There was once an ancient tavern in Southstoke that had seen better days. Put up for sale as a development project to the highest bidder, the community rallied round – Melissa Blease investigates the buy-back of The Packhorse

Dreams have recently turned into reality in the picturesque village of Southstoke, just south of Bath. After several years of campaigning and many months of hard work undertaken by an affiliation of indefatigable individuals, alongside support from over 400 visionary community shareholders, the historic Packhorse Inn reopened its doors to the public in March this year. The pub’s reopening (on the 400th anniversary, as it happens, of its inauguration as an ale house) represents an exemplary lesson in how inspiration, dedication to a cause and dogged determination can win over despondency, despair and the prospect of defeat – if, that is, you have the right team on board.

The project team and the whole community around us are delighted and proud about what we’ve collectively achieved,” says Dom Moorhouse, managing director of the Packhorse Community Pub. “Not only have we saved a beautiful, 400-year old heritage building, but we’ve put a place where social connections can be made back at the heart of a village. The Packhorse today is the product of a thousand hands, and a fine example of what can happen when a community comes together. We hope it’s a story that inspires others.”

At a time when community ownership dominates debates about the future of the Great British Pub, the Packhorse story is indeed inspirational. But don’t let anybody tell you that such a project is easy to undertake.

To delve into the full detail and learn more about the roll call of heroes who have each played their part in the pub’s history, the Packhorse website takes us on a journey through time. The date above one of the original doors, for example, marks the start of that journey as 1674, but samples taken from the oldest beams reveal that the building could be even older, as the original timbers date back to 1618 and 1635. In 1847, the pub was officially registered as a ‘beer house’, and for around 165 years it maintained that status. But in May 2012, the pub’s then-owners, Punch Taverns, put the Packhorse Inn up for sale to the highest bidder with a plan to turn it into a domestic residence with a ground floor office space.Southstoke residents Penny Townsend, Simon Pearson, Steve Gourley and Bob Honey actively protested the sale, and the ambitious, arduous campaign to Save the Packhorse began. Over the years that followed, the campaign eventually raised £1,025,000 from shareholders and investors – a figure that represents the highest sum ever raised for a community pub buy-back in the UK. But then there was the none-too-small matter of an ancient, tumbledown but uniquely beautiful building in desperate need of tender loving care to deal with…

“On my first visit at the start of the refurbishment project, I saw walls being chipped clean of damaged plaster, upper-level floors missing and Artexed ceilings hanging down,” says the pub’s interior designer Claire Rendall, whose previous projects include commissions for Longleat House, designing and presenting on BBC1’s DIY SOS, and a collaborative partnership with designer Van de Sant to create contemporary furniture made from recovered ocean plastic.

“Centuries of paint layers still clung to the front and back doors and ghastly 1960s ventilation fans sat in the windows,” Claire explains. “But I could remember huddling by the fire in the Tap Bar a decade before and feasting on chip butties and local beer – you could say that’s when I first fell in love with the place.

“So, when I met the Packhorse team at a fundraising event, I asked if they had an interior designer on board; they hadn’t, so I agreed to contribute my time to resurrect this important building. I felt that, above and beyond the demands of the conservation officer, we should respect the integral personality, character and history of the Packhorse throughout the whole refurbishment – and, very importantly, I wanted the makeover to be all to be about the building, not the interior designer. Over several conversations, Nick Alexander – who led the build works – and I agreed that the pub should eventually look as though it hadn’t been restored at all.”

Given the sorry state of disrepair the building was in, that sounds like a tricky brief. But Claire is renowned for making interior design magic happen. Aiming to recreate the interior atmosphere she remembered from her visit 10 years before, Claire eschewed contemporary trends for peacock blue and burnished gold in favour of off-black and subtle putty paintwork in the ground floor bars. On the first floor (in rooms previously closed to the public), she opted for rich red walls to complement the elm floor and a Bath stone fireplace in the main dining room. She also chose refined sage walls and a large carved panel – donated from the villagers – to hide the flat screen television in the meeting room.

“The Packhorse today is the product of a thousand hands, and a fine example of what can happen when a community comes together”

“I had my usual mental tussle about new oak doors and door frames being fitted, as this is a bit of a bugbear of mine,” says Claire. “I rant at programmes like Wolf Hall, which show interiors with oak as it appears today: dark, with centuries of tannin leeching into the timber. But back then, the oak would have been pale, as new oak is today. The dilemma was whether we artificially darken the new oak to make it look original to the building or leave it as it is. We decided that darkening would be a ‘Disneyfication’ too far; it’s better to be true to the materials and let them age naturally.” The lighting maintains a 17th-century feel with simple wrought-iron wall pieces and simple zinc coach lights at the front and back doors. The wrought-iron wall lights are either used bare with filament light bulbs, softened by cream linen shades downstairs, or prettied up with sweet Toile de Jouy in the upstairs Red Room. Meanwhile, soft furnishings in low-key, earthy linen shades combined with pre-distressed fabrics complete the calmly convivial ambience.

Claire’s efforts have attracted a flurry of positive attention, but there’s one comment that she is most keen to share. On the Thursday before the pub’s reopening, an older gentleman from the village wandered in with his camera. “The other rooms are lovely but you haven’t done anything in here,” he said, of the Tap Bar. “I was thrilled,” says Claire. “It was exactly what I wanted to achieve – his comment proves that we’ve done good by the building. The whole refurbishment has been carried out with a massive amount of skill and careful consideration, and now it’s good to go on for another 400 years.”James Dixon, general manager of The Packhorse Community Pub

But for our purposes, the future is right here, right now – and you couldn’t possibly wish for a more characterful, inclusive, welcoming ‘down the pub’ experience than you’ll find when you enter the Packhorse today.

After making time to take in the delights of the environment (including a spacious, abundant work-in-progress garden that’s already starting to blossom) you’ve probably worked up an appetite – but if you haven’t, work one up now, because we’re in safe hands here too.

Head chef Rob Clayton had stints in illustrious kitchens including London’s Ménage a Trois and Chez Nico and our very own Hunstrete House and Bath Priory hotels on his CV. He now heads up Clayton’s Kitchen at the Porter. He was initially approached to help design the new-build kitchen for the Packhorse before being asked to take on the role of operations director.

Rob recruited former King William head chef Daniel Vosper – who has a earned himself a glowing reputation for his super-smart use of locally sourced, seasonal produce – to maintain the Packhorse’s all-important classic pub selection alongside dishes that scale the heights of upper-crust, imaginative gastropub greatness. “It’s been a privilege to be involved with the Packhorse project,” says Rob. “We’ve put together a very talented team which has the Packhorse ethics at the core, and we’re all looking forward to a busy future.” ­­

“Getting to this point has been a mammoth undertaking,” says Nick Alexander. “We’re all delighted with the results of our efforts and the response from the local community – it makes all the hard work worthwhile.”

The Packhorse Inn, Old School Hill, Southstoke, Bath BA2 7DU. Tel: 01225 830300; packhorsebath.co.uk