Is the pace of change calling time on traditional village life?
More than 100 pubs have closed since the beginning of the year – Martin Hesp lives near two well-known establishments that have shut up shop and is worried for village life in the future.
Every now and again we get to feel how it must be when we become very old – by which I mean, we look around and are shocked by the way things have changed, even in our own backyard.
Here's an example – for most of my life the Westcountry villages where I live have had pubs. Some of the more remote ones have closed but, for the most part, the inns at the heart of communities have carried on – a few have thrived and a couple have even become celebrated way beyond parish or even county boundary.
These village pubs survive as age-old fixtures. Some have been serving their communities for centuries – and during my lifetime the generally accepted notion has been that they will continue to do so.
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But then one day you blink, and everything has changed.
The community in which I live is bordered by two villages – one to the east and one to the south – and both, until recently, boasted exceptionally well-known and well-loved public houses.
Now both are gone. For how long, I do not know. The closures might be temporary – new buyers might be found and one day could be up and running again. I hope so.
Many readers will have heard of Luxborough's Royal Oak, situated deep in the Brendon Hills. The "Blazing Stump", as it was often known, was one of those classic stone-slab floor affairs with a huge inglenook fireplace and all the thatched roof trappings. When I first drank there 40 years ago it was just a single room served by a small hatchway – but a succession of owners developed the place until it became a rather swish cottage hotel and restaurant.
But, for all that, the bar areas never lost their authentic pub charm – and I won't bang on about the crowds I've had to squeeze past in order to get a drink.
I will, however, quote directly from the Royal Oak's present website: "Due to family illness and the economic situation the business is closed for the foreseeable future."
Two miles east of my village there's another charming community. For countless years Monksilver has enjoyed the services of an equally charming pub.
To be honest, The Notley Arms hasn't always been the most crowded inn – when I first used to call as a young cub reporter it was run by a retired colonial hangman who was one of the most insidious and unfriendly men it has been my displeasure to meet.
Anyway, the hangman duly went off to join felons he had sent heavenwards and soon the place was transformed. Within a few years you couldn't get through the door.
Among the crowds I remember seeing the cricketer Ian Botham in the Notley with a great crowd of his Somerset county cricket mates.
Under more recent landlords this popularity did appear to ebb somewhat. But, to see the establishment sitting empty goes very much against the grain with me – and with the Monksilver community too.
The local parish council and a group called the Monksilver Action Group nominated the pub as a "community asset" (which means such a property cannot be sold for six months on the open market as long as a bona-fide community group has registered an interest in buying it). This was upheld by West Somerset Council, much to the chagrin of the owner who – according to the local newspaper – says he's now decided not to sell at all.
Herein lies a tale… How many other inns around the region, I wonder, are closing and then put up for sale by owners who would like to see the official public-house planning status on their properties lifted?
Monksilver Parish Council's decision to go for community asset status was made in the hopes that the Notley Arms would remain a pub: "The community is desperate to have the pub trading again, but its future is threatened by the stated owner's wish to sell it as a residential property," claims the parish council.
So much for the tale of two public houses in West Somerset villages – my bet is that readers could point to the same thing happening across the peninsula.
The Campaign for Real Ale claims that around 18 locals close each week and that so far this year more than 100 have bitten the dust. The pressure group – which is urging George Osborne to scrap the beer duty escalator – fears over 1,000 pubs will call a final "last orders" by the year's end.
I declare an interest because I am a great lover of country pubs. And, at the same time, I can understand that, in my mid-fifties, I will begin to see things change when I look back and make comparisons with my own past.
I accept the world changes and that certain businesses and types of commerce will disappear…
But when establishments which enjoyed long-term popularity suddenly disappear without trace, I can't help but question why things are changing so fast. I also wonder what the future holds for rural communities that have no heart, no spirit and no centre.