Just the tonic for Toppesfield

PUBLISHED: 14:33 23 May 2013 | UPDATED: 14:38 23 May 2013


Ask people to sum up the quintessential features of the British way of life and many will mention the local village pub. However, according to the Campaign For Real Ale, as many as 18 pubs are closing every week across the country with at least four in rural areas, and with these closures many villages are losing a vital feature of their community and history.

Toppesfield is a small village nestled into the surprisingly undulating and certainly picturesque countryside of North Essex, near Great Yeldham. Although its population is small, Toppesfield residents have proved themselves to be spirited and tenacious, as well as being prepared to protect and maintain the features of their own rural patch.

Faced with losing their pub, the parishioners of Toppesfield and Gainsford End decided to take matters into their own hands and, with considerable collective effort, effective fundraising and good financial advice, succeeded in securing the future of The Green Man public house.

Bought from Admiral Taverns in 2012, the building is now managed by Toppesfield Community Pub Ltd (TCP) which now has 150 shareholders and a committee to support its renaissance, with publican Tony Downs in charge of running the business.

TCP committee member John Levick explains: ‘Tony was publican of The Green Man when it belonged to Admiral Taverns. He rented the building from them but was quite restricted when it came to the types of ales and drinks he could bring in to the pub as he was obliged to buy stock through them. On top of this, Admiral Taverns had been trying to sell the pub for a while with little success and as a community we were facing the very real prospect that we could lose the venue altogether and this was something nobody wanted to see happen.

‘We are a village that has a reputation as being the most motivated in Essex, and we like nothing better than a challenge. In the late 1990s we were in danger of losing our village Post Office and shop, but with fundraising and voluntary staffing we now have a successful community resource that is open throughout the week, and last year we celebrated its 10th anniversary. We have also reclaimed land in the village which is now home to the Allotment Group and we are proud to have put the “ding” back in our village by raising funds to restore bells back into the church.

‘Tony now pays his rent to TCP Ltd, which allows him to buy a greater variety of ales, beers and drinks, which is financially more viable for him and extremely popular with the customers.’

Allan Collard, chairman of the TCP committee, explains further: ‘The pub had been on the market for a number of years and there was a chance that it might have been sold on for development. Happily the building is now under our control and not that of a developer or private owners who have no feel for the village, and any profits made can be put toward repairs and ongoing improvements.’

The community raised more than £150,000 towards the asking price for the pub and the rest was secured by a mortgage and a sizeable donation given by a charity with links to the village. The enterprise was supported by the Plunkett Foundation, a national organisation supporting rural community enterprises and whose Industrial and Provident Society Model was chosen as the best way to extend ownership to as many people as possible.

Mark Ogden, from Triodos Bank which provided the commercial mortgage on the pub, says: ‘The Green Man is a major social asset for Toppesfield and putting the pub into public ownership will help to protect the community’s life blood into the future.’

Peter Couchman, chief executive of the Plunkett Foundation added: ‘Community ownership is a viable and successful solution to the problem – the widespread engagement of the whole community feel empowered to ensure the venture is a success.’

Now Toppesfield’s local is secured it is proving to be well-supported by both residents and shareholders, as well as attracting business from the general public. It stocks a good range of ales, beers and wines and features guest ales every week. Good pub grub is available in the evening with a traditional meat roast available on Sundays. Publican Tony also has plenty of music and themed nights planned for the year ahead with two beer and music festivals scheduled in 2013, one in May and the other in August.

In March the Green Man was chosen by the Plunkett Foundation to host the launch of its new advice line, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government, which was set up to help communities like Toppesfield looking to save their own local pub by setting up a community owned co-operative.

The Green Man is not only a credit to its community but an inspiration to other villages launching their own pub ownership projects, and proof that in spite of a fast-changing and more impersonal world, people can successfully pull together for a common cause and to protect places that are a valued and important part of village life.

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