The Old Fox Coaley – The village pub as a creative enterprise and living as part of the life of the place

Ellie and her partner bought the Old Victoria in Eastington in 2011, from Punch Taverns, when it was down at heel, as they were looking for a new venture. She owned and ran the Old Spot in Dursley with a previous partner for 25 years and now leases it to a new tenant. The only other pub in Eastington the village was turned into a hotel. She refurbished the Old Victoria with her partner and renamed it the Old Badger Inn (OBI) and it became a very successful pub focusing on real ale and good food. They worked hard at the OBI, doing over 70 hours a week and eventually sold it to Wickwar in 2017 as a going concern and then managed it until April 2019. However, she was looking for a lighter load to carry and to have some leisure time for herself and her partner and they saw that the Fox and Hounds in Coaley was on the market although they were not thinking of a new pub. The pub had been a successful village pub for 20 years until Enterprise PubCo bought it and it lost business. It closed for a while and they eventually put it on the market for less than they paid for it as a freehold and as the asking price was, ‘too good to ignore’ Ellie and partner decided to put in an offer and purchased it in the Autumn of 2018 and re-opened in the Spring of 2019.

They saw it as a creative project transforming a run-down pub in need of repair and updating and part of that was renaming it the Old Fox. They did all the designs and then talked to builders about what was possible and what wasn’t. They took down a wall in the centre of the pub that made it feel like ‘two villages’ and created an open plan space with a central servery and creating a drinking area where reservations are not usually allowed. The long 8 metre curved bar is made of English oak made by a local shipwright, Pete Meredith of The Fine Wood Article Company. ‘It’s a real centre piece and he has done a wonderful job’. It is a long bar used for storage, glasses, crisps, pumps, bar towels with bar stools along the whole of its curved length. Its footprint creates an easy waiting space. It makes the pub special and eye catching. It is also comfortable for staff unlike some very small bar areas where staff bump into one another constantly. The proprietors hated ceiling lights, not finding them attractive and so they installed wall lights that creates a cosy and warm light in the different areas.

It’s the joy of seeing this pub come to life. Villagers talk about how bad it was in the last few years, cold, poor quality ale and very few people using it. It was always running out of drink and food. Now we will provide a comfortable, warm and attractive and welcoming environment. At the end of the day we are in hospitality and have to offer something attractive.

The village supports the pub with their club meetings and attendance at quizzes and the villagers are gradually coming to eat more regularly. ‘It’s cheered up the village who haven’t been going out very much and now they are coming in once or twice a week for a snack. Village pubs need to diversify to survive, and in some cases become ‘deli’s and shops but this pub will survive without those extra outlets’ (Ellie).

However, the publicans didn’t want to be as extreme as that. They want the pub to be a pub. Children are welcome and they have games for them and colouring books but ask them to leave by 9pm after the food service. Ellie notes that ‘a regular with us now is the leader of the playgroup, who I remember as a child coming into the Old Spot with her parents at the age of six. She now has a family, but she is still using the pub as social centre’. They recognise that village pubs ‘have to wake up and make sure they are relevant to today’s customers who wish to eat and drink when it suits them’.

There’s no point in being a luddite, you need to be open to anyone. In days gone by you could open your pub doors and be as rude as you liked, however, today you need to welcome all. We have provided comfortable spaces and areas for different pub goers and offer a vibrant social scene and be enthusiastic about what you have to offer, so much so that they cannot wait to return to it. You must welcome all comers. A pub can do it and do it brilliantly (Ellie)

They are also developing good relations with other Coaley village organisations. The village has an active village hall with music, pantomimes and weddings.

We want to work together, not in competition; it’s a reciprocal relationship with the village. Their Coaley Fest is once a year and they usually buy 4 barrels of ale. I offered to look at this aspect and I got onto some of my breweries and asked for some free barrels in exchange for a credit in the Festival programme. We got them 6 barrels and sent some staff over to do it. We want to support the village in the hope they will support us (Ellie)

They love village life and being a contributor of the lifeblood of the village and maintaining a place where good social relations are enabled. Ellie enjoys sitting at the bar and chatting about politics and life with the regulars. They encourage young staff to join them as a place in which to develop their social skills, ‘learning how to talk to people, deal with any issues, and with that ‘their confidence grows, and they learn to work as a team. They get the camaraderie of that and they blossom’.

They are not rushing anything. For this first year we will sit on the donkey and see where it goes. We will see how the pub develops and guide it accordingly. We will welcome customer feedback and even get an ale that someone requests as we are a freehouse. We will do whatever we can to gain support. We are on Monday from 5pm for drinks only and there is no food Sunday evening. Food is 12-2.30 and 6-9, Tuesday to Saturday and we are open all day. After the kitchen shuts, we keep some rolls behind the bar and will look to target walkers and tourists providing afternoon teas if feasible. We have a chef we know well who has a lot of experience and an attractive quality menu and they like working for us, (Ellie).

Ellie says, ‘This is my last pub. I was 26 years at the Old Spot Dursley and 9 at the OBI so 35 years in the trade and when I am 70, I’ll still be here coming in for a sherry’. In the meantime, they don’t need a manager with both available to run the pub as it grows. ‘We need some good trained staff who can run the place when we’re not here although it will not have the turnover of our last two pubs, but it is growing, and we are working hard to develop a good solid business’.

We are going to enjoy it rather than doing lots of hours as we have done in the past. I am going to enjoy a pint at the bar. Beer is a great leveller. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor or a labourer when you get to the bar or round a table you enjoy the sociability of it, (Ellie) 

Village pubs need enthusiastic and committed owners and tenants for their pubs to survive but they also need experience and people who love the lifestyle of being immersed in the community and the life of the place.