By Mike Rego
The social distancing restrictions imposed as a result of COVID-19, have been hard on everyone, not least on those employed in the catering trade and for those running establishments such as pubs, cafés and restaurants.
The partial easing of restrictions back in April, when pubs were allowed to re-open for serving food and drink but only outside came as a great relief to many, but it has still been a difficult period for many publicans. The further easing of restrictions on Monday, 17th May, when customers will be able to be served inside, will be a welcome relief from the vagaries of the English weather on Dartmoor.
For many who enjoy a walk and exercising on the Moor, particularly as a relief from the restrictions of the COVID-19 lockdown, a drink and perhaps a meal at a rural pub can make a good starting or finishing point for a walk. With the expected increase in visitors as a result of the ‘staycation factor’ this year, greater numbers will be a welcome relief to many in the catering business. But whilst many pubs have been able to improvise, not all have been able to take advantage of the relaxed restrictions since 12th April, due to lack of suitable outside facilities. Instead, some have been able to use lockdown to carry out refurbishments and improvements in line with the new ways of hosting customers.
The Moorlander has taken a look at how some pubs on Dartmoor that are popular with walkers have coped with lockdown, and how they see the future in terms of the customer experience. Many people may still be fearful of entering public sites despite reduced COVID-19 infection rates and easing of government restrictions.
The Dartmoor Inn at Merrivale sits beneath Merrivale Quarry alongside the B3357, midway between Tavistock and Princetown on the Walkham Valley. The inn has been semi-derelict for the last few years but in mid-2020 the lease was taken on by Eversfield Organic. Charlie Furnivall, the manager, explains that the purchase is a natural expansion to their existing shops in Tavistock and Totnes, and a newly opened shop in Marlborough. Lockdown has in some ways been fortuitous, as they have been able to completely gut and refurbish the interior, creating a restaurant for up to 50 covers inside to showcase and provide a full-range organic menu, (including vegetarian, vegan and fish options), as well as five rooms upstairs for B&B. Additionally, they have constructed an animal shelter area outside with under-cover seating, creating outside capacity for up to 35 covers, ideal for walkers with muddy boots and dogs, horse riders, cyclists, etc, to come and enjoy a drink or a meal.
The dry and sunny weather during April has been a boon for places such as the Dartmoor Inn because, as Charlie explains, with outside hosting only, business has been very weather dependent. Although a drop-off in customers was expected once the school holidays finished, with the dry weather trade remained high, largely from retired people many of whom were walkers, and people travelling in motorhomes.
The inn is situated in an ideal location not only for casual passing trade, but also to explore the Walkham Valley and the prehistoric sites around Merrivale, however, bookings for tables and rooms are already filling fast, in preparation for the scheduled opening of the restaurant on 17th May. Typical room bookings are for two to four days, essentially ‘long weekends’, and with the additional construction of some timber ‘treatment sheds’ above and behind the inn, all with commanding views down the Walkham Valley, they also hope to be able to offer beautician treatments such as deep tissue massage, ideal for those who have enjoyed a long and strenuous day of walking on Dartmoor.
Stephen Earp is the landlord of the Royal Oak at Meavy, in the southwest corner of Dartmoor. Since re-opening the Royal Oak has been well supported, due in part to the warm weather throughout much of April. However the re-opening under COVID-19 restrictions has led to a number of changes in how the pub operates. The Royal Oak is fortunate in that it is positioned directly alongside the village green, and with the support of the Parish Council has been able to extend its outside seating capacity by installing tables on the green directly in front of the pub.
Because of the lockdown rules since re-opening, food and drinks have to be served at the tables, and it is not permitted to buy drinks for consumption on the green without being seated at a table. But such table service requires a doubling of staff – increasing the overheads, yet with fewer tables due to the temporary loss of inside seating, which as Stephen says is why many pubs have done the economics and realised that they cannot justify re-opening under such conditions. Ironically, despite Brexit, the Royal Oak has found itself adopting a more European café style of service, by opening at 10am to serve brunch, and although because of cooler temperatures they have not been serving food in the evenings and closing earlier at around 8pm, it has been relatively easier to hire additional staff because the hours are more akin to those of a job with regular daytime shifts.
The Royal Oak has covered the seating area immediately in front of the pub, but Stephen foresees long-lasting changes in customers’ habits, particularly with a generally higher awareness of cleanliness and use of hand sanitisers etc, and reduced contact with others. Whereas pre-COVID-19 they would have 38 covers in the dining room, that has been reduced to 19 in order to conform to the new rules, and Stephen doesn’t see a return to 38, as he believes that for some time many people will feel uncomfortable being in too close proximity to others. He sees people taking longer and appreciating the dining experience more, with price perhaps no longer so important as quality of food and service over quantity for example, with a greater appreciation for locally-sourced products and services rather than those of larger national and multi-national chains.
The Prince of Wales pub in Princetown, at the start of the old Princetown Railway walking and cycling route, has always been popular with walkers, but lockdown brought on a wholly unexpected turn of events. Just before the second lockdown, they were flooded out on 12th August, 2020, when three months’ of rain fell over two hours, flooded their cellar and came up into the kitchen and the rest of the ground floor. As a result, whilst there was no chance of generating any revenue with the kitchens and cellar out of action, John Burbage and his business partner Jan Hayes, who had bought the lease only two years earlier in October, 2018, decided to take advantage of the lockdown and completely refurbish the pub. To help generate revenue during the second lockdown, as the kitchens were out of action and unable to even serve takeaway food, John and Jan invested in a burger van at the suggestion of Jan’s partner Madi David. From this they served food out of the main car park at weekends.
As a result they have completely rebuilt and expanded the kitchen and dining areas, converted the upstairs accommodation to two family rooms and three standard rooms and refurbished the bunkhouse. Normally the bunkhouse has 23 bunks and is especially popular with kayakers, walking and family groups and retired military groups, but since April has been slightly reduced with a bar set up to serve guests outside in the courtyard during the post-lockdown period.
Since the re-opening in April, weekends have generally been very busy, with weekdays tending to be more dependent on the weather. John Burbage comments that for many, this third lockdown has been harder largely due to the weather at the time of year, and for many, particularly older people who may live on their own, not being able to get out to a pub and meeting friends for a social chat has been hard. As John says, ‘pubs are a very social place, it isn’t just about the drinking’. He feels that the lockdown has made many people realise that in a rural community a pub is a very important meeting place, be it for social reasons or even making work contacts. As the pub re-opens after lockdown and refurbishment, John describes it as totally transformed from what it was, and states that they are ‘coming out of it with a much better pub’.
For Richard Edlmann, landlord of the Ring of Bells at North Bovey, the last few years have been particularly trying. Richard took over the pub in 2013 and began a steady process of renovation, only to lose it all in a near-disastrous fire in January, 2016. After a two year re-build, the popular pub re-opened just in time for Christmas in December 2017, before being hit again with loss of business due to the COVID-19 lockdown and other restrictions last year. As Richard says, the stop-start nature of the last 18 months has been quite exhausting.
The re-opening in April saw a successful restart, and with the aid of the enclosed garden area in front of the pub they have been able to provide 60 to 70 covers at a time, which has been an effective preparation for when full re-opening happens on 17th May. Being able to dine inside will make life much easier for managing the catering side, as it will be less weather dependent. Richard says that he does admire the durability of some customers, who gamely manage to put up with a rapidly cooling plate of food whilst dining outside in the colder evenings that we have experienced recently.
Although like many pubs they have lost some team members during lockdown, the Ring of Bells has managed to keep the core of their staff team intact, and in preparation for re-opening next week they have simplified the menu and improved it with an extended food service from midday all the way through to 8pm, which is more in keeping with what customers want. Richard goes on to say that table service is actually good for controlling customers in terms of regulating the flow of orders to the kitchen. With four distinct seating and dining areas, having control over the pace of ordering eases pressure on the kitchen staff and provides an overall better level of service to customers.
Richard says that they may limit the numbers per sitting until he has been able to build up a full strength team – it is important to re-build from the core strength of the team and not put people under pressure, spreading table bookings by starting service earlier and maybe even finishing earlier. Many people tend to forget that many of the staff in rural pubs do not necessarily live locally and may often have a 40 minute commute after clearing up once the pub closes in the evening. This is partly because property prices can be quite high in some of the more desirable locations such as North Bovey.
Richard also comments that since re-opening in April, after three lockdowns people in general seem to be more tolerant and understanding – people are pleased to be able to get out, something we have all missed and perhaps taken for granted in the past. Pubs play an important role in the social interactions of the community, particularly in rural areas. As Richard states, ‘pubs are the original social media’. As well as locals, the traditional client base has been coming back, particularly weekenders and those renting self-catering accommodation, and with five rooms available to book as well as a new adjacent self-catering cottage available, Richard is looking forward to the return to normality.
The Drake Manor Inn at Buckland Monachorum on the western edge of Dartmoor, near Tavistock, is a smaller pub in the heart of the village but has overcome the problem of limited space to serve customers seated outside by constructing a covered awning over the small parking area immediately opposite the pub in addition to a small sheltered garden area with seating to the rear. Mandy Robinson, the landlady, and her partner Garth Redgrave, explain that in some ways the first lockdown was easier as they were able to provide takeaway alcohol sales. In addition, they started a small pop-up shop to provide essentials such as bread, milk and vegetables to the local community, as well as takeaway food on a Friday night.
The current lockdown has provided a chance to carry out some renovations, but the furloughed staff are now back and the locals are delighted to be returning. The outside tent has now replaced the bar. Although fairly sheltered, when the Drake Manor Inn first re-opened in April, they tried opening to 9:30pm but changed to 8:00pm as it was often just too cold to sit outside much later once the sun went down. The weather has made evenings unpredictable.
Like many pubs in the current situation, they are able to work at capacity, but it is a reduced capacity and for some premises that is simply not economically viable. As Garth also says, although many customers like the table service, for others, especially locals, going up to the bar to order a drink and chatting to friends on the way is all part of the enjoyment and social aspect. He hopes that they will be able to return to being a traditional pub with both bar and table service as soon as possible.
The Rugglestone Inn at Widecombe is another pub popular with walkers with an extensive outside seating area. Richard and Vicki Palmer are the landlords, and for them the biggest positive since re-opening in April has been the weather enabling them to use their outdoor space, their biggest asset. Table service has been challenging however, requiring more staff, and yet with no mobile phone or internet access, customers have still had to queue up at the door to pay their bills, albeit socially distanced with face masks and hand sanitiser available.
The Rugglestone Inn has limited seating capacity inside at the best of times, and during last summer in order to simplify things they made the decision to stick to outdoor service only. Richard says that after 17th May, they are hoping to not have to provide table service only for much longer, but to return to a traditional pub atmosphere where someone can choose to stand at the bar with friends, as it is part of the ‘pub experience’ and how they market themselves as a pub rather than a restaurant. Richard goes on to say that they are ‘keen not to be too formal, but to provide a relaxed environment which is what we all enjoy – serving the local community as well as visitors’.
He adds that they are very lucky to be well supported by both – the local element entertains the tourists which is what makes it a great pub environment, retirees rub shoulders with local farmworkers and get along well with each other; all part of the convivial and friendly atmosphere. Pubs such as the Rugglestone also serve as a focal point to local community groups, such as bell ringers or choral groups, who may meet up there after a practice session.
During the first lockdown the Rugglestone offered takeaway food three nights a week, and received ‘fantastic support by the local community’. Richard believes that takeaway food will be a bigger thing at first with the initial re-opening, as there are likely to be many people who are still wary about coming back to the pub but want to do their bit to support the local community.
The new rules are due to come into effect from midnight on Sunday, subject to Coronavirus disease targets being met:
- pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers indoors;
- people will still need to order, eat and drink while seated – ordering at the bar in a pub will still not be permitted;
- customers will be able to meet inside in groups of up to six people – or two households of any size;
- groups seated outside may have up to 30 people;
- social distancing measures and face covering rules may still apply (unless exempt).
All being well, the Government plans to lift all social distancing restrictions from 21st June, but it will be interesting to see how the past 18 months have changed our behaviour.
For example, will many people still prefer to wear face masks in shops and other crowded public areas such as pubs, restaurants and cinemas, buses and trains? Will there be a preference to drinking and dining outside, weather conditions permitting? It may be a while before a return to pre-COVID-19 ‘normal’ life becomes acceptable to all.