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Pub week: Shropshire locals that are loved and lost

Bridgnorth | News | Published:

They were once at the heart of towns and villages. Toby Neal looks at pubs that we loved and lost.

The closed All Labour In Vain pub in Horsehay, boarded up and awaiting its fate

It is, of course, nothing new. Pubs have come and gone ever since there were pubs. What's new now is that there are not many new pubs coming along, and yet a huge tide of pubs are disappearing forever. It is the mathematics of eventual extinction.

Walk through the streets of any Shropshire town and you will be surrounded by the ghosts of old hostelries, converted into homes, shops, or offices so long ago that only a few of the older generation will remember ever existed in the first place.

  • Tell us about your favourite pub – or of the locals you loved and lost. E-mail pubs@shropshirestar.co.uk

And walk through the streets of any Shropshire town and it will also not be long before you come to a pub with that tell-tale "For Let," "For Sale", or "Business Opportunity" sign outside. Others are boarded up.

But before we start the serious process of crying into our beer, let's start with a cup of cheer. There are a tragic number of pubs which die, but there are a few which are merely sleeping.

Take a look at the Kynnersley Arms in the village of Leighton. It closed in 2008 after a landlord couldn't be found to take it on. Up went the boards – actually, metal sheeting over the windows. Up went the razor wire to deter the vandals and thieves who repeatedly tried to target the forlorn building.

The Kynnersley Arms was a sad sight and there was an especially sad aspect, as the grade II-listed building incorporates a historic water mill dating back to the Domesday Book, and the site is also the home for a piece of industrial heritage in the form of a 300-year-old blast furnace. Inside, there was a cannon ball, presumably a product of that furnace.

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Some important finds came to light when Channel Four's Time Team programme presented by Tony Robinson conducted archaeological investigations back in 2001. They discovered one of the most well-preserved parts of a blast furnace in the area and also dug up the almost perfectly-preserved water mill.

Alas, for five years the Kynnersley Arms was just another country pub which seemed to have gone belly up. Now, however, all has changed and it is a hive of activity as part of a £120,000 scheme which will see it reopening.

So it can be done. The seemingly remorseless closure of pubs can be halted and reversed with investment and confidence in the future.

The Three Fishes at Bayston Hill in 1957. Licensee Percy Gibbons polishes brass.

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Now the reality check. For every pub that comes back with new life, there are many more that join the ever-lengthening list of permanent casualties.

As soon as buildings are seen as blots on the landscape the bulldozers start to rev up.

A day of destiny with bulldozers awaits at least two Telford pubs following recent decisions by planning councillors. The Park Inn in Madeley is an imposing and quite handsome roadside building which has probably been around longer than some of the houses near it, but is now among the ranks of the boarded up. Planning permission has been given to knock it down and redevelop the site.

Planning permission was simultaneously given to knock down the Queens Arms at Finger Road in Dawley. Both buildings are unused, but in apparent good order otherwise.

Elsewhere, the Red Lion at Alveley, near Bridgnorth, is under similar threat after it failed to find a buyer.

A particularly agonising possibility for failed pubs is that they will be in planning limbo land. In this set of circumstances local people tend to be vociferous in wanting to keep the pub, even if they don't often drink there themselves, and the local council supports them by refusing to give planning permission for conversion into homes, or whatever. The publican or pub company argues that the pub is not viable and that nobody wants to buy it as a pub.

And so there is a standoff. The building is in the worst of all worlds, a pub that is not a pub, and not really anything else either. If it is not occupied, it will deteriorate, with every day an incremental decrease in the chances of bringing it back to life successfully.

Empty buildings are vulnerable buildings, and a few closed pubs have been burned down.

Old Snooks, one of the ‘characters’ you could find in pubs of yesteryear

It's not just the pubs going, but the characters who inhabit them – the old chap in a cap nursing his pint of mild (might find that a bit hard to get nowadays), the bar-room boor mouthing off about this or that, the licensee with his handlebar moustache who was a squadron leader in the RAF . . .

People like "Old Snooks" who was a cattle drover and local character who was a regular at the Pig and Whistle pub in the Smithfield yard, Wellington. He died in 1933.

People like George Burgess who, for most evenings since June 1919, called in for a pint and a chat at the White Horse in Lincoln Hill, Ironbridge.

Even the likes of Laura, who was actually a parrot, kept at the Red Barn pub at Shrewsbury, where Sammy Brooke was landlord for 57 years.

One day in the future some historian will start the business of documenting all the pubs which have shut in Shropshire over the past few years. It will be an immense and difficult piece of research, because the situation is dynamic and fluid.

Here are just a few of the trials and tribulations affecting some local pubs in the last decade:

2003: The Railway Inn, in the heart of the village of Pontesbury, closed. Planning permission for its demolition was given in October 2004 and by early November it was gone.

2005: Closures included the Raven Inn at Gravel Hill, Ludlow; the Lion Hotel at Llanymynech; and the Cleveland Arms at High Ercall – but this pub was later to reopen. The King's Arms pub at Chelmarsh was boarded up. This pub at the heart of the community was destined to reopen, and then close again, and there were proposals to turn it into houses.The building remains boarded up.

2006: Goodbye to The Swan at Frodesley. The Tontine Inn at Melverley closed but later reopened. The Charlton Arms Hotel at Wellington shut after a fire and planning permission has been given to turn it into housing, and the Red Admiral at Sutton Hill closed and was later demolished. Planning permission was given to turn the Woodcock Inn at Pulverbatch into homes. The Tally Ho pub at Bouldon closed and a long-running planning dispute began over proposals to turn it into a house – the pub was destined to reopen as a traditional country pub once more. Another plus was the reopening of The Wickets pub in Wellington after a big revamp.

The Waggoners Inn, Whixall, after it was hit by a fire. The building remains a shell.

2007: The bad news was that The Four Crosses at Hinstock, The Red Lion at Wistanswick, The Red Lion Inn, in Whitchurch Road, Wellington, and the Hop and Friar in Shrewsbury all closed, but the good news was that it proved temporary and they all later reopened – The Red Lion in Whitchurch Road renamed the Wellington Arms. The Waggoners Inn at Whixall closed in early November, and a few weeks later was gutted by fire, but was subsequently bought by a couple intending to restore it. It remains a shell although there are still plans to restore it. The days were numbered of the White Horse at Heath Hill, Dawley, which was in line for demolition (and it was demolished later).

2008: The empty Pigeon Box pub in Priorslee was severely damaged by fire. The Masonic Arms, in Coleham, and The Fox, at Bayston Hill, both shut. The Masonic Arms reopened later, but The Fox was demolished last year.

The Dun Cow pub at Dawley in February 2009, only a few days before it was knocked down. On the end of the wall is a sign reading: ‘RIP The Dun Cow, Dawley, 1811-2008, 197yrs’.

2009: The Dun Cow in Dawley and the Champion Jockey in Donnington were demolished and the Royal Oak pub in Madeley High Street was boarded up, later to become an Indian restaurant.

The Royal Oak in Madeley, seen here around the 1960s, was part of the town’s street scene over three centuries and has since been developed into an Indian restaurant

2010: Goodbye to the All Labour In Vain in Horsehay, while the White Hart in Hinkshay was demolished. The Six Bells at Ditherington was boarded up and later the site was earmarked for a Tesco Express. The Cross Keys at Weston Rhyn shut, and was demolished, we think, last year.

2011: After being closed for over a year, the Elephant & Castle in Dawley reopened.

2012: The Railway Inn, Wellington, was boarded up in January, but reopened later. The Anchor pub in Madeley reopened around February after a period of closure. The Old Shawbirch at Trench had been boarded up for a while, and the Red Lion at Myddle closed. The Half Moon at Jackfield reopened after a 16-year absence. The Pheasant Inn, Linley Brook, shut and was put on the sales market. The Royal Oak at Clee Hill closed on July 9 because of the struggling economic climate.

But it's not all bad news:

To bring a cup of cheer, here's a good news story about a country pub. In 1999 a storm was brewing in the village of Ryton, near Shrewsbury, over the plan by the then landlord Neil Salt to close it and turn it into a house, saying there had been a fall in trade. Villagers were up in arms.

In what was a landmark ruling, planning councillors refused permission for it to be turned into a house because of the impact on the village of losing its only pub. In 2000 a new chapter opened up when The Fox was sold and new licensees John and Sue Owen took over – and they are there to this day. "We are the second longest serving publicans in South Shropshire," says Sue.

While the pub has its aces, such as superb views, a spectacular rural location, food which has got it into the Good Food Guide, cask ales, and events and trips which put it at the heart of the community, there's no getting away from the fact that things have changed.

Neil Salt, the then licensee of the Fox Inn at Ryton, was refused planning permission to convert the pub into a house after reporting a dip in trade. It has gone on to thrive under new owners.

"It's a different trade and a different climate compared to when we came here," said Sue.

"The fact that we are still here 13 years later tells you that we are as successful as it can be."

However, she added: "When I speak to friends in the trade from similar public houses, we are all in the same boat. You hear of pubs closing every day like ours. It's a struggle to keep up with people who have the financial resources to throw at their pubs or to run them at a loss for tax purposes, which is what we are up against."

She added: "The small country pubs, unless they are supported by their villagers and people from the surrounding areas, I can see a time when they will be phased out."

But despite the change in the general climate, Sue says: "We still enjoy what we are doing."

  • Tell us about your favourite pub – or of the locals you loved and lost. E-mail pubs@shropshirestar.co.uk

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