My Pub: The Bull at Ditchling

By Emily Hawkins contact

- Last updated on GMT

Bullish about the future: General manager Molly Raftery at the Bull, Ditchling, explains what makes her pub so special
Bullish about the future: General manager Molly Raftery at the Bull, Ditchling, explains what makes her pub so special

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Nestled in the rolling Sussex countryside, those running the Bull are determined to excel. General manager Molly Raftery explains how the freehouse pairs its ambition with a down-to-earth approach.

The operator

I have been here since owners Dominic and Vanessa Worrall bought the pub in 2003. I grew up in a neighbouring village and a friend begged me to help out in the busy summers. When I left college I joined the team full-time and very quickly found a real passion for the industry. The couple trained me up from scratch. I was washing dishes and servicing tables when I first started, and now
I fully run the business.

Like a lot of kids in their first jobs, I worked in a couple of catering positions. I didn’t have a specific plan for what to do after school, I had some thought I might work for the airlines as cabin crew. I met Dominic and Vanessa and was so inspired by what they wanted to do with the pub. They are such amazing people to work for. They had never owned a pub before and put everything on the line to get it. To see how much love someone has for an independent pub and the industry they have chosen to work in was very inspiring to me at a young age. They took me under their wing and trained me. I did brewery courses and my WSET qualifications under them. The customer relationship is like no other job. I never get a feeling of not wanting to come to work.

The pub 

THE BULL GARDEN

The Bull is one of the oldest buildings in Ditchling village, and has been welcoming travellers and locals for over 500 years. It dates back to the early 16th century, when it was used as an overnight resting place for the monks who kept a medicinal herb garden on what is now the village green. The Lords of the Manor, the Nevill family, were the original owners. Their coat of arms, which has a bull’s head at its crest, is responsible for the name. In the early 19th century our pub was a popular stop for London to Brighton coaches, whose drivers used its stables as their last changing post before the steep ascent over Ditchling Beacon. Beer was brewed here until 1861, in a brew house attached to the main building.

The Bull saw a succession of lively owners until it went into receivership in early 2000. The current owners, Dominic Worrall and his wife Vanessa, an artist, rescued it in 2003. It was very run-down and had lost its soul. Their plan was to bring it back to life and make it one of the best pubs in the country. In one of our first ever staff meetings, Dominic’s line originally was ‘I want to make this the best pub in Sussex’. As you can imagine, it was absolutely amazing when we were crowned Best Freehouse and then Best Pub at the Great British Pub Awards in 2016. This year we were crowned Best Freehouse again. I think we hit the target and topped that original aim.

We had planned to expand for many years because of how busy we were. We were limited for tables and had six chefs working out of a very small kitchen. Trade was coming in through the door and we essentially didn’t have enough tables and spaces for everybody. We converted a couple of derelict barns and invested £1m into the renovation project. This gave us a brand new dining space with an extra 45 covers. It gave us an area for booked tables, prior to this you just couldn’t book a table at the Bull. It was first come, first served only. We were used to people running in the door to get their fave table on time.

Now we have a beautiful state-of-the-art trade kitchen and have increased the catering staff to eight full-time chefs. The head chef designed the kitchen from scratch so they can push forward on new menus and improve even more.

We added more bedrooms, from four to six. The existing bars were given a refurb and a new bar was built. We also did a lot of work in our garden, putting in an outside kitchen and bar. You can order drinks, pizza and barbecue foods out there now. We have created 10 to 12 further roles since the upscale, employing local people, which had a great impact on our community.

Most of our key members of staff have been with us for years, which I think it is a bit unheard of in this industry. Our GBPA judge could not believe that it was the same manager, assistant manager, head chef and sous chef. We’re very lucky. It gives you the confidence you’re doing something right.

The offer

I would still describe us as a proper British pub – that has always been the aim. We don’t really love the term ‘gastropub’, although I suppose we are somewhat. It is important to us to never forget the drinkers. A pub is originally built on drinkers and although the food offering has become increasingly important, at the heart of being a pub is your community. We want to take our customers on the journey with us and ensure they believe in what we choose to do. We have always been really lucky that our customer base comes from all over.

We are surrounded by some amazing villages, Brighton is on our doorstep, and London is only an hour away. Right from the start, people seemed to get what we were trying to achieve and support us in that.

Although you can come here for an amazing meal with fantastic homecooked, fresh food, you can also sit at the bar with a paper, and a pint of real ale – everybody is just as welcome.
You don’t walk in and feel as though you’re not important if you’re not eating. Since refurbishing the bar, we have even more space and it is an amazing vibe. There are low beams, it’s dark and cosy, with a fire roaring and everyone packed in on a Friday or Saturday night.

The drinks

THE BULL BAR

You don’t see any mainstream brands on our bar. Our own Bedlam brewery is nearby, on the outskirts of the village. We are its taphouse and have a lot of its products, but also support many other local breweries. We want people to come to the bar and find something different, whether it is a local brewer or a small producer from elsewhere. We deal with lots of craft breweries people here would not have been introduced to before seeing it on our bar. For example, we have a Hawaiian lager and work with a lot of London craft breweries.

We have a wine list that we change four times a year. We deal with a proper family-run vintners, Hennings Wine in Pulborough, over in West Sussex. We try to offer as many of our wines by the glass as possible, so people are more likely to try something different. Rather than just having high-end wines by the bottle that may be difficult to sell and that people don’t want to commit to, we have 10 whites and 10 reds. We try to keep that exciting by changing it. We stock a lot of Sussex gins and vodkas. We are always on the lookout for new and exciting products. We have an award-winning vineyard, Ridgeview, just up the road from us. It is our best-selling wine, an English sparkling. The people of Ditchling absolutely love it.

Low- and no-alcohol is becoming more and more important but we actually find it a struggle to find enough variety. Nanny State by BrewDog, a fantastic low-alcohol pale ale, is very popular, and we recently discovered Seedlip. People still feel like they’re drinking, so it is nice. We have lovely local pressés and juices and other alternatives.

The events

We have really popular monthly pub quiz nights. It is really important to do those things people love about a pub. We do DJ sets in the garden throughout the summer. We have a social cinema, a big pop-up screen. They are all free, we just want to do nice things for the community. Our New Year’s Eve party every year is huge and we donate proceeds to a local charity. We always host a Christmas carol night which is supported by our local secondary school.

We choose a different charity or foundation to support each year, and focus these efforts in December. Our main focus in the past few years has been supporting our local schools. There have been a lot of funding cuts and you can really see the difference your fundraising can make. We raise between £2,000 to £3,000 every December. Most recently we funded special care for mental health.

The future

It is 12 months since our expansion work was completed and we relaunched. It has been a crazy year, with lots of new things to explore and new customers through the door. Although there are no set targets right now, we believe you should not stop evolving. There is always something new to try and better you can do. 

The uncertainty of Brexit scares everybody to an extent but we are confident in what we do. We know that what we provide is fantastic and if we continue along the same lines as we’re going, we’re pretty confident about the future.

  • Interested in running a pub? You can find out more about pubs for sale, lease and tenancy on the MA’s​ property site​.

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