Ann and Neil France have just been given a giant cheque and declared owners of the UK’s ‘most heartwarming’ pub by Heinz, following a nationwide search.
The couple, who have been married for 43 years — and spent 37 of those years running pubs — have turned the Kings Arms in the picturesque Cumbrian village of Burton-in-Kendal, into a place where community is a raison d’être rather than a buzzword.
The Thwaites tenancy, their first venture as tenants rather than managers, may serve hearty food and traditional ales, but it’s the Frances’ dedication to the village, its people and its welfare that has won them the award above anything else.
“It’s a good old-fashioned ethos of caring about people within the community,” says Ann. “Knowing that somebody isn’t sitting at home and thinking ‘I’d like to wander down and have a drink but will I be lonely’.
“You’ve got to look outside your front door and think about what you can do to make people feel comfortable. A pub should be all things to everybody, that’s how it should be.”
Ann spent her life as a nurse and is a firm believer that every village needs a ‘safe space’ — somewhere its people can come not just for a pint and a spot of conversation, but in their time of need.
“Anybody knows that they can wander in,” she says. “They don’t have to spend anything.”
This was put to the test during last year’s floods, which severely affected the local area and saw people in some surrounding villages literally swept out of their homes. Throughout that period, Ann and Neil didn’t hesitate to offer up their accommodation to the displaced, often free-of-charge.
But it’s not just in times of crisis that the couple’s compassion shines through. Burton-in-Kendal has a relatively older demographic and Ann and Neil are well known for dropping in on the lonely or recently bereaved.
“We had an older gentleman who sadly is no longer with us who used to come down every afternoon, have a bowl of soup and a little snooze by the fire, and then off he’d go.”
It was only some time later, when the couple went to visit him, they realised he was in his 90s, unwell and living alone, with no one caring for him. The couple began to take him all his meals, every day.
“Neil would sit with him while he ate,” recalls Ann. “Because otherwise he wouldn’t eat — he was so fed up on his own. While they were talking we’d notice he was starting to eat again. It was nice to see that he felt more comfortable.”
To win the competition, the Frances had to propose an event they would hold for the community to make use of the winning money.
There’s no hospital in the village, so they decided to host an emergency awareness day for local children.
Because children are taught to be so wary of strangers and never open the front door to someone they don’t know, there have been cases of ambulance workers being denied access to houses where parents have been seriously injured, Ann says.
“We’re going to teach them about opening the door and how to know who to open the door to and, with the older children, we’re going to give them first aid training and teach CPR, which is incredibly important.”
Local people are set to take part in masterclasses and there will be ‘plenty of e-numbers’ for the children.
“We had one incident where someone had a massive heart attack and if there hadn’t been first responders in the village, they might not be here now.” Neil smiles: “People look out for each other here.”
Two other licensees, Shirley Sanderson of the Royal Hotel in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, and Linda Maule of the Pentland Roadhouse in Loanhead, Midlothian, were also awarded runner up prizes of £10,000 each.
Sanderson is set to host a free, outdoor mini music festival for her customers, which she says will be a real celebration of her region, while Maule will use her prize money to offer weekly lunches for the community’s elderly in care homes and sheltered housing as well as providing transport to collect them and drop them back home.