to the rafters", something magical began to happen. The story of saving The Packhorse started to spread and the group pooled their considerable skill and talent, talking about their dream to buy back the pub to anyone who would listen.
Nine months and tons of steely determination later, the pub was added to Bath & North East Somerset's Assets of Community Value list, which gave that dream a big boost! It meant the then owner had to give the local community up to six months to put together a bid to buy it, if he ever decided to sell. When that moment eventually came, there were stalled and protracted negotiations, frustrations, a last-ditch attempt by the owner to get planning permission for a change of use to residential (that failed :)) and many more twists and turns in this remarkable tale of a community that just wouldn't give up on their beloved boozer!
Like any good versus greed story, the battle to buy The Packhorse had ups and downs which played out over several years, but the group of visionary villagers never lost their spirit.
You can read their detailed story on The Packhorse website right here, but by the end, the 'Save the Packhorse' campaign had clocked up over 40,000 hits on Facebook, coverage in the local and national press (The Guardian, Daily Mail and The Telegraph no less!) and the story of this beautiful pub in the Somerset countryside was even reported in The Moscow Times and CBS news, Stateside!
So, what was it that captured people's hearts and minds? What made this campaign to save a local treasure, evolve into the biggest buy-back project in British history? What inspired 430 shareholders from within the village and beyond to raise a phenomenal amount through investment, events and sheer dogged determination by the time the pub reopened six years after time was first called on it?
Well, as Krow tells us:
"The history of this beautiful old building and the stories of the pub over the generations really struck a chord far and wide and a 'society' of people, who each invested a minimum of £500, saved the day".
"Whether people invested larger or smaller amounts, no-one was ever interested in making any money back - this was all about a genuine love for the beautiful building, the pub as a hub for the community and nostalgia for days gone by. One lovely couple even wrote to us to say that although they couldn't invest the full amount, they wanted to donate £200 because they'd had their first date in The Packhorse many years ago. This heartfelt gesture, and so many more like it, sums up just how much it meant to everyone whose lives had been touched by the pub - or to people who heard the story and wanted to lend a hand".
This dream was about so much more than money... and for us, that's one of the things that makes it so very special. All kinds of people came together to donate their time, skills and pour their hearts and souls into renovating the pub - and it certainly needed all the TLC and expertise of this incredible bunch. By the time the community bought it, The Packhorse had definitely seen better days, following years of underinvestment... plus, there was the little matter of a new kitchen needing to be built on the back!
During the hard work, some historic features within the building were uncovered. Builders found a priest hole under the timber beams (where Catholic priests hid from persecution in the 16th century) and a damaged original 17th century stone fireplace was also discovered.
Restoring that beauty was definitely a job for a Master Stonemason... but where would the team find one of those at short notice? They put a shout out on social media (as you do! ;)) and as if by magic, two of their followers came back from France for a week to get the job done!
That's just one example of the generosity, care and enthusiasm of the many volunteers, advisers, skilled artisans, makers, designers, technicians, gardeners and community-minded local businesses who either donated their time for free, or at a heavy discount.
The Packhorse is unique for many reasons, but as the sentiment on this board in the pub hallway that recognises key contributors puts it:
"The Packhorse truly is the product of a thousand generous hands".
As we walk around The Packhorse, we get a real feel for the authentic - and the team's genuine desire to "restore not reinvent".
We've got to give a shout out to Krow here too, as he tells us he'd been collecting furniture for the pub ever since the battle for ownership began! He had tons of it piling up at home... just waiting for the day it could be restored and put in its rightful place in The Packhorse. Thank flip it all happened, or Krow would've either had a hell of a lot of chairs hanging around... or he would've had to have opened a pub round his place! ;)
Anyway, you know we mentioned the garden... well, we've got to show you some before and after shots of it. The transformation was immense and the team, led by awesome gardener Alex Keene, worked their bleeping arses off to put it bluntly! ;)
We bump into Alex on our afternoon at the pub (he's just popped in to check on the progress of some of the 200 planted species here) and we're blown away when he tells us that...
"Over 1,000 volunteer hours were spent in the garden alone. We moved 15 tonnes of soil by hand... it was definitely no ordinary gardening project".
Well ain't that the truth! Absolutely worth it though, as it's such a lush spot to sit with a local Stoney Bonk cider and while away the hours *sigh*! :)
So, after all this incredible work and the rollercoaster ride of buying back The Packhorse, what do you think the team's proudest moment is? There's got to be so many, right? Well, Krow sums it up when he says:
"It's got to be the day we reopened... suddenly seeing so many happy people, seeing everyone having a good time in 'our' pub! You sit back and think 'it wouldn't have been here, like this, but for all our hard work'. So much history would've been lost, but now we have the chance to make even more history".
And as we chat to Packhorse manager, James Dixon, he tells us about meeting a couple on the hill outside the pub, when he first moved to the village. They simply told him:
“it’s just so lovely to see the light on”.
Well, we might have a small tear in our eye on hearing that... but don't tell anyone! :)
The reopening of the pub has meant so much to the community of South Stoke. Brian Perkins (now aged 87) who was born in the pub when it was run by his family (and who had his wedding reception in The Packhorse), poured the very first pint on the special day the doors opened again. How flipping wonderful is that? We're sure the pub brightens the days of everyone who visits too, because when you're here you can sense every ounce of passion, drive and determination that's gone into turning the dream into reality.
As we go to leave the bar, James shares with us why he thinks The Packhorse is so special...
"There’s a lot of love for the pub which is why it’s here... it's love that resonates through the place".
Wow. We really couldn't have put it any better ourselves!
Pop into the Packhorse for gorgeous food (with a focus on local ingredients), a perfect pint, a lovely atmosphere and to soak up the story for yourself. There's lots of events happening too, with Supper clubs and celebrations - so follow The Packhorse on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for all the latest.
Thanks to The Packhorse for the use of the photos of their campaign and the renovations.