The pandemic has reminded us that our local communities are more important than ever. So says Alex Begg – and he should know. He’s behind the award-winning Save our Swan campaign and is looking forward to the 130th community-owned pub in England opening in the autumn
Moving to a ‘deeply rural Norfolk’ from London then almost immediately setting about saving the village pub is certainly one way to make good friends! A little over two years later, Alex Begg and a determined team of fellow villagers received the keys to The Swan in Gressenhall, Norfolk.
But what a journey it’s been. Alex takes up the story: ‘I haven’t lived in Norfolk for all that long – my wife and I moved back in November 2018 (she’s got a family farming business she has come back to run).’
‘I’d been up for years and had a good flavour of, and love of, Gressenhall, but came back not knowing what I was going to do professionally.’ In London he had worked for a company which connected social investment to charities and social enterprises (he is now a Finance Business Partner at the National Trust).
On the home front, he adds: ‘Everything about Gressenhall and rural Norfolk life seemed idyllic but there was a pub visibly falling into decline in front of eyes,’ he says. Its last pub, The Swan, had been a mainstay and centre point of the village since at least 1790, but had closed in the July before Alex arrived. It was the ‘one missing ingredient’, he says.
He was aware that he wasn’t the only one in the village who felt that way about the pub and was in a perfect position to help. ‘I was aware of the business model that could potentially moonshoot what we were looking to do.’
And if it turned out to be a bridge too far? ‘We could all say, at least we all gave it a good shot. We felt a duty to see what was possible.’
There were plans afoot to turn the pub into a residential dwelling. ‘Everyone was up in arms about the planning application,’ says Alex.
By December the Save our Swan campaign was launched. ‘I pitched to a parish council meeting and the reception to that was really strong – it kind of went from there, really.
‘One thing that Gressenhall has got, which is quite nice, is the Christmas lights switch on with people coming from neighbouring villages.
‘We had a little stall where we handed out questionnaires, and ‘In my idea pub I would have…’ aspiration board.
‘We got a good idea of not only how much people wanted it but WHAT people wanted. We built up a groundswell of support.’
At the start of 2019, the first eight-strong steering group meeting took place, with Alex as chairperson. And a few months later, Gressenhall Community Enterprise was registered as a Community Benefit Society.
Then the fun started. ‘One of the things we did was use a converted ambulance and serve homemade cocktails out of the back. There was a White Swan and a Black Swan menu and a Cygnet (non-alcoholic) menu – to stay in people’s hearts and minds.
‘We did what we could and put in some quite fun events to keep the conversation going – things that the swan would be doing.’
The mobile bar popped up on a monthly basis, on the green. ‘That was quite successful and a bit of a stop gap,’ says Alex. ‘We would still be using her now if we were able to.’
There was also a Quiz night and a Save our Swan Summer Soiree. Both were aimed at ‘keeping people engaged.’
In November 2019, the campaigners were named as One to Watch winners at The Plunkett Rural Community Business Awards.
The Plunkett Foundation is a UK-wide charity which helps communities set up life-changing businesses. It co-delivers (along with Power to Change) More than a Pub, a programme that champions the intelligent use of spaces to broaden a pub’s appeal across the day and week.
And, according to the Community Pubs Better Business Report of that year, community pubs embedding the More than a Pub philosophy appear to have bucked a wider industry trend – with a 100 per cent success rate.
Despite the challenges of Covid-19, Alex and the team have pressed on with their vision for saving The Swan. In June last year, a purchase price was finally agreed upon, and there was a conditional offer on the table, of a More than a Pub grant and loan.
Alex says: ‘18 months after we started the project, we were able to agree an asking price with the owner and that was a breakthrough. We weren’t sitting on our hands. We were touching base and negotiating throughout.’
They launched a community pub share offer in August, with the help of a concerted ‘buy a share in your local pub’ leafleting campaign.
It was a six-week campaign, all told, and as Alex says: ‘It honestly surpassed all expectations.’ By the time it closed, 420 people had invested in £260,000 worth of shares. ‘Everybody really, really got behind it. We had a great volunteer team and we worked our socks off.’
What’s really ‘cool’ about it, adds Alex, is that ‘a large proportion of Gressenhall and surrounding couple of villages were investing.’
The fact that this was all achieved in the middle of a pandemic makes it all the more rewarding, of course. ‘It’s an achievement we are all really proud of,’ says Alex. They could only raise a socially distant toast on the green, but no matter – these are as the times we are living in.
Gressenhall Community Enterprise was then awarded £100,000 by the More than a Pub scheme, exchanged contracts and started the purchase process. By the end of the year, they had applied for planning permission and issued tender for building works.
‘We only completed and got keys on January 15,’ says Alex. ‘Getting the keys was a really big moment.’ The community enterprise has also held its first AGM and appointed a management committee for the running of the pub.
Now, for the hard work to really begin! Volunteering in social bubbles or at a social distance, they have already filled a couple of skips with tables and chairs and so on.
Building work to fit out the pub and beer garden, says Alex, will ‘hopefully starting in late March/early April.’
The plan is for The Swan to open in the autumn. Something to look forward, after everything that gone on with the pandemic and lockdown? ‘It not a bad time to be shut,’ agrees Alex. ‘Hopefully, it will work out really well. It’s all really exciting. A lot of people are just massively looking forward to following the journey and having something to look forward to.’
He adds: ‘It’s been a massive journey actually. To do it well, and to give it a good chance of success, my wife and I worked late evenings and a few weekends. And there were lots of people playing their part along the way – it was a good team effort.’
The 31-year-old sometimes has to ‘pinch’ himself that the two-year campaign has come to completion. ‘There were definitely some hard chapters where we had to show all of our positivity and make all the right noises to keep people believing.’
Coming to Norfolk has been a massive lifestyle change for Alex, but he says: ‘I absolutely love the change in pace. We are incredibly fortunate. Gressenhall has a wonderful community and the project has been a great way to meet lots of people. It’s a fantastic place to live and we’ve made lots of good friends.’