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Crazy or canny? That’s the gist of what people are thinking when they hear ambitious newcomers talking about making a mark on the pub industry right now.
Up and down the country today publicans are scrambling to get things pulled together ahead of the most important day in the industry this year so far, an industry battered and bruised by events of the past year.
And, come tomorrow, they will slap the bandages on and start taking small steps back to normality for the third time, and with any luck, the last time.
These two sets of publicans have upended their lives to follow their dreams of running a pub – and not even a pandemic was going to stop them from making that happen.
Here we talk to the new landlords of The Top House Inn, on the Lizard, and The New Inn, in Tywardreath – two very different premises with one very similar goal – bring the pub back to the punters and bring the punters back to the pub.
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For Margaret and Andy Sutherland, upending their entire lives and running a pub in Cornwall was – for years – just a pipe dream.
So when Andy was made redundant last year the couple took it as a sign and decided to make the most out of the cards they had been dealt.
The pair, who have years of experience in the industry, were previously running a holiday complex in the Dordogne, in France, before returning to the UK to live in Norfolk.
Travelling down from their previous home, almost 400 miles away, the couple viewed The Top House, on the Lizard, on the first day of the second lockdown and became tenants on the first day of the third lockdown – so they knew what they were getting themselves into.
But they wouldn’t have it any other way, with Andy saying the life they are now living became possible because of Covid.
The 66-year-old was working in cyber security but was made redundant early last year while Margaret, 61, was working as a nurse – which she loved – but they were ready for a change of pace.
“Me losing my job gave us a chance to reevaluate and I just decided that I didn’t want to work for anyone else any longer, I wanted to work for myself,” said Andy.
“We obviously thought long and hard about it but we just felt it was far more an opportunity than a threat so that’s why we jumped right in.
“We haven’t come into this totally fresh but obviously taking on a licensed premises in the UK is a different kettle of fish so we’re on a massive learning curve, but we have had some great help from people in our family who are already doing it.”
Now three months into prep and renovations the couple are eager to get started and have high hopes to revive the pub as the heart and hub of the village.
“The pub had been closed for twelve months and so it was in a dilapidated spate but St Austell Brewery has done loads of work on it ready for us while we renovate the inside,” said Andy.
“We can’t see ourselves moving on, this is our home now and we want to make the best of this and become part of the community and we are heavily invested, not just financially, but emotionally.”
But of course, the pub industry has been turned on its head by the pandemic, something Andy says has actually worked in their favour.
“We’ve really had a blank sheet of paper which has meant we can work around provisions and that has been useful. It’s also given us an opportunity to do a more extensive renovation, with the not being able to open, and we’ve been lucky to have government help to be able to do that.”
And the couple have high hopes that no matter what happens, people are always going to want to return to the local.
“We’re being approached everyday by locals who say they cant wait to come in after it being closed for twelve months and when we explain our intentions and the philosophy behind it they seem very pleased.
“We also have the letting rooms and we’re getting bookings coming in everyday at the moment so we know people want to come here and that people are desperate to get away.
“So we think, yes, it is a gamble, but it’s a calculated risk and one we are quite comfortable we will succeed with here because we’ve got such a fantastic place to show people.”
Forty miles up the south coast of Cornwall lies another pub with some very different landlords.
The New Inn, in Tywardreath, also a St Austell Brewery venue, joins the Top House as one of the Cornish pubs to see new ownership this year.
Brothers Christian, 49, and Steve Hanks, 45, have taken over the license after viewing it for the first time six months ago – also in the midst of Covid-19.
And having both worked in pubs in nearby Fowey for decades between them, they are no strangers to the game.
Unlike the Sutherlands’, this sibling duo had been looking for years to take on their own space but were waiting for the right spot to come up, so when it did, not even a pandemic was stopping them.
“We had been thinking about this for a few years,” explained Steve. “And then this pub came up and we were very interested. So it was a few years in the making.”
Speaking of the restrictions they are facing as publicans Steve said “we’ve just got to live with them”.
“We’ve been living with them in our industry since July now, so we’re used to them, and we feel that as long as we do what we are told and people visiting do what they have been told. If everybody plays their part then everybody should be happy.
Christian added: “Everyone’s just got to follow the rules, you don’t want to end up being the Covid police which is what we found ourselves feeling like in our previous jobs last summer.”
“There’s worry and excitement,” explained Steve. “We’re worried about people coming to the pub and spending time here, but we do think we will have a bounce back in the next couple of months.
“It’s fortunate to be taking over now, not in the winter, the days are only going to get warmer and longer so it’s a good time for us to start.”
“There’s excitement and trepidation, like there is with anything new you start, but it’s more excitement,” said Christian. “Apart from when you wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking about wine glasses.”
But the pair think there will be no problem filling up the beer garden joking, “if everyone who says they are excited to come down, actually comes down, we’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Both The Top House, on the Lizard, and The New Inn, Tywardreath are planning to open on April 12 for outdoors seating and will open indoor facilities in line with the Governments road-map out of lockdown.
Our brand new podcast about life in Devon and Cornwall the year coronavirus shut down the world and the staycation boom that followed – Unwelcome Visitor: Pandemic in the UK’s Playground will be available on all major podcast providers from April 12.
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