What’s now known as the Castle was a folly built in 1742 on the spot where Charles I stood to watch his troops face Cromwell’s Parliamentarians in the Battle of Edgehill 100 years earlier. It was designed by architect Sanderson Miller who based it on Guy’s Tower at Warwick Castle. It’s been a pub since 1822 and was bought by Hook Norton Brewery a century later.
When my wife Claire and I took it over, it was tired and unloved and, after running it in its old state for three months, we agreed a joint investment with the brewery that created a new dining space and a glass conservatory that was open to the view. The whole place was refurbished, with new bathrooms and flooring for the letting rooms, and reopened in April 2014.
I was washing up in pubs while I was still at school and I’ve run my own pub for the past 10 years since the age of 22 when I took my first Hook Norton pub, the Carpenters Arms, at Lower Boddington, Northamptonshire. Then I took a Charles Wells lease on the Fox, at Farthinghoe, Northamptonshire, which was another big renovation job.
Being local, I’d had my eye on the Castle for a long time and asked James Clarke, the managing director at Hook Norton, to let me know as soon as it became available, which he did.
We were running the Fox and the Castle at the same time for a while before we decided it was time to focus. We came out of the Fox in October 2015 and we’ve just signed an agreement for another five years here.
We’re currently ahead of our cash flow targets and we’ve been £10,000 to £15,000 up every month this year. It’s only a tiny village so most customers drive here, but we also have walkers and cyclists coming in.
There are a lot of attractions around here and we had a lot of American visitors this summer. The National Trust’s Upton House and Gardens is nearby and attracts 200,000 visitors a year, which boosts our lunchtime trade, and we see business people from the nearby Jaguar Land Rover plant, which has 7,500 employees. Paranormal investigators meet here too, thanks to Edna the ghost.
We’re hot on social media. Facebook is massive for us. And we also send out a lot of e-shots and get some good PR. Then it’s a case of word of mouth. The view and the building sells it, really, but you have to follow that up with good food and good service.
We’ve never advertised, but we recently talked to a marketing company about how we can raise awareness, and I’m sure we can come up with something different and fun.
We’ve got a settled team here now, and that’s played a big part in our success this year. Our more senior staff have a vested interest in the business and they’re taking on more responsibility.
Darius Remisz, our front-of-house manager from Poland, has been here three years; Jorge Gurreio, from Portugal, is assistant manager; Sam Bridges is bar manager and our head chef Matt Ayres has been with us almost since the day we reopened. It’s a strong core. Staff are trained here and at the brewery, and we’re quite big on taking them to visit suppliers.
The hardest thing is recruiting kitchen staff. Getting the right chefs is never easy, there’s definitely a shortage.
In the past year, we’ve rented a house in the village that can accommodate three members of staff and that’s made a big difference because it’s a more attractive offer to employees. We’ve also helped a couple of staff get their motorcycle licence and we have a car share scheme to get them here from Banbury.
Food is a massive part of what we do, food that’s done simply but well. Our menu is all home-made pub classics and seasonal dishes. I don’t like the word ‘gastro’. This is just quality British food.
On the menu
Goats’ curd, toasted walnut, sweet beetroot, balsamic – £7
Smoked eel, mussels, samphire, carrot, tomato concasse – £10
Carpenters Farm Burger, brioche bun, tomato chutney, red cabbage slaw, triple-cooked chips – £14.25
Curried pollock, baby gem, heritage tomato, cucumber salsa – £14
Tamworth Pork tenderloin, croquette, braised baby gem, peas, black pudding bon-bon, mint & cider – £17
Roasted Gressingham duck breast, radish, redcurrant, fine beans, purée of potato – £19
Chocolate nemesis, berry preserve, clotted cream, pistachio tuile – £7
Local ice creams & sorbets – £2.50 per scoop
We have a relationship with the people who run the local allotment that supplies us with vegetables, and we have our own vegetable garden, too. We get our meat from the butcher’s at Carpenters Farm Shop five minutes’ drive away and, in return, we make them Scotch eggs and sausage rolls for their shop. We have also started catering for weddings and events at the Carpenters site.
We are free of tie for wines and spirits and soft drinks, most of which we get through Drays Wholesale in Rugby, [Warwickshire].
English wines are proving popular at the moment and we let Jorge put some Portuguese wines on the list, because we know he’ll sell them!
We also get spirits from artisan producers in the Cotswolds through the Craft Drink Company. We like to work with small companies as it gives us something a bit different, more niche, and that’s a growing thing for us.
Coffee is important, too. People know what a good coffee is now, and we sell a lot of it.
We have four rooms that each have their own character, and we could sell them twice over.
We tend to get business people in the week and couples at the weekends. It’s about a 50:50 split.
We’ve introduced a system that brings together all the online bookings, and that really has taken the business forward.
We have a variety of events here including wine tastings, street food evenings, mystery plays and live music. For our game evenings, we work with local gamekeepers to serve six courses matched with Hook Norton beers. In the summer, we hosted an open-air cinema night with a big screen in the garden, and that was really popular.
Name: Castle at Edgehill
Address: Edge Hill, Warwickshire
Tenure: Hook Norton tenancy
Licensees: Mark and Claire Higgs
Staff: 12 full time, 10 to 15 part time
Annual turnover: £960,000
Wet:dry:accommodation split: 30:60:10
Room rates: £120 weekends, £90 to £100 weekdays
We’ll be having a fancy dress Halloween party this year, too. It will fit this place perfectly.
This has always been a project for us. Stand still and you’ll be eaten up. You’ve got to get the basics right and then keep innovating. We’ll be opening another three bedrooms next year, including a room at the top of the tower that will have a 360° view and two rooms in the former manager’s flat. It’s a joint investment with Hook Norton and it should see a return within four or five years.
We’ll be getting our wedding licence any time soon, too, and that will add another string to our bow.