It was a day of glorious sunshine when Stroud CAMRA presented Sammy McKie of the Carpenters Arms, Westrip, with a framed certificate recording her pub’s triumph as our Cider Pub of the Year for 2023, writes Tim Mars.
It proved a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and both the pub and garden were heaving. The pub was relaxed and welcoming and everyone—whether real cider drinkers or not—rejoiced in the pub’s success and came together to toast the Carpenters’ richly deserved victory. Quite a turnaround for a pub which was not so long ago closed and at risk of being lost to a residential conversion.
While we present an award every year, this one was a first. The Carpenters is not just Stroud CAMRA Cider Pub of the Year but has triumphed in the next round to be declared Gloucestershire CAMRA Cider Pub of the Year. So we have a double award-winner and it was a double presentation, with Andy Frape, chair of Gloucestershire CAMRA, presenting the certificate on behalf of the branch.
This is the first time any of our award-winning pubs—whether for Pub of the Year, Cider Pub of the Year or Club of the Year—has gone on to scoop the Gloucestershire CAMRA gong. The pub was assessed by teams from the other Gloucestershire sub-branches, with the Carpenters beating off formidable competition from pubs with a long-established reputation for real cider —the Salutation at Ham, the Pelican in Gloucester and the Dog House at Coleford— to take the title of Gloucestershire CAMRA Cider Pub of the Year 2023.
Which just goes to show what a good job Sammy and her team at the Carpenters have done in such a short space of time since she bought the pub in 2019.
The presentation was at 5pm on Saturday 13 May following the Randwick Wap. Along with the impressive usual range of up to 12 local ciders there were many rare and tasty additions as the pub held a cider festival to celebrate the award. There were 50 varieties of cider on offer from local producers like Day’s Cottage from Brookthorpe near Gloucester and Orchard Revival from Dursley. Several cider producers were present to offer wisdom and enlightenment on all things Pomona.
Aside from (officially) the best range of cider in Gloucestershire, for those who preferred other libations there were three real ales and all the usual suspects behind the double-sided bar that serves both the lounge and the public bar. A special food offer in the form of pork and apple baps was available which went very nicely with a flavoursome pint of real cider.
The Carpenters is a whitewashed stone-built pub right at the north-western edge of the Cashes Green/Westrip conurbation close to the Cotswold Way. It is located on a steep hillside with spectacular and panoramic views over Stroud, from Rodborough Fort to the Bear Hotel and across to Selsley, and all along the valley towards the River Severn. It is the flipside, if you like, of the views you get from the Black Horse at Amberley.
The Carpenters now goes forward with our blessing to the next round, to compete with all the other CAMRA south west branch nominations for the title of South West CAMRA Cider Pub of the Year. And so on until one pub out of a shortlist of four is crowned national CAMRA Cider Pub of the Year.
This is quite a turnaround for the ‘Carps’, which was once closed and risked being lost to residential. It was advertised for sale as an ‘ideal lifestyle purchase [that] would also appeal to purchasers looking to open on restricted hours and benefit from three-bedroom private accommodation in a desirable residential area’. Neon Homes bought the pub and built two houses on part of the car park. It was eventually advertised as for sale freehold at £300,000 or to let on a free-of-tie lease. The sales prospectus omitted to mention that the Cotswold Way ran close by.
The pub used to be owned by Punch Taverns with landlord Steve Poulter as their tenant for many years. It was subject to an unsuccessful application by Pubmaster (now part of Punch) for planning permission for conversion to residential in 1997. This was refused by Stroud District Council. Pubmaster went to appeal, the appeal was rejected and the pub was saved from closure.
Perhaps because of this experience, according to locals Punch sold the pub to landlord Steve Poulter and almost immediately he sold it to Neon Homes and became their tenant. Neon Homes received planning permission to build two houses on part of the car park.
Perhaps also because of Pubmaster’s experience, Neon Homes then commissioned Plainview Planning to prepare a Future Options document which stated baldly that ‘changes in drinking habits and its peripheral location present a day-to-day challenge to the ability of the pub to stay up and running. A viability report undertaken by industry specialists concludes that the pub is not viable.’
Plainview Planning fail to mention that despite the pub’s ‘peripheral location’ it is at the edge of a densely built up urban area (Cashes Green) with hundreds of people within walking distance, has stunning views from the garden and happens to be on the Cotswold Way—like the Edgemoor Inn, the Kings Head at Kings Stanley, the Bell at Selsley and the Old Spot at Dursley. Surely these are material considerations and trump any ‘viability report undertaken by industry specialists’ no doubt commissioned to conclude that ‘the pub is not viable’?
As is the fact that neighbourhoods with pubs are seen as desirable and that is reflected in higher house prices.
Now, despite spiralling energy bills, the pub is doing very well according to owner and licensee Sammy McVie. ‘We bought the pub in 2019, then we had Covid nearly straight away which was quite stressful. But we are going great guns and people seem to be loving it. We are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We spend so much just to pay the electricity bill at the moment and we are just keeping our head above water. We have turned it around despite Covid and the cost-of-living crisis.’
Which just goes to show that it’s not all bad news on the pub front and that a village local in a remote location at the edge of an urban area can triumph against the odds over property speculators intent on converting any pubs they get their hand on to residential in order to achieve a higher return.
That surely is worth raising a glass to!