Couple still loving their '500-year-old' country pub despite cost of living worries

As pubs struggle in the current cost of living crisis, the Shropshire Star is starting a new weekly series called Love Your Local which celebrates our local inns.

The Royal Oak Pub at Cardington, Church Stretton
The Royal Oak Pub at Cardington, Church Stretton

Shropshire has a rich history of being home to some century-old pubs with a deep story to be told, and a character like no others.

Running a pub is no easy feat, and one couple in Church Stretton have shared their experience on owning and running The Royal Oak, which has a long history said to be over 500 years old.

Steve Oldham, 66, and his wife Eira, 62, took over the pub in the mid-2000s. They have shared their delight at owning the business despite the industry facing one of its toughest challenges yet.

Mr Oldham shared how he loves running a pub now, but only went into the business after losing his job in electronic engineering in 2005.

To describe what it's like to run a pub in one sentence, he said: "If you didn't want to run a pub, you wouldn't do it, I do it because I love doing it."

However, Mr and Mrs Oldham haven't always worked in the pub industry and came into the business after a change in career due to a company closure forced Steve to think of something else to do.

Having previously worked in electronic engineering and computing, and Eira with a background in banking in London, the couple started looking for a pub to buy in 2005, whilst living in Kempston, Bedford.

They looked at a number of different business opportunities at the time but thought that the prospect of owning a pub was the most attractive.

After eyeing up different locations across the country, the couple decided on buying the Royal Oak pub, Cardington, Church Stretton, and now over 17 years later, they are happy as ever on making that decision.

Love your Local Feature - The Royal Oak Pub, Church Stretton. In Picture: Landlords Eira Oldham and Steve Oldham.

The Royal Oak comes with an incredible history said to date back over 500 years ago when the church next door, St James' Church, was being built.

Mr Oldham said his pub is reputed to be the longest continuously licensed pub in Shropshire - something that is often also claimed by other pubs across the county.

Whilst the church next door was being built, Steve said that the workmen would stay in the hostel which would eventually become The Royal Oak, and one part of the pub building is still part of the old hostel where the workmen would stay, and still has the oak wood panelling and is the oldest part of the building.

Mr Oldham said locals are aware of the deep history of the pub and the reputation it has, despite the history not being documented, which the owner put down to records not being recorded of when pubs were built.

Though many pubs claim to be the oldest in the region, there's no definitive answer as to who actually is the oldest, but taking the owner's word for it, The Royal Oak has an incredible history of over 500 years, something that himself and his wife are duly proud of.

Owning a pub in today's climate could be a poisoned chalice for some, with the pandemic crippling the hospitality industry, the energy crisis now putting businesses under intense pressure, but for Mr and Mrs Oldham, they still remain upbeat and incredibly proud of their ownership.

Mr Oldham spoke about his pride of owning a pub, he added: "There's one thing I say about owning a pub, and that is, if you didn't want to do it, you wouldn't.

"It's that simple. You own a pub because you want to. Meaning that you have to own a pub because you want to work in this hospitality industry.

"You love the hard work which isn't particularly hard work to me, but the long unsociable hours, you do it because you want to.

The Royal Oak is said to date back for than 500 years

"It is a rewarding thing to own a pub. Whilst at the moment it isn't financially rewarding, it is generally a rewarding role.

"We work six days a week, from 11am till past midnight, and so the unsociable hours and weekends have resulted in us not being able to do much in terms of family events or weekend activities.

"So there is a sacrifice that you have to make. You haven't got the chance to do things in the evening like going to the theatre or cinema etcetera. but again, you know that when owning a pub and so it reaffirms what I said, you do this because you want to. You know what it entails in owning a pub."

Just as the hospitality industry is recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, it now has to deal with the energy crisis, with energy costs spiralling causing many pubs and hostelries to take steps to reduce costs.

Some of the things that the owners of The Royal Oak have been taking are things like installing automatic light sensors, so their lights will turn off after a certain amount of time with no movement, but as they also serve food, Steve said there are many large energy consuming items that they cannot stop using.

He said: "Our energy costs have more than doubled, and so we have had to put our prices up of course, which we obviously don't want to do.

"But the pub doesn't run by magic, it is a business at the end of the day.

"The prices have to cover the costs, and you cannot be working at a loss - it's a business at the end of the day.

"We are a community pub and receive great support from our local community, from the village and the surrounding area.

"There are regular events held here, or weekly meetings that are held here. So we receive great support."

A photo believed to have been taken around 1910 - the name of the licensee on the sign is Henry Marsh, who is probably one of this group. Photo owned by Ray Farlow

The pub also serves food which the owners believe is the only way a pub can survive in today's climate, as they think a country pub like theirs couldn't last without offering food.

In the run up to Christmas, they will be running their standard food menu along with a Christmas menu.

Another thing that the owners have started is a fish night on Fridays, with the reasoning that there aren't many good places to eat fish in Shropshire, and so their 'fish nights' have proved a hit since it started at the beginning of the month.

As the Winter months approach, Steve is anticipating a tough period for the industry but said: "Our busiest time of trade is during Summer time, we have a lot of uplift from April to September and then have a drop off but December is the bright light in the dark winter months - especially with the Christmas drinks and New Years drinks, as it's a traditional time for partying and people have more time to drink and celebrate than normal."

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