My Pub: the Black Swan, Ravenstonedale, Cumbria

By Emily Hawkins contact

- Last updated on GMT

Best inn show: Louise Dinnes from the Black Swan, Cumbria, explains what makes the award-winning site so special
Best inn show: Louise Dinnes from the Black Swan, Cumbria, explains what makes the award-winning site so special

Related tags: Cumbria, Awards

The Black Swan has managed to stay true to its role as a village pub while thriving by targeting different markets. Owner Louise Dinnes explains what makes the Cumbrian inn – which took home Best Inn in last year’s Great British Pub Awards – so special.

The operator

My late husband and I bought the pub in 2006. My parents managed a pub for Scottish & Newcastle when I was a teenager, but I didn’t help behind the bar or anything, so we didn’t have any experience at all. We were both in corporate jobs and I worked for a medical company in Europe, and my husband was in marketing. He became ill and I decided I needed to be at home more so I came up with the stupid idea that I would buy a pub. I knew I didn’t want to be travelling away from home and I wanted something where I could be with my husband more. I was good with people because I worked in sales and marketing, my husband was very good with figures. I really enjoy cooking and interior design.

At first, we were not sure whether we would buy a B&B, hotel or pub. It took about a year and a half – we looked everywhere from the highlands of Scotland down to Cornwall. We benefited from doing up old houses at the peak of the market in 2006 and made enough money by selling our house.

The pub

We had to buy somewhere that was rundown because we could not afford it otherwise. We stumbled across the Black Swan and I knew when I drove into the village that it was right. Ravenstonedale is a beautiful conservation village, well placed location-wise for getting to, and with various markets to target. At the time I wasn’t that clever, I just fell in love with it. We bought it when it was barely trading, it was in very bad condition and the occupancy was very poor. But it meant we could afford the price. Ravenstonedale is an historic village, there have been Gilbertine monks here since the 12th century. There has been a pub on the site since 1600, it is a traditional coaching inn, situated on the east-west trade route. It was burnt down and demolished at the turn of the century, so our building is Victorian, from about 1895. It was a coaching inn so it always had rooms, though a lot fewer than we have now. It has quite a lot of history.

You wouldn’t know it to see it now, but the pub was very run down when the Dinneses bought it
You wouldn’t know it to see it now, but the pub was very run down when the Dinneses bought it

The offer

We managed to build up good contacts with companies providing bespoke coast-to-coast walking holidays to the US market. We connected with them in the early days and tourists now stay two or three nights. We have an interesting customer base that visits us about three times a week from May to September. Staff meet lots of unusual and interesting people – it mixes it up a bit.

Although our accommodation is mainly leisure, we do have a little bit of a business element as we are placed so close to the M6. It is crucial to tap into as many markets as possible and we do that with walking packages and out-of-season schemes like fishing and golf.From the start, we have tried to maintain it as a locals’ pub. The rooms were crucial because, nowadays, it is very difficult – unless you are in a busy city centre – to make a wet-led pub work.

But we didn’t want a hotel where nobody knew each other and there was no community feel. That side of it was really important. The first thing we did when we moved into the village was write a letter to all the locals, put it through every door to find out what they wanted. It was important we got our offer right for the locals because it is about a six-mile drive to the nearest small town. We have a catchment area of about 500 village residents, with other small villages, hamlets and farms nearby. A local customer base gives such a feel to a place and visitors like talking to locals too.

We expanded the hotel aspect by adding rooms. Accommodation is where the income comes from to help pay all the horrible overheads we have now. We are a country inn, in a walking and cycling area, well-placed for the M6 for people stopping on journeys to Scotland or travelling down south. People on short breaks tend to be middle-aged, middle England and, above all, want a nice, relaxed countryside break or get-together with friends, treating themselves to good food.

The food

The food is crucial, we have built it up over the years from me being in the kitchen. I thought it was a good idea as I love to cook but then discovered I possibly didn’t love cooking in a commercial
kitchen – there is a big difference. I did that for a couple of years. We started with good, wholesome, rustic pub food, and now we make our own chocolate and do everything. In the past two years, we have taken it up a step; our head chef Scott Fairweather has taken us to two AA rosettes now. We are a destination for dining now, but he keeps it very true to the pub environment. Although it is that step above, it is still food that is in keeping with its surroundings and very seasonal. Scott nurtures his team and you would never know when he was having one of his rare days off – he is an absolute star.

We have just come through the game season. We had on a wonderful venison casserole with dumplings. As well as fish and chips, we always have a really good aged rib eye on the menu and a rustic dish like a casserole. Then there are fine-dining dishes. Scott has just put a fantastic dish on, a local free-range pork with chorizo and octopus – it’s absolutely amazing. We get the lovely job of testing these dishes before they go out. Our starter menu currently has a cheese and cauliflower soufflé and we recently had a Christmas pudding soufflé, with the delights of the flavour without the heaviness and fat.

Bar snacks include venison sausages, salt and pepper squid and courgette fritters.

The drinks

We work closely with local microbreweries, we always have a good selection of about four cask ales on every day, unusual lagers, and a nice premium feature lager. We worked with Black Sheep from day one. We have about 25 local cask suppliers, as well as the usual draught offerings. We also have the gin bar that everyone has now.

Our bar manager Dan Barwick is very good at working with our chef and coming up with cocktails and drinks that match the food. We try to ensure that we do the best we can with everything, it is a tough industry now. People don’t tend to drink from bottles here. We do lots of mocktails, such as a lovely elderflower and lime one, and ones using Fever-Tree products. We try to have a good deal of inventive options as a lot of people have moved that way.

The trade and the staff

Everyone in this industry knows it is hard. I have found the past two years have been the hardest because the overheads have just gone absolutely crazy. It is really difficult. In the most recent run of rates, my costs doubled. They went from £22,000 up to £60,000. I managed to negotiate them down to £52,000 but you don’t get anything for it. It is just crazy the way prices have gone up. Standard costs like electricity and gas prices have also increased. All these financial burdens add up, along with pay rises. We have always salaried our staff and never paid minimum wage or had seasonal or transient staff, which I think is really important. We keep a core staff of about 20. Most of them are full time and have been with us for a long time. We work together as a family and a team, we motivate and help each other.

You reap what you sow with staff. We close annually and I take them on holiday for a trip away. I’m like their mum. In difficult times or when they’re having trouble with something, we all help each other. It is just common sense. If you’re happy and feel valued then you are not going to look elsewhere. Staffing is probably the hardest part of the business. Although maybe the salary burden might be higher, you have that loyalty and customers love coming back year after year and knowing the staff. It makes it a nicer experience for them.

The events

We have a usual Christmas package and New Year’s Eve music package – we enjoyed a local live band for New Year. It was fabulous and everyone was dancing in the bar, which was great fun. We are lucky to have a lovely woodland, riverside garden, with games out there for people to enjoy. We added three beautiful canvas glamping tents last year – we’re always trying to think of quirky, new things. We have had a music festival and beer festivals. We had a hoedown in the garden with a bucking bronco and fancy dress. We do as many events as we can, given that, from May to September, the hotel is fairly busy.

Getting that balance of having events and having residents is a bit tricky sometimes, unless all the residents are at the event then you always have that problem with noise. We do weddings with a marquee in the garden. My daughter is getting married in the garden in May. We use our grounds as much as we can. Summer last year was fantastic so it was really nice to have a good space for eating and drinking outside. We also did a lot of fundraising for defibrillators because we are quite a long way from hospitals and we trained our staff as first responders.

The future

We always try to re-invest, especially in regularly updating our accommodation over. Moving forward this winter, we are focusing on marketing our glamping tents better. We found our guests that would stay in the rooms would not necessarily be the same that would stay in the glamping tents. We will look at marketing them through glamping websites. 

A focus is developing more packages for people to come to us out of season, hopefully working with other local companies. For example, there is a paragliding company just a few minutes away from us. Our walking packages work very well so it is looking at what can be done in winter. Trying to fill those beds out of season and being better with the marketing side of it is something we are working on improving. We do use social media regularly but we can get a bit smarter with it.

Food-wise, Scott would like his third rosette and Michelin Bib Gourmand – that would be his ultimate dream. We’re good enough so we will aim for that. Being happy and having fun is my number one priority, I want to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves.

Related topics: Marketing

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