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Reviving the village spirit

With regulation growing and demographics on the move, making a success of running a rural village inn can be a major challenge. Bill Lumley speaks to the owner of The Golden Lion Hotel in the rural Northumberland village of Allendale about his plans to integrate the business of his inn with his neighbouring farm

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Nearly 20 years ago Richard Price and his wife Louise acquired The Golden Lion Hotel, a grand three-storey building in the marketplace Northumberland village of Allendale in south west Northumberland, situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The couple then spent several years living in Australia, where Richard was appointed the CEO of a national business engaged in agricultural research and publishing, before returning to the inn five years ago.

The inn is not Richard’s only business interest in Allendale today. He owns neighbouring Portgate Farm, and he has great plans to amalgamate the inn with the farm, which has land around the village, into an integrated tourism and hospitality business.

His business strategy is to combine the farm, farm produce and tourism by building a number of lodges on a non-productive area of his neighbouring farm. “We would thus increase the accommodation we currently have, which stands at four bedrooms in the inn, providing us with more scale, and more critical mass, to be able to maintain the consistency of food trade and sustainable quality of cooking,” he explains.

Premium farm produce

He elaborates on his plans to harmonise premium quality food and to attract visitors to the village to stay at the inn and to shop in local businesses. He has been seeking a way in which to utilise his family’s asset base in Allendale by integrating a non-profitable farming business with his hospitality business at the inn. “At 70 acres it is not big enough to farm profitably,” he explains. “But it’s beautiful, pristine farmland, and within it are both an ancient woodland and waterfalls. We see an opportunity to create one single, sustainable hospitality business by amalgamating the farm and the pub together, and then producing our own food,” he says. On his land near the pub graze pure Dexter cattle – “a rare breed, and some of the best meat you can get in the country,” he says

At the time of my visit to the inn, Richard was awaiting the first beef off the herd, and planning to launch, three weeks later, a new menu: the home-produced Dexter beef, plus Dorper lamb and Tamworth pork. “It is a range of beautifully home-produced meats entirely made up of rare breeds and genetic material finished for the ultimate eating quality,” he says.

As well as offering the new range on the inn’s menu, he plans to launch a box-meat business. “Guests at the inn will be able to dine and taste the beef, lamb or pork and relish the unique flavours, then order a box of their preferred meat next time it becomes available,” he says.

Facilitating part of these plans is space within a neighbouring retail premises, owned by the village Co-op, which had until recently been occupied by the village butcher. This business had closed only a few weeks before my visit, having been owned by the owner of a nearby village pub that also closed earlier this year. Running a small business in rural Britain today is clearly not a walk in the park.

The Co-op owner has agreed to allow him to use the existing facilities in the shop for displaying and selling the boxed meats. “There is a lovely walk-in fridge facility in there. The first lambs will go to slaughter on a Monday and then we will be picking them up on the following Thursday, when our first customers will be receiving their boxed lamb,” he says.

There is a parallel to be drawn between what he is planning to do and farmers’ markets, he suggests. “We are bringing the farm shop to the table.”

The next big stage of his plans for business in the village is the development of the new lodges, subject to final planning approval as we go to press. He has already won the support of the parish council, and he has worked closely with the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty authority to finalise the design, aspect and situation. “We see it as critical to the sustainability, not just of this business but of the other businesses in the village,” he says.

Village decline

When Richard and Louise acquired the inn in 2001, the village had five pubs. Today there are three. “Those stresses and strains have been in the industry for quite a long time,” he says. “I know rural pub closures have accelerated over a long period, but Allendale’s story goes back to the 1980s in terms of a decline in trade. It has been a long, slow bleed for the village,” he says.

It is also not inconceivable that the village may lose yet another pub, he says. “It could be this one, it could be any. I just don’t think currently there is enough trade to sustain three pubs here for the long term.” Causes of this drain stem from a culmination of things, he says. “If you look at the financial stresses on small family-run businesses, every day you get out of bed and you literally must be everything from the joiner to the business brain and everything in between.

“It is very difficult for small family businesses to have all the skill you need to run a successful business these days, because there is so much that you have to get right on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, down to your marketing material. All these things are extremely expensive things to procure. If you want to draft in expertise, for example in marketing or social media or employment law, or for whatever you care to mention, whether you are a company with a CEO and 1,000 staff or The Golden Lion with 20 staff, you still have to comply with all the regulations, and it’s a big challenge,” he says.

Businesses of this size simply do not have the in-house capacity, time or earnings to cope with all the external costs, he says. For example, he explains: “We now have 3% employer’s contribution on pensions, meaning wages have gone up sharply. I’m not saying that is a bad thing – it’s great for the country as a whole and for everybody in the workplace. But it’s hard or impossible for small businesses like ours to sustain that without the regular footfall to deliver the client base to pay for it. These financial burdens keep getting piled up on top of small businesses, and I really don’t think most of them can cope. That’s the bottom line,” he says.

So, are those aspiring to an idyllic innkeeper lifestyle blinded to the realities? “I think they are probably less so now, because most people today who are either thinking about this type of business, or going into one, have access to the internet. They can quite easily do their research. And I think that dynamic has changed: I don’t think there are as many starry-eyed people entering hospitality from a point of view of ignorance,” he says.

The days of running a country pub as a hobby have therefore probably come to an end, he says. “Information is far more accessible than it ever used to be. Whether that leads to the emotive side giving way to the non-emotive side of running your own pub, I don’t know.”

Integrated business

As he awaits final approval for his lodge accommodation development, Richard is working towards integrating his small farm with the Golden Lion in order to create an integrated hospitality and food production business. “We will have multiple income streams from two separate businesses. We aim to pull them together and make them work together more effectively through better land-use in for improved economic returns from areas of poor production. This is land we can’t plough, and land where you can’t really graze cattle terribly well, and it is right on the edge of the village, just 500m from the pub’s door along a footpath. It means the guests that come to stay will have a fabulous rural outlook, and we plan to open up the farm to these guests. They can also walk to the pub, which is a big differentiator.

“We plan to let those lodges on a half-board basis and guests will come in here for their evening meals; not everyone who stays in a lodge wants to cook every night – more likely they want to go out to the local pub. They don’t really want to drive: instead they can walk here, which is a potential game changer,” he says.

STANDFIRST Discerning market

The lodges Richard plans to erect on his land will be upmarket featuring one to three-bedroom options with en suite facilities. “In those we are principally looking to attract families and those customers with discerning taste buds, who come in and resolve to pay for a Dexter beef joint Sunday roast or Dexter beef steak. That is the end of the market we are chasing, to match the home produce side.”

He stresses how much more expensive it is to produce meat of the quality he will deliver from his farm. “There is a high cost involved producing Dexters as opposed to producing a continental breed of cattle that yield two to three times the amount of meat per carcass, so the price to the consumer must be higher,” he says.

So how would that sit with the village pub setting, locals coming in to have a beer, locals supporting the inn, and is there a risk moving into this more discerning market? “You don’t do it exclusively,” he says. “There is a market not being catered for in Allendale that wants that kind of product, perhaps in the ambience we have in the inn itself. But I don’t think you alienate your bread-and-butter market. We are doing 300-400 covers a week at present, so we wouldn’t suddenly deny them a menu and insist they only had the one that cost twice as much.”

The same will apply when the inn brews its own beers, which it is about to start doing again shortly, he says. “We put two or three of our own brews on tap, but we don’t insist to our customers that they either drink our brews or go next door: they have to want to drink it.” And he recalls: “When we brewed previously it was very successful and customers were often choosing it over national brands. If you do it right, and you price it right, then you win the customer’s support: it’s different and it’s discerning and you can only get it here.”

STANDFIRST Attracting staff

Attracting and retaining good talent is a challenge almost throughout the year for any inn, and the Golden Lion is not immune to this. Richard says: “We have a great team now, but it is not a given in a location like Allendale that you are going to have that resource of great people and skills. People in the workplace working on hospitality wages are not going to have the capacity to travel very far,” he says. “For example, they are not going to get into their car in Newcastle 30 miles away to spend an evening as the chef at the Golden Lion in Allendale. You are really looking for home-grown talent, which is not always available.”

It is also a challenge because running an inn requires particular skill sets, attitudes and mannerisms in the way staff operate. “You have to find those that do want to work here in their backyard. You then have to work with them to get them to a level that takes into account the fact that somebody paying £30 for a meal instead of £9.95, expects a certain level of attention and standard at the table, and a chef capable of putting that meal on the plate sustainably, reliably and consistently,” he says.

He adds: “I’m not saying we don’t have all those facets now – and we have a lot of training to do to make sure we can take the next step – but it is not a given that you are always going to have that available to you.”

The inn loses a lot of its young staff after the summer when many of them return to university after the holidays and attracting that talent all the year round is a further challenge. “While it is great that our busiest period of the year coincides with the availability of staff, that itself is not a sustainable business model. We need to be able to employ two chefs at a high standard all year round,” says Richard.

The nearest population centres are Newcastle, Durham, Carlisle and Hexham, and there is therefore a lot of competition for hospitality staff, he stresses.

One local businessman and a regular in the pub interjects: “The competition pub-wise here is strong. You must find a way of differentiating yourself to survive. Don’t over-price yourself. This is not a destination pub – you are not going to get many people coming from far away. Get your pricing right. Make it good, honest locally produced products!”

Social media

Offsetting some of the challenges the business faces is the emergence of the use of social media, which Richard says is a relatively new and powerful tool when it comes to both advertising and attracting new staff. “People do want to work in nice places with a good culture and where there is a good reputation so you can go onto social media and read all the reviews and get a feel for how a place is run quite quickly by looking at what is going on online. We pride ourselves on trying to do the job right and that is reflected in social media reviews like those on TripAdvisor,” he says.

Repeat visitors

Once people have paid a visit to Allendale, the village and surrounding countryside tend to infect people, and the Golden Lion plays a part in this, Richard says. “Our new barman is someone who visited Allendale, fell in love with the Golden Lion and came in here every day they were staying in the village,” he says. “Two or three years later they had just bought a new house in Allendale having moved from Yorkshire. That’s not the first time I have heard of that happening, of people falling in love with the area so much they move here. You have all the facilities you need in the village. Not many others have the range we have here.”

He reflects: “It’s a fantastic story that we have a gentleman who has gone into semi-retirement and moved to Allendale because they fell in love with the place. He told me it was the Golden Lion that sold Allendale to him. He used to have his own pub and is keen to get involved with the brewing and is going to be a great asset.

“He only wants a couple of sessions a week behind the bar to get to know everybody and integrate into the community. That sort of story is fantastic – It enriches Allendale and brings new skills and talents into the area too.”

Guest breakfast

Richard says: “Breakfast is a substantial continental breakfast with an option to pay for a full cooked breakfast, and people don’t mind at all. Fewer people actually want a cooked breakfast these days. Many people are a lot more health conscious than they once were. It’s not uncommon to see guests go out for a morning hike before breakfast and in fact quite a few of our guests are on walking holidays. People do not necessarily want a massive, great, big cooked breakfast. Those that do really enjoy it, and don’t mind paying for it. Soon the sausages and black puddings will be home-made from our own pigs produced just 200m from our front door. We will certainly be supporting local business through our own endeavours as much as we can. That’s an exciting story and it is where the market’s at as well.

We will also be doing farm tours. It’s not been done around here yet and it fits well with the concept of amalgamating the two businesses.”

The rooms

There are four guest rooms currently at the inn, and if the lodges get the official go-ahead it will more than double Richard’s accommodation capacity.

In the inn are two super king beds, one king size and a single room. Three are en suite and one has a private bathroom. The two super king rooms can accommodate a couple of extra beds for children, and the single room has a bunk bed.

Laundry, meanwhile, is farmed out to a laundry in Hexham. “They run a really good service and get it back to us on time every time,” says Richard.

Handling drunk guests

As any innkeeper will testify, problems occur when guests may enjoy a little too much of the alcohol on offer, and with three pubs in close proximity to each other Allendale is no exception.

Richard says: “We have had to assist guests up the stairs after they have gone for a pub crawl around the village and come back in a bit of a state. We try to discourage that sort of behaviour, but it can happen. When they are not in your bar all night you don’t really have any control, nor know how much booze they are drinking.”

If he or the bar staff have an inkling that this is likely to happen, they make a point of informing any overnight guests concerned that the pub will be locked up at midnight and they won’t get back in, so it would be a good idea for them to get back to their room in not too poor a state. “It’s just a civilised discussion about the etiquette of your guests,” says Richard. “At the end of the day I know they are paying to be here, but they are still in your custodianship and on your property.”

“It’s not a faceless 100-room hotel where you have unfettered 24-hour access. It’s a very different type of venue. It’s more like being in a B&B in someone’s house. I don’t think it is too much to expect to say to guests that there is a kind of code of conduct that I’d like to think our guests would adhere to. I’m not frightened to have that discussion with people. You have other guests to consider. They don’t want to be woken up at 3am by drunken hooligans staggering along the corridor and banging on the doors.”

Each year the inn holds a disco after the annual Allendale show, and it is always very popular. “The pub was packed this year – traditionally it is one of our busiest nights of the year. We had young farmers from all around the north-east in the pub. Then all the youngsters trundled off to a locally staged rave at around 9.30pm. They arrived to be told they were required to pay £10 entrance fee. They had gone out of curiosity and our pub just completely emptied because someone had put something on in the village hall which in my mind shouldn’t be competing with the local businesses that are trying to create and sustain local employment in already challenging circumstances.”

In the event, on being challenged to pay the youngsters turned around, returned to the Golden Lion and spent the rest of the night having a ball, “in a very controlled environment,” Richard adds.

Demographic revival

Like villages the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, Allendale has suffered from a youth drain for many years. “We have literally lost generations of youngsters,” says Richard. “The affordability to stay in Allendale and the limited job choice have been quite tough. The draw for the likes of our younger staff to go off to university and chase their dreams academically creates a drain.”

It also creates an employment opportunity when they are back from university, he says. “Often when they have had a taste for being in a livelier environment they choose to stay there, and they don’t come back home for a multitude of reasons. Social engagement, employment opportunities and affordability all come into it. Allendale, like many other places, really has suffered from a regular’s perspective too, for you don’t then have the numbers to make the darts teams and so forth.”

However, he has noticed that dynamic beginning to change in Allendale. “Suddenly we are seeing more youngsters heading back to the village,” he says. “I can’t quite put my finger on why that is, but we are noticing in this pub a lot more youngsters happy to stay in the village for their night out rather than all jumping into a minibus or taxi and going off to Hexham or Newcastle.”

Not only are they congregating in the pub, but it is holding them during the evening more than it used to, he observes. “Only the other night I was talking to a couple who said isn’t it fantastic to see the youth in Allendale coming out: where have they been? Yes, they were a bit rowdy and doing what youngsters do, but I think youngsters in the village that come to the pub do have a healthy respect for the business, and they don’t tend to overstep the mark. It was lovely to hear some e of the older customers saying how nice it was to have youth disturbing their quiet pint, rather than saying what a pain it was,” he says.

The statistics bear out his observations. In the early 2000s the village population fell by 10%, but in the past few years it has begun to swing back, and with it an increase in the number of younger residents.

Local activities are helping this demographic reversal. Richard says: “The local sporting clubs have really ramped up in the village in cricket and football and are performing at a very high level, and they have one of the largest youth development programmes in the north for young people in and around the area. That is down to a handful of individuals in the village that are really driving that retention and helping people to move back here with their families.”

Government policy

As we went to press no end was in sight to the apparently never-ending psychodrama of Brexit. If Britain exits the EU, for better or worse, it will exit the scandalous protectionism of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Richard says there is a need for a government that understands and implements proactive policies to mitigate the cost centres that are experienced uniquely in the rural pub industry.

“We’re not on a high street in the middle of a city where the footfall lands,” he says. “You can put the best flag out front, but if you don’t have the footfall you don’t have the business. Government policy needs to recognise that, and it needs to put measures in place that help mitigate those cost centres.”

Intimately intertwined with this is the CAP, under which massive rural subsidisation is going into land but virtually none into the local economy – the small rural businesses that are really struggling, he says. “These businesses are the ones that are really providing the employment in rural areas,” he says.

“There has to be a repositioning and when Brexit has gone through, if it does, there is an opportunity over the next five years to reposition CAP more into a rural framework policy,” he says. “We are no longer talking about the environment but about the living environment, and the way in which government policy can add financial support. It can thus have an impact helping to stop rural youth depopulation and to enhance skills development and opportunities in rural areas, help small businesses be more sustainable and survive through training programmes and support – it could be a whole range of measures.”

He stresses: “There is a real opportunity to reposition that public support for the rural sector beyond the farm gate. Even with farm support on our small-scale farm it is not enough to make a material difference in the viability of that farm holding. But if we now start talking about vertically integrated businesses – literally paddock to plate…….”

What must be considered is the regulation overheads, bureaucracy, support and the employment his integrated business and others are creating, he says.

“We, the co-op and the Allendale Brewery will be the three largest employers in Allendale. Can we sustain that? Probably not now, but as an integrated business wouldn’t it be lovely if instead of a common agricultural policy there were a rural policy that recognises businesses that are doing something quite amazing for employment in a rural area where there are very little other employment options?

“How can we make sure businesses like ours have the support measures in place to ensure they can get to the next level? We’re talking about those animals over there making it to a plate right here. Yes, they have to go to a slaughterhouse far away because there were so many regulatory interventions that we lost our local slaughterhouse in Allendale many years ago. But we have now lost the butcher, the gift shop (which was Louise’s parents’ business), and there are no takers to come and buy and take on businesses like them , because they struggle to see the financial viability with all the cost centres on the top of the business itself. It’s just too much for people to take in.”

Destination of choice

Planning permission for the lodges was still tantalisingly unapproved as we went to press, but if his planning application does not get approval it won’t be the end of the road for his business integration and village revival plans, he says.

He reflects: “To be honest I’d been in an MD and CEO role in national businesses in Australia for a number of years when I got to that stage in my life when I was ready to go back to working for myself, not being on planes and having stressful board meetings throughout the week. I was ready for the change, and for Louise and me this was coming back home. This was home, all our family are here, so we were always going to come back to Allendale at some point.”

He is planning expansion very much on the back of the anticipated growth in tourism to Allendale and other surrounding Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. “We have looked at the market, done a lot of research, spoken to Northumberland Tourism and to local tourism operators. All our research indicates that Northumberland is one of the destinations of choice now. All the signs are that is not going to stop any time soon – on the contrary it is growing. So, we are in a growth market location nationally and I think the Allen valleys have been, relatively speaking, a bit undiscovered. You’ve got the [Hadrian’s]Roman Wall, which is a massive attraction. We are well-positioned here with the Dales – the two Allen valleys (East & West Allen) – and then you are just a short hop over into the Weir Valley, and the lakes aren’t that far either. It’s a spectacular drive from Allendale over Hartside to get there. We are finding that guests who have been staying with us have been happily basing themselves here and then darting off and seeing other such attractions,” he says.

Allendale is situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – a pristine, beautiful environment. As a farm-owner himself, Richard says: “We all work hard on the land to keep it that way. All the farmers in the valleys are extremely committed to that. But then so are a lot of other places in the UK: extremely natural environments. You must have that differentiator. Some have historical or geographical differentiators. We don’t necessarily have so much of that to talk about from a promotional perspective in Allendale, and it’s here that we are going to launch this latest Allen Valleys initiative.”

The Golden Lion Hotel itself exudes an air of quality. The staff are helpful and professional, the food of an outstandingly high quality, and when I was there the inn had just been awarded the Club Members Award for Timothy Taylors Landlord, in recognition of excellence of service. “The punters say we provide a good Landlord pint compared to other places, so we are now proud members of the Champions Club,” he says.

“If we can develop the Taste Allen Valleys concept and have all this local produce, which really has its own distinct characteristics and taste on the plate, then I think it will give visitors a reason to come here as opposed to anywhere else equally beautiful,” he concludes.

 

This post first featured in the Winter issue of Luxury Bed & Breakfast +InnKeeper magazine, which can be viewed here. Please subscribe so you can get the print magazine sent to you.

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By Bill Lumley (Editor)

As editor Bill is responsible for all content within the magazine. Please contact bill@miramedia.co.uk for all editorial enquiries.

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