My Pub: the Royal Oak, Hail Weston, Cambridgeshire

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Close-knit village: The Hail Weston Community Pub Society refused to allow the last pub disappear and now owns it
Close-knit village: The Hail Weston Community Pub Society refused to allow the last pub disappear and now owns it
The Royal Oak has become a standard bearer of pubs but it was almost a pub that never meant to be. Tony Baker, one of The Hail Weston Pub Company directors, reveals all about the fight the community took on.

The pub

The Royal Oak is many people’s idea of a classic village pub: thatched roof, open fire, small, cosy rooms and a history dating back to the 17th century. But we nearly lost it all.

Back in November 2011, Charles Wells, its then owner, decided to sell the Royal Oak and the pub shut its doors on New Year’s Day 2012. Before long, the new owner was advertising it as a ‘cottage’ and ‘former public house’. He even sold off part of the large pub garden for potential development.

But we’re a close knit village – and one that likes a pint – so we weren’t prepared to lose the last pub in the village and a fightback began. We formed the Hail Weston Community Pub Society, which campaigned successfully to have the Royal Oak registered as Huntingdonshire’s first asset of community value (ACV), which effectively stopped it being sold as anything but a working pub. The group also made offers to buy the pub on more than one occasion but these were all rejected.

By late 2016, there was plenty of community support but not enough funding to make another offer, so a group of eight of us decided to pool our own resources in a final attempt to buy the pub. We formed the Hail Weston Pub Company Ltd and our offer was accepted in January 2017.

There followed three and a half months of very hard work. Incredibly, more than 100 individuals and companies pitched in – giving their time for free or helping with donations to the cause. On a very tight budget, we managed to refurbish the entire pub including putting in a brand new kitchen, replacing layers of old carpet with flagstone flooring, and even carving out a new pub garden. The Royal Oak reopened as an independent village pub on May 19th 2017.

Royal Oak

The publican

It’s fair to say we are ‘unlikely publicans’ but the group of eight directors, and their partners, do bring a range of experience to the Royal Oak. We have accountants, marketing specialists, shop owners, event organisers, even a garden designer on hand.

However, we all have day jobs too and everyone knows running a pub is anything but a part-time gig. This is why we employ both a manager and chef. And, going forward, the plan is to return the Royal Oak to a tenanted model. We’re the perfect size for a couple wanting to run their own place without the need to employ a large staff.

Tony Baker

The trade

We sit at the heart of Hail Weston so many of our customers are villagers. This is why we’ve always counted ourselves as a community pub with many events and offers that put the village at the centre.

However, we also act as the most accessible country pub to the local town. This is important because the village has only about 700 residents but we are within a mile of St Neots with a population of around 40,000 – a key part of our customer base, especially at weekends. The fact that we’re also a family-friendly and dog-friendly pub really helps bring in these customers.

The team

We have a manager, Connie Leggett, and chef, Alan Warwick, who work closely together to handle the day-today running of the pub.

Amazingly Alan does all the cooking himself with only a kitchen hand to help at weekends. However, the plan is to find a sous chef to give him more support going forward.

We also have a great bunch of front of-house staff, including Penny Light, the deputy manager who has been with us from day one and she, along with a number of our bar and waiting staff, is also local to the village.

The drink

We make sure we cover the basics – for example, Foster’s and Guinness – but also select beers and lagers that are not found commonly in local pubs and that people will even travel for such as Moretti, Southwold and Adnams Ease Up IPA. We also have regular guest ales that provide another reason for repeat visits.

The same is true with our wine selection where we offer a value option in red and white but where the vast majority of our custom comes from our wider list, which offers another five reds and five whites by the glass (plus two rosé wines). These we update regularly to give customers a wide range of choice, meaning we can cater to wine lovers.

We have increased our range choices, such as gin (12 options), vodka (nine choices) and other high-margin spirits as well as introducing speciality drinks such as cocktails which we change per season.

And we also do very well in our wide offering of teas, freshly made coffees and large range of non-alcoholic drinks.

The Royal Oak (2)

What’s on the food menu?

Half pint of prawns with bread and butter - £7

Seared scallops and black pudding with caper dressing - £7.50

Sharing platter of baked boxed Camembert, toasted ciabatta and sourdough, pickles and onion chutney - £11

Chicken Caesar salad, sourdough croutons, anchovies and Parmesan - £12

Butternut squash, beetroot and roast red onion lasagne with salad - £12

8oz sirloin steak, slow-roasted beef tomato, flat field mushroom and chips with peppercorn or Béarnaise sauce - £19

The Royal Oak (3)

The food

We have an offer that we have adjusted to suit the clientele and how this changes throughout the week. So, as well as a main menu, which includes light bites, grazing, mains and desserts available from Wednesday to Saturday, we offer sandwiches and jacket potatoes at lunchtime when a lower price option is particularly popular.

We’ve also developed a set menu that we offer all day on Wednesday and Thursday as well as at lunchtime on Friday. This has helped to attract more price-conscious customers on traditionally slower days.

On Sundays, we offer a very popular lunch option with three different roasts and a fish and vegetarian main – for which we are usually fully booked in advance. And throughout the week, we have our Little Acorns menu for children.

We put on special menus for different occasions such as a Burns Night four-course Scottish feast, a Valentine’s menu and a curry night to name but three. In addition, Alan creates fish specials for a Friday and Saturday night that offers people a real culinary treat every week.

We also offer both vegetarian and vegan options on our menus to reflect growing interest in meat-free diets.

The events

The Royal Oak (5)

We work hard to use events and entertainment to make the Royal Oak the default venue for the local community and a destination pub for those further afield.

Some of these are regular evenings such as the Sunday night quiz night where we get a different guest quiz master each week and the monthly vinyl night where customers bring records to play on the pub turntable. We’ve also launched a Village Lunch Club this year, which is proving very popular.

In the summer months, we host outdoor movie screenings in the pub garden to drive footfall, and last year we even set up a free music festival – WestFest. This was so popular that we’re expanding it to a two-day event this August and running a weekend beer and cider festival alongside it.

We’ve also put on key events on a big screen in our outside marquee so people can come and watch with friends and neighbours. This has included Six Nations rugby, the royal wedding and the FA Cup Final. This drives trade on those days without taking up space or disturbing dinners in the main pub. And, of course, as a family-friendly pub, we hold events to bring in customers in school holidays such as children’s Easter egg hunts, holiday treasure hunts, family bingo and family quizzes.

The future

Having spent the past two years re-establishing the Royal Oak as a local fixture and proving it can be profitable, we hope to move to a tenanted model next year. Ideally this would be with people who are as passionate as we – and the rest of the village – are. It’s a special pub that has a lot to offer.

To find out more about pubs for sale, lease and tenancy visit our property site​.

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