Rescue The Fox and Hounds at Great Wolford

A glorious and ancient country pub under threat

The possible closure of the Award-winning ‘Fox and Hounds Inn’

(circa 1540)
Great Wolford, Warwickshire

 

Apologies for this lengthy document but it is important that decision makers and the current owners understand why I – and so many others – do not want to lose The Fox and Hounds and why we are frustrated and sad that this viable and much-loved business is seemingly being wiped out with little effort and no evidence of its undoubted trading potential.

Background

It was my privilege to own and ‘care take’ this unique and well-known village Inn in from 2000 – 2003.

I say ‘care take’ because the Fox and Hounds is a very special Inn: it is situated in a beautiful Cotswolds village location and is unique. As soon as one stoops to enter through the ‘coffin’ door of this 17th Century, Grade II-listed building, one is transported back in time. It has a rich history, exudes candle-lit warmth and its walls ‘ooze’ atmosphere. Its age meant, of course, that there were 21st-century challenges in running this Inn (with rooms) commercially and successfully.

Until recently, The Fox and Hounds had an uninterrupted fine reputation in the area. (I have known it for over 30 years and many other locals for even longer). I felt I could never ‘possess’ such a unique historic hostelry – but could only, fleetingly in its history, look after it and then hand over the mantle to ensure the Inn remained the hub of the surrounding village communities for many years to come.

My reason for purchasing the inn from landlords Graham and Annie Seddon was simply because it was a magnet for the locals, a much-loved and envied example of a rural business at its best. The Fox and Hounds was also (and still can be) a ‘destination pub’ with customers from all over the West Midlands (indeed regulars came from Solihull and Birmingham just for Sunday lunch) and the Cotswolds, one of the largest Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the country.

An award-winning and successful pub: During my time at The Fox and Hounds it was an Award winner of The Good Pub Guide Warwickshire Fine Dining Pub of the Year for two consecutive years. It was also featured in the London Evening Standard for its famous Inn sign, painted by a local artist David Player, depicting The Hunt v. The Establishment. I also had my chefs featured for their recipes in a national magazine. As a self-employed food writer and product development innovator, I loved using my passion for food and fine culinary detail, and I enjoyed finding and promoting local artisan food.

The pub was always buzzing. One example is a late-Autumn night of ‘hailing in’ the new season with Herefordshire hops strung up onto the beams and a ceilidh, locally produced beer and a simple Ploughman’s supper. This was more than enough to pay the overheads and employ locals and there would be 50 or more locals having a cracking good time. Another example is an early evening Hallowe’en party for village children with goulash, jellies and spider sandwiches and bat stew, whilst mums and dads would enter into the spirit at an early bar.

For years, revellers who had watched the local village fireworks earlier would stand in front of the Inn by a brazier, enjoying hot stew and mulled wine. And Christmas and New Year’s Day and Eve were magical, candlelit dining experiences.

All this and more is still there to be had for the taking – as long as one is prepared to work at it and network with the many entrepreneurial businesses around and about.

I decided to sell the Fox and Hounds while the Inn was making an excellent profit. Its value had increased too, based on the growth in sales of food and also the establishment of 3 letting rooms. Although this was early days, these had the potential of turning over £50K – £60K p.a. – aside from the additional revenue staying guests would bring into the Bar and dining room.

Here are some serious commercial reasons why The Fox and Hounds was – and still is – viable and should not be allowed to be purposely run down with little or no effort to manage it as a going concern:

Firstly, some facts and figures from the period that I ran the pub: 2000 – 2003

A cosy 40 covers: this gives it charm and uniqueness (I did not operate it as a fast food outlet), so:

Turnover on average @ £7K weekly with revenue increasing @ £10K over Cheltenham Festivals week and December.

Using a stock-taker on a quarterly period ensured we hit our 65% profit margin on food and drink. So our annual turnover exceeded well over £300K. (Closed on a Monday except Bank Holidays for weekly deep clean)

Saturday lunch covers (noon – 2.30pm) @ 30 – 40 weekly aside from custom at the bar and summer eating outside.

Saturday night covers (6.30pm – 10.00pm as per demand) @ 65- 80, sometimes doing 3 sittings over an evening starting at 6pm.

Sunday lunch covers (noon – 3pm) @ 60 – 70 weekly dropping to 35-40 in quieter season.

Mid-week lunches covers (12.00 – 3.00pm) (made up of local businesses from neighbouring market towns and retired couples) @ 20 – 30 daily.

Bed and Breakfast @ £30K in first year of advertising and a lot more scope for deals and breakaways linked in with local experiences e.g. clay pigeon shooting, falconry centre experiences, classic car hire.

A positive effect on the local economy
Based on our strong revenue, I was able to employ 2 full-time chefs (total £60K p.a.) and approximately 6 part-time local people on a 52-week basis, which bought income and employment into the village and gave local village teenagers valuable work experience.

The business supported local suppliers from the butcher to several local breweries, a local vintner, bakers, florist, garden nursery, laundry, fishmonger and a produce supplier. We received daily and twice- weekly supplies and this successful two-way relationship with suppliers had a good knock-on effect on the local economy.

Successful local and business events
I constantly marketed and networked with local businesses, offering a range of local events, including: unique, bespoke dining experiences for Christmas parties; sell-out Christmas Day lunches and Boxing Day brunches; family and pre-wedding parties; Valentine’s Nights; sympathetic funeral gatherings and Wakes; special private birthday parties and events for children. The pub was also a private meetings venue before lunchtime opening; and you could hold breakfast meetings. We held pre-Race day brunches; offered prizes for local fund-raising events and made dates for local musicians and traditional Morris dancing. The local Hunt met at the Fox and Hounds, drawing crowds and creating a great atmosphere – and this was before opening time! It was therefore a well-known Inn for its events as well as its food and ambience.

The Fox and Hounds stocked over 130 different whiskies, making it famous and providing good publicity through magazine articles. We held special whisky tastings and dining evenings (also Burns Night with a piper). Guests used to work their way along the alphabet order of the lined up bottles! This kind of foresight, combined with a commercial ‘hat’, has sadly been lost.

Great location and year around Cotswold Tourism:
The Fox and Hounds has all-year-around tourism right on its doorstep – the area is a big favourite with the Americans and Japanese as well as with the British for ‘staycations’. After London and York, the Cotswolds is the next biggest magnet for tourism in the England. A local company has made the most of this by showing car-load after car-load of visitors hidden gems such as Great Tew and the Slaughters. There is an opportunity for the Fox and Hounds landlords to offer lunch or afternoon tea at this ancient inn with its local ale, artisan food, low beams, flagstone floors, an inglenook fireplace large enough to dance in…etc. Not to use this kind of business networking is a missed opportunity. Small companies in this area actively work together and help each another.

The Fox and Hounds could become part of the Cotswold tourism industry for a small investment, and benefit from its support and promotional activity. Just look at the Award Winning Horse and Groom, at Bourton-on-the-Hill. This pub was at one time applying for change of use because locals were apathetic. After new owners took over and gave it new impetus, it is now one of the best local Inns in the area and it is hard to book a table on a weekend for some weeks in advance.

The Fox and Hounds is in perfect countryside for cycling and walking and on the main London to Hereford Great Western railway line. It is easy to build packages around this, attracting city weekenders with bike-hire on the doorstep and guides for walking, returning to the pub for a candlelit dinner.

The Fox and Hounds was a regular stop-off for classic car enthusiasts, an attraction for locals to come and watch and join in. It is easy to contact these companies again and offer a great ‘pit-stop’ in the beautiful winding Warwickshire lanes.

Local trade from local villages: The vibrant and popular villages of Great Wolford, Little Wolford, Barton on the Heath as well as Kitebrook / Evenlode are all a stone’s throw away for locals to drop in.

Potential trade from fellow B&B owners:
I am aware of the huge potential for business that exists from the network of local B&Bs.

This is because I now own The Old School B&B in Little Compton. I set this up from scratch, by sympathetically refurbishing a Victorian school and now bob between no. 1 and no. 3 # 499 Cotswold B&B’s on TripAdvisor and am at the moment No.1# 28 @ B&B’s in Moreton in Marsh. In the 9 years I have been in business, I have been accredited with 5 Star Gold accommodation rating, a Cycling and Walkers Award and Breakfast Award from Visit Britain. Aside from commitment and focus, of course, I have to pay a subscription but the benefits and advertising pays back.

With a syndicate of other local B&B’s (The Fox and Hounds could have been one of them), I refer guests to other B&Bs (including local Inns) when I have no rooms available. I also send guests to local Inns within a 10 minute / 5-mile distance to dine. On average, I personally send on approximately 1500 guests every year to eat at two or three local Inns. Assuming a per-head spend of £30, this amounts to a substantial sum that just one B&B can direct to a reputable friendly pub. Multiply this by 6 or so B&B’s in the area and the business opportunity is huge.

In conclusion …
During my three years at the pub, I constantly needed to reinvest in this Grade-II listed building by using local tradesman to completely rewire and redecorate it. This @1640 property needs to be lived in, kept warm and well maintained, otherwise it will quickly fall into disrepair.

The outside of the building reflects the business as a whole: the current neglected exterior and landscaping is off-putting to potential customers. It looks sad, neglected, unloved – yet is so simple to rectify and bounce back to make it welcoming and encourage custom.

I also understand that the current owners have ripped out the main features that set this old Inn apart from all others in the area – its unique and original bar and woodwork, old settles and benches – and that they have installed a juke box and a TV screen. Sadly too the new landlords did not consider the impact on the locals. The one main feature that set this Inn apart from all other competition, even if all serving wonderful hospitality and food, was stepping inside and back in time and not just another gastropub.

The website has almost no information on it and the infamous pub sign has now been replaced with one not in keeping. I also understand that the opening hours are haphazard and the Inn does not employ staff or chefs to maintain previous standards or encourage new business. It appears that the current owners have no interest in striving to reclaim its once-strong reputation. Friends have driven there for lunch only to find it closed. This is no way to run a successful business or a service to the community – and it is essential that this trade is such a service.

Whilst locals have always been loyal to the Inn and incredibly generous in their custom, to run the Fox and Hounds successfully demands focus, 100% commitment and a very commercial ‘hat’. It also needs a sympathetic feel for this style of Inn, combined with a knowledge and understanding of who its target customers are and how to set out its stall accordingly.

Lastly, whilst not relevant to the possible closure of this Inn I have been working with a professional couple who have a highly acclaimed restaurant with letting rooms in the north Cotswolds and are desperately looking for an establishment to invest into and move their very well-known local ‘brand’ to. They, as just one example, would bring much to Great Wolford as well as their following of existing custom – a young but experienced eagerness to expand with existing proof that they put 100% focus into their current business and work it around a young family too. These are the type of people Great Wolford need to carry on that mantle.

Wendy Veale

19th Sept. 2016