In association with Long Live the Local

My Pub: the Pheasant at Neenton, Shropshire

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Flight of fancy: The Pheasant has enjoyed a superb reinvigoration since being closed for nine years
Flight of fancy: The Pheasant has enjoyed a superb reinvigoration since being closed for nine years
When the only pub in Neenton closed back in 2006, there was very little left in the village but after a community benefit society took over, the pub has become a destination venue and something for locals to love too. Leading from the front at the Pheasant is Sarah Cowley...

Facts 'n' stats

Name:​The Pheasant at Neenton

Address:​Neenton, Bridgnorth, Shropshire WV16 6RJ

Licensees:​Mark Harris (head chef) and Sarah Cowley (front of house)

Trade split:​Accommodation is 17.5% of income; wet:dry remainder: 37.5%:62.5%

Turnover:​£550,000

The pub

This site was a freehouse that the owners closed when they retired. After nine years, and having fallen derelict, it was reopened by the community society that bought it, restored and expanded it to be the social and economic hub of the small village community.

It’s an historic building in a conservation area but restoration has kept the quintessential atmosphere of an old village local while adding a new oak framed dining room (which doubles as a community room), a full commercial kitchen and three letting bedrooms.

While being a real local, 40% of diners drive more than five miles to get here and another 40% drive from more than 10 miles away. It has an orchard garden shaded by two yew trees, with a play area and a boules pitch recently added.

Pheasant

The publican

Myself and my partner, head chef Mark Harris, had both been searching for the perfect next job, when we stumbled across an advert for the Pheasant that was looking for a couple to run this new community venture. So we decided to pool our skills and apply, never thinking that they would give us the opportunity to do so.

I’m a local to the pub being born and raised in Bridgnorth, which is seven miles away, and having grandparents who were publicans, it was always an attractive proposition. Mark was raised in nearby Telford but spent most of his career travelling the country training for various renowned chefs such as Marco Pierre White, Paul Clarkson and others.

The idea of taking on the Pheasant presented a life-changing opportunity for us. Ourselves and our children quickly integrated into the village and community lifestyle and we still had a fairly blank canvas at the Pheasant to create something we and the community could be proud of.

What's on the food menu?

Smoked haddock & Snowdonia Black Bomber arancini with parsley & garlic emulsion - £6.50

Battered haddock, hand-cut skin-on chips, mushy peas - £10.95

Wild mushroom, garlic, white wine, garden pea & herb tagliatelle, pea shoots & herb oil (v) - £6.50/£12.95

Bridgnorth beef fillet, salt-baked celeriac, artichoke purée, braised beef croquette, smoked hazelnut crumble, seasonal greens & chimichurri sauce - £21.95

Pan-roasted cod fillet roasted red pepper hummus, chard apple, spring onion, yogurt & dill oil - £17.95

Sticky toffee pudding, toffee sauce, honeycomb ice cream - £6.50

Pheasant (2)

The trade, team, drink, food and events

We have a varied demographic at the Pheasant. Because it is rural and community- owned, we were lucky enough to have a huge amount of support when we opened . From farmers who come straight off the fields to high court judges that visit on a Sunday for lunch, we have welcomed all to the pub with open arms.

One customer commented in a review “whether you arrive in a tiara or wellies, you always get the same welcome.”

We quickly learnt we needed to be all manner of things to all manner of people, and so we created a menu that was accessible to our locals but had the interest and excitement to tempt custom from some of the larger towns and cities nearby. This mix means we have a unique atmosphere any given night with locals at the bar and high-end customers enjoying the buzz.

We were keen to operate the Pheasant as a family, and although all employees have their roles within the kitchen and front-of-house areas, we all work as one family unit. So whether it’s doing the pot wash or vegetable prep to help during service, or collecting glasses for the bar if the situation calls, we help one another out.

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For the community, a huge part of reopening the Pheasant was to create employment within this rural setting and we’ve been able to find local young people for most positions within the pub. They constantly attract praise from reviewers for their smiles and welcome, and for nothing being too much trouble.

We also wanted to offer training for those interested in a hospitality career, so we created apprentice positions in the kitchen and front of house, and we’ve successfully grown our own chef. We’ve also offered more experienced staff the opportunity to do WSET wine courses and cellar training if they wanted too.

We offer four real ales that we source from local breweries. We are really lucky to have some amazing breweries on our doorstep in and around Shropshire, so the ale doesn’t travel very far. We have a large gin range, which we are expanding all the time, and we even take recommendations from customers too. 

As well as the main wine list, we introduce ‘wine specials’ to showcase new and interesting wines from across the world and give variety for diners. 

The business plan was always to be food-led and for the pub to be a drive to destination. Mark’s background has always been in from 1 to 3 AA rosette cuisine. However, being community owned, the food offer had to be inclusive rather than exclusive so, alongside our high-end ‘specials’, we offer pub classic dishes too.

We’re always looking to source the best-quality produce from our doorstep including potatoes from within half a mile from the pub and lamb from the field at the bottom of the garden to wild game from the local hunters. But Mark’s particular speciality is fish. He delights in taking whatever’s best that the boat’s brought in and turning it into a something uniquely delicious – here today, gone tomorrow. That might seem difficult in land locked Shropshire but we only source fish that in Mark’s words is “sustainable, British and not farmed”.

We take great pride in our Sunday Lunch too. It’s an important family occasion in a rural community and we serve three courses of what the local press critic termed ‘the best Sunday roast he’d had the pleasure to eat in Shropshire’ for a bargain £21.95. Being a community pub, events locals can get involved in are integral to us. From brewery tours, charity quizzes and our annual duck race, we try and get the whole community involved. We put live music on once a month so that everyone can let their hair down.

One of the great successes has been the introduction of Village Suppers every other Monday evening. We price it at two courses for £10 so it’s accessible to all.

We host smaller weddings, christenings and big birthday parties for locals, and held gin tasting evenings and have worked with Slow Food Ludlow to create bespoke tasting menu nights.

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The reinvigoration

The pub closed in 2006 when the former owners retired. There was nothing left in the village except the small church.

There was no shop, no village hall, no school, no post office. People were really upset at the loss of the pub and were keen to get it back, though it took almost nine years before that happened.

It was a freehouse before. It’s now owned by Neenton Community Society, a community benefit society with about 100 members that was formed to regenerate the area by restoring the pub as a social and economic hub. Everything the pub earns goes to pursuing its charitable objects of regenerating the area such as by providing jobs and training, and social and recreational facilities. The business is run by an operating subsidiary to give the vital focus.

Most of the funding was raised by a ground-breaking use of community rights thinking and is probably still unique. The community partnered with a housing association to build seven houses on land acquired with the pub. That brought in over half of the money. Much of the rest was loan finance from social lenders and from individuals in the community. Local people also invested in community shares in the society. Only about 10% came from grants.

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It took almost four years from first discussions to the opening. People were excited but wondered if it would ever really happen and whether the community would make a success of it. When opening came, it was the end of a very long, hard road (the builder having gone bust in the middle of the building project!) so it was a mix of elation and a large measure of relief. The Pheasant is well supported by people from the village and the surrounding area, but it’s wholly professionally run so there are no volunteers pulling pints or waiting on tables.

Myself and Mark came on board about three months before opening, while the place was still a building site.

The Pheasant has given the village a heart, and a future again – somewhere for people to meet and socialise, celebrate and commiserate. Every one of the 15 or so people who work at the Pheasant lives within a few miles, and almost all are young people, many taking their first steps into the world of work.

Most of the trade always had to come from outside the local area, which it does.

But local people make great use of their pub, including at the events tailored to them such as the monthly live music gigs late on a Sunday afternoon, family days on bank holidays, village suppers every other Monday and the annual fete and duck race held in the orchard garden.

As a top-notch, food-led pub where everything’s cooked fresh, the pub draws on local suppliers, including the farmers in the village. And most of the real ales on tap come from the great little breweries scattered across Shropshire and the counties around.

Local tradespeople too are kept busy keeping the Pheasant in A1 order and gradually enhancing the facilities.

Vital community role

Long Live The Local​is a campaign that celebrates the vital role local pubs play in our community, culture and economy while highlighting the pressure they face from a range of taxes and the jeopardy of closure. Last year, more than 19,000 pubs supported the campaign.

To show your support for the campaign order your pub kit and sign the petition at www.longlivethelocal.pub​.

Pheasant (1)

The future

We are looking to expand our garden dining area and plan on building an outside kitchen and bar area over the next couple of years. We’ve also just created a kitchen herb garden that will complement our orchard in bringing lots of home-grown food for the kitchen.

However, with the pub having been closed for eight years, we’re constantly working to build the Pheasant’s reputation nationally as well as regionally.

We want to keep winning awards for our food and hospitality, and train and mentor our staff to be the best they can be. Many will go on to other careers, but they learn and develop so much while they are with us. And when they move on they create new opportunities for others to follow on.

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

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