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"We've had our ups and downs," says Martin Roberts, who has run the Royal Oak at Leigh Sinton, near Worcester, for the last nine years. "But the...

"We've had our ups and downs," says Martin Roberts, who has run the Royal Oak at Leigh Sinton, near Worcester, for the last nine years. "But the trick is pre-empting the downs by making sure that you are ready for them."

Next summer's smoking ban is a case in point. The Royal Oak is one pub which is ready for the ban - so much so that it took the Best Use of Outdoor Space prize, sponsored by The Publican, at the Union Pub Company (UPC) awards presented at Alton Towers earlier this month.

In fact the way that Martin, and now his new business partner and co-licensee James Tomson, have developed the outdoor area at the Royal Oak over the years has helped it to a string of prizes - including four out of the five awards it has been shortlisted for at the UPC event in recent years.

The awards help, he says, but for Martin running the pub is all about giving its customers an environment they can feel comfortable in, be that inside or outside.

And those customers certainly seem to enjoy the outdoor area at the pub, which thanks to the use of heaters and a roof overhead is used all year round and in effect doubles the trading space of the pub.

"It's quite a small garden but we've got one heated and covered area which takes 22 people, and further areas which can seat 16 and five people," says Martin.

"We have recently carpeted the areas with artificial turf, which has helped make a real feature of them."

The outside area really came alive during the summer months, when Martin and James placed a TV outside to make the most of the World Cup.

A change of direction

A licensee for 38 years, Martin hails originally from the Channel Islands, where he ran a poultry farm and worked as a butcher. After coming to England he ran three hotels and four other pubs before arriving at the Royal Oak nine years ago.

It's been a successful nine years, but new life has been breathed into the Royal Oak recently with the arrival of James.

Four-and-a-half years ago he was living in the village and working in the pub part-time while he was studying for his A-levels - and now he is a partner in the business.

"James is a really good guy. I didn't want to lose him, so he has taken a much bigger role in the business. The age gap is quite big between us but it means we both bring completely different ideas into the pub," says Martin.

"Since James came in we've taken on a more modern approach, and we recently decorated inside."

As well as the garden, the pub is becoming increasingly famous in this corner of the Midlands for its food.

"All our food is traditional, freshly produced and home-cooked - we use as many local producers as we can," says James.

"Our most popular dishes at this time of year are our casseroles and our liver and bacon."

Trading at the pub is split 50/50 between food and drink, with the traditional English fare supplemented by French and Italian themed evenings, inspired in part by Martin's trips abroad.

"It's all as fresh and simple as it can be," comments Martin. "I think people should be able to recognise what's on their plate. We don't deep-fry anything. But I have banned peas. When I first got into the pub trade peas were everywhere, everything came with chips and peas. So I've rebelled against that."

With a growing food business and an outside area which can be used all year round, the Royal is just the sort of pub that is ideally placed as the smoking ban gets closer.

The key to making a success of the ban, believes Martin, will be for licensees to make the most of whatever they've got.

"One of the areas that we've created here is in a little alleyway between the shed and the wall. I asked the local conservatory people to make me a covered area," he says.

"We've shown here that you can do an awful lot with a small space."

The winning formula

The pub: The Royal Oak

The location: Leigh Sinton, near Worcester

The licensees: Martin Roberts and James Tomson

The pub won the Best Use of Outdoor Space award, sponsored by The Publican, at the Union Pub Company Awards 2006, in recognition of its outdoor trading area.

The pub offers three outside areas which have in effect doubled its trading space, including a covered, heated area which seats 22 and which is popular all year round.

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