Social isolation is an issue for many people in rural areas surrounding Shaftesbury. Last Friday, Alfred joined Stour Row residents to celebrate the first birthday of a project which brings the community together – a pop-up pub in the village hall.
It was 7.35pm on a damp Friday and a steady flow of villagers, some carrying torches, were streaming down Stour Row’s main street on a mission to reach ‘the pub’. As the door of this former chapel opened for each entrant, the sounds of laughter and conversation spilt outside, along with the curious red glow of the wall heaters.
Once inside, I convinced Tim Ledger to leave his barman duties in the capable hands of Steve Veness, so we could chat. Tim told me how the idea of a bi-monthly pop-up pub for this village of fewer than 300 residents evolved during a pre-movie pizza in Yeovil. “I said it would be nice if we got together more often than this,” explained villager Tim. “There are few things in the village to get people together. So I asked, why don’t we start a pop-up pub? A few people said it would be a good idea and I found myself with the job.”
Tim is, arguably, the nearest thing the Stroll Inn has to a landlord. “I had the idea in the first place so that sort of makes me the chairman,” he said modestly.
The nearest regular pub is just under two miles away and walking along New Lane at night is not recommended. “There is the Kings Arms up on the A30, which is largely a food pub. There are pubs in East Stour and West Stour, but they are too far to go to in the evening. The pub here in Stour Row closed in 1963, long before the current pub closures. I understand it was a bit of a rough house. It was ‘farm A versus farm B’ – with the police refereeing,” laughed Tim.
Tim says the unusual name of the former pub, the College Arms, is a reference to big landowners in the areas. “A lot of the land around here was owned by Cambridge colleges. It was a big white house across the way from the village hall. Last year, the guy who lives in the house brought the pub sign in as an exhibit. We had it hanging on the wall,” said Tim.
You could fit all of Stour Row’s residents into three London double decker buses. With so few people, you might expect every villager to know one another, but that’s not the case anymore. Tim says new friendships have been forged because of the pop-up pub. “There have been people who have been here a long time, who have met people that they have never spoken to before. We have brought people together, which is great,” said Tim, who believes that’s one of the projects greatest successes.
Fellow villager and pub organiser Judy Veness agrees that the Stroll Inn has played its part in tackling social isolation. There are activities arranged in the village but not every event appeals to the majority of residents. “They have a quiz night but not everybody is into quizzes. There’s the fete but not everybody is into that sort of thing either. With a pub, you can just come in, have a drink and go again if it doesn’t appeal to you. We have met some of the people in the village who don’t get involved in anything else. It’s good,” Judy said.
Tim’s wife, Stephanie Ledger, understands that it can be hard to make friends in a village where many locals drive out to work each day. She and Tim moved to North Dorset from Hertfordshire five years ago. The pub is a place for introductions. “It’s difficult to meet people. And it’s lovely to come here and chat to people. There’s no other place, really,” Stephanie observed.
The organising committee hasn’t arranged their pop-up pub with half measures. When drinks are being served, a swinging pub sign, the sort you’d find outside any self-respecting alehouse, is put on display outside. The image depicts eight men and women in an expedition-like walking party. The lead walker is propelling himself forward with a stick and has a rucksack on his back, his trousers tucked in his socks and puffing on a pipe. Passers-by would think that the Stroll Inn was a permanent village fixture.
“We tried to think of a name that wasn’t too silly. We thought of things like the Red Lion, and that sort of thing” explained Tim. “The street through here is called Dover Street, so Dover Patrol and other names came to mind. I was mulling around what to do with Stour Road. I came up with the name Stroll Inn. It gives people the idea of what we want them to do – basically, strolling in.”
The pub trade is tough with incredibly long hours, increasingly poor returns and sometimes ruthless breweries driving tenants into the ground. But when you don’t have a wage bill to meet and operate a pub occasionally as a not-for-profit that supports the village hall, it is possible to achieve great things.
“I guess I’d seen a fair amount from the customer side over the years and we got a committee together. We were very lucky that the village hall had a good licence. We can even take people coming in off the street. We don’t have to have memberships. We checked that out with the licensing authorities. We have sessions every couple of months. I made it clear to people that if they wanted it more frequently, we would have to have more helpers. Once every couple of months seems to suit everybody. We’ve had anything between 60 and 90 people. It’s been quite embarrassing the number of slaps on the back I have had. People have been saying that we should have had this years ago,” smiled Tim.
There is a slight irony that Tim and Steve were serving up drinks in what was once a Congregational chapel. “It is a village hall. It needs to be used as such. I don’t think it’s a problem. It wasn’t strict Baptist, I don’t think,” said Tim.
Jackie Hart is a member of the team that puts on these regular events. She and her fellow helpers transform the village hall to a cosy and welcoming space for these pop-up pub events. She has the title of the ‘head of ambience’. “It means trying to convert a functional village hall with strip fluorescent lighting into something a bit more comfortable, laid-back and welcoming,” said Jackie.
The village hall was quite a sight as I approached the pop-up pub. The building looks like the chapel it once was. The perpendicular windows were glowing red as if the space was a disco or infrared sauna. The unusual red tinge to the lighting was caused by the wall-mounted electric bar heaters, which give off that glow. But Jackie says that can be quite costly. “It’s run on pound coins. Later we might all have to scrabble around and find a few to feed into the meter!” she laughed.
Jackie says they’ve had feedback from people in terms of what they would like to see in the future. “Some of it is a bit unrealistic,” she smiled. “Some people have asked for a leather sofa. We can’t manage that. We are stuck with the functional furniture that we have. We do our best. We try and have a slight theme. At Christmas we had greenery and Christmas stuff. In the summer we try and do summery things.”
There are also warning signs dotted around the walls for comedic effect. One warns of ‘pickpockets and loose women’. “We have a number of them if you’d like to look around and see what they say,” said Jackie. I assumed she meant the signs rather than villagers!
Steve Veness is one of the lead volunteers behind the village’s own community website – an impressive resource for a rural community with so few locals. Stour Row residents are well informed about local activities. “Whilst the website helps promote the pub, we do have a village email list as well, which people can subscribe to,” said Steve. “It’s the most ‘in the moment’ way that we can get the news out about the next pub opening. Anybody can choose to join. I think it’s emails that gets it into people’s minds that there is going to be a pub night.”
There’s no worry about late-night drinking or noise. Last orders might seem early, but Tim says that doesn’t seem to be a problem. “I think if you go into a lot of pubs around here, they are empty by about 9 o’clock. People go into them early and then they leave early. I haven’t had anybody objecting to us calling time at 10 o’clock,” he said.
Last Friday the Stroll Inn celebrated its first birthday. And as Tim prepared to call it a night following a successful first-anniversary pop-up pub session, it was good to know that there is no chance of anyone calling time on this vital community resource any time soon.