Something extraordinary happened yesterday. At 11am, against a background of pubs closing all over England (the CAMRA estimate is now 40 a week) – closing as implacably as the lights the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey saw going out all over Europe in 1914 – the Old Red Lion was back in business in the Northamptonshire village of Litchborough. After two years, the blank steel shutters have been taken down from the windows: a pub has opened in England. And it's a little moment of social history.
For this is something none of us ever thought we would see, given that what is happening elsewhere has been relentless, and at its most cruel in villages. The school goes, that is usually the first absence; then the shop closes, and, with it, the post office; the bus service thins to a dawn trickle, and the church becomes part of a wistful little empire of four, five or six churches on which a vicar calls like a flying doctor. Finally the pub shuts. By then the process is well advanced, but with that it is complete. A community that may be 1,000 years old stops being a community, for it has no meeting place. A village has become a place where a man grows old among strangers.
As an old postmaster told me: "I see them drive out in the morning, and I see them come home at night. But what they do, and where they go to, I haven't a clue." The public perception is that all this is down to the closure of the pubs. You will have heard or read that half the villages of England are now without pubs for the first time since the Norman Conquest or Domesday, although nobody, not even CAMRA, knows who came up with this fact.
But the pub may have closed in your village, in the villages you drive through, and it has certainly happened in mine: for 10 years I was a regular at the Old Red Lion. The pub closed in 2008 due to the ill health of its tenant, the late Tom O'Shea.
It was then part of a brewery chain, which advertised it as a tenancy, until, when this failed, they put it on the market for a staggering £600,000, which would be its value as a private development. But in a village without any other social amenity, planning permission was refused. This is what usually happens. The result is a stand-off between the planners and the brewery until one or the other blinks, or the building becomes dangerous. But occasionally there are little lights in the darkness. At the Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket in Cumbria, 100 people got together and set up the first pub co-operative with its own brewery. At the Dabbling Duck in Norfolk the council itself bought the pub, then sold it on at a small profit.
In Litchborough something even more remarkable happened. As the months passed, and there was no sign of the Old Red Lion reopening, a despairing local housewife, Sarah Hobbs, opened a sort of pub-in-exile. Watched by worried check-out girls, she bought up every wine bottle on offer at Tesco, and, with beer from a one-man brewery that had been set up in the village's small industrial estate, got herself a licence and once a month opened up the village hall. The cost, after some debate with a bemused committee whose only dealings in the past had been with the WI, was £20, electricity £6 extra. There, like White Russian refugees in 1920s Paris, the regulars of the Old Red Lion met again. To the best of my knowledge, that has happened nowhere else. But now all that comes to an end – dissolved, just as young army officers might have promised to dissolve their junta after a coup.
What happens next will depend on you," Mrs Hobbs told us in a speech at the last pub- in-exile gathering. "You must remember that a pub is not just for Christmas, and very few villages ever get a second chance."
But now a local man, whose people have farmed in the village since 1935, has bought the Old Red Lion at less than half the original asking price.
"Would I have done it? Not in a million years," said Chris Ripper, formerly deputy chairman of brewery chain Scottish & Newcastle's retail division. "A brewery couldn't afford the overheads of a small pub like this, the cost of redecorating it added to the cost of headquarters, of paying people like me. But who cares, we've got our pub again." The irony is that Mr Ripper was himself a regular at the Old Red Lion, which he described as his dream pub, and, as he once sadly told me, it was the sort of place he spent his working days trying to close. A lot now rides on what will happen in this village.
Litchborough, population around 200, is on a crossroads two miles from Watling Street – which is quite possibly why the pub is there. The Old Red Lion was the coat of arms of John of Gaunt, from whose wars in Spain pensioned-off soldiers, staggering home with their loot, peeled off to open pubs. The connection between pubs and soldiers was, and is, an old one. You could write a military history of England from pub signs like the Saracen's Head, which recur in the towns on Watling Street, being kept by ex-soldiers wistful for the Crusades. A retired Army officer has even tried to plot Arthur's campaigns wherever thick clusters of Black Horse signs occur; these, he argued, were derived from his heavy cavalry.
Tom O'Shea, who kept the Old Red Lion for 20 years, was himself late of the Irish Guards and the Catering Corps (to which he had switched on the premise that cooking might have more of a future than killing), and his pub was as close to the perfect pub as I have ever known. In most gathering places you meet people from the same job, class, background, as yourself. Here, they were from all walks of life – a sculptor, a groom, a mechanic – and they talked to each other across the room. "The proximity in this place makes you talk," says Ben Aveling, who is the landlord now it has opened again.
In that pub, I have heard Army stories. "We were on parade, and this general came round. You know the way they do, a word here, a word there. Very embarrassing for everybody, except of course the general. 'Do you like the Army, my man?' 'No.' 'What? I've been in the Army 25 years, and I've enjoyed every minute of it.' 'So would I, if I was a fucking general.' General didn't speak to anyone after that."
I heard village stories. "I was here in the terrible winter of 1947. The snow was over the hedges, and people had started running out of food. Eventually we got a tractor through to the next village, where there was a bakery. We took the bread round the houses and everyone was so grateful, except this old woman. She just stood in her doorway and said, 'But I always have a batch.'"
Stories from different jobs. Eddie Drew, electrician. "I'd been doing some rewiring for a shop infested by rats. In the old days you put poison down and that was that. You can't do that now. This Rentokil man who came, he said to me, 'Rats have rights now.' You put these sticky pads down, the rats stick to them, and then you come along, hit them on the head, fold them up in the pads, and write a number on them. Honest, that's what you go to do."
David Wynne, sculptor. "When I was making my statue of Guy the Gorilla I went into the cage with him, I wanted to see how he moved and that. Getting in was the easy part. But they get very bored, gorillas. Lovely old chap, he took a shine to me and wouldn't let me out."
When the pub shut in March 2008, I never thought I'd hear any of these voices again.
On paper the new owners of the Red Lion, farmer David Rogers and his wife Malvina, have the dream team for a village pub. It is run by their daughter Victoria and her partner Ben Aveling. "You have to have that," says Chris Ripper. "A brewery would be looking for a turnover of £10,000 a week, perhaps £15,000. A husband-and-wife team can make a go of it on far less."
Then there are building costs. A brewery would, he went on, have had a budget of around £250,000 to do the place up. With a few exceptions, like the solid oak bar installed by a local carpenter, the Rogers family (no relation) has done this themselves, helped by Graham Hobbs, a village maintenance engineer and Sarah's husband – who obligingly added to the drama by falling off his ladder as the photographs for this article were being taken.
But the most important factor is that the new landlord should have a background in the licensed trade, for otherwise a black comedy can intrude. I know a pub near Carmarthen, bought by a retired farmer, where when I called I found a rep had sold the new licensee a crate of sake, assuring him this was the coming drink. Five years later, when I called again, the sake bottles were still there, unopened; I bought them from him.
Ben Aveling has taken the interesting little licensee's exam insisted on by New Labour, hot on exams and targets, in its 2003 Licensing Act. "What was the most difficult question?" he echoed drily. "I think it was the one that asked what me name was." Malvina Rogers has taken a similar exam, for, under the Act, which transferred powers from magistrates to the local authority, not only the licensee but the premises have to be separately licensed. In the village pub there are many forms.
The Rogers family are opening a branch of their farm shop in the outbuildings that have yet to be converted. Pub food will be served, with meat and vegetables from the farm, which is all of one mile away. "With nothing drizzled, and not a jus in sight," says Aveling. This too is important. "Turn it into a gastro pub, and you alienate the locals on whom your winter trade depends," said a spokesman for CAMRA.
For weeks now, the most extraordinary human beings he has ever met have been calling on Ben Aveling: the reps are buzzing around the Old Red Lion, reps from the brewers, from soft drinks firms and wine importers. "They're so eager," he said. And all the time, like the guns at El Alamein, the barrage of advice has been unrelenting as old regulars call. Is there cider, and not that Magners stuff? Will there be a skittles team again? Then, a major worry, is there a television set? There is. Oh dear. If so, how often will it be on? "I've decided to open from 11am to 11pm. If there is nobody there, what am I going to do?" asked Aveling. There is as yet, as the great Eric Morecambe used to say, no answer to that one.
"Everyone seems to know how to run a pub," said Malvina Rogers, "but we're the only ones to put our necks on the line."
A pub has opened in England.
Me: The Authorised Biography by Byron Rogers is published by Aurum