News that the owners of the Holywell Inn at Holywell Lake have submitted a planning application for a skittle alley, function room and guest accommodation seems to suggest that times might be getting a little better for local pub owners.
However, Holywell owner Vic Bigg advises caution: “This idea is only in its infancy at the moment and I would be unwilling to make any comment until we have actually gained permission to construct and have fixed costings and timescales as well as Building Regulations acceptance in place. I don’t want to raise people’s hopes and then dash them afterwards if this proposed project never takes place.”
Despite such understandable caution, the submission of a planning application is a sign of optimism. A pub which is looking to the future rather than facing closure is good news for the local community. It comes at a time when there has been more bad news than good for pubs nationally. In May the Campaign for Real Ale reported a 50% increase in pub closures this year – up to 26 every week which is the highest rate of closure since 1904 when the Compensation Act forced 10% of pubs to close.
In the last few years no fewer than 259 pubs have closed in Somerset, five of them in Wellington. The Sportsman, Ship Inn, Sandford Arms and The Three Cups have all been converted to housing and The Eight Bells has become a commercial property.
On the plus side, the Dolphin Inn in Waterloo Rd, has just celebrated its first anniversary since re-opening with four days of live music in the garden and a lively aquatic mural on the pub’s façade. According to licensee Anna Madams, business is building steadily, on a basis of home-cooked food, live music and a family-friendly environment.
Competition from supermarkets, changes in social habits, high business rates, duty on beer and the smoking ban are all factors that have contributed to the decline in pub use but publicans who have embraced change have proved that there is still a place for the local both in towns such as Wellington and in their immediate environments.
Good food, interesting and varied menus, a pleasant environment and courteous service all seem to be winners with customers as thriving pubs have shown; Sunday roasts, facilities for darts’ and skittles’ teams and functions such as birthdays and weddings have proved successful in others. Some landlords have actually reduced opening hours to evenings and weekends and have seen business improve as a result.
There is help too from central government. In the last budget in March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer scrapped the beer duty escalator which increased beer prices 2% above inflation.
It is too soon to suggest that the dramatic decline in the pub has come to an end but it could be that enterprising and ambitious landlords can save those that are left and, in doing so, maintain the place of the pub as an institution.
Report & Photos: Gill Paltridge