Lola's last orders

Rural pub meets big corporation: Duff Hart-Davis on a brewing row between landlord and leisure group
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It's not often that you arrive at a pub to find that the landlord has just been banned from his own premises. But that was what happened on Tuesday when I dropped in for a lunchtime pint at the Fleece, in the Worcestershire village of Bretforton.

If a national competition were held to find the quintessential English pub, the Fleece would be a strong contender. Of medieval origin, half- timbered, leaning all ways, the building was once a farmhouse, owned for centuries by the Byrd family; and since Henry Byrd obtained a licence to sell beer and cider in 1848 it has remained miraculously unchanged, inside and out.

Regulars still speak reverently of Lola Taplin, Henry's great-granddaughter, who ran the pub single-handed for 30 years until she died, aged 83, in 1977. The place is still full of the artefacts she inherited or assembled - wooden cheese moulds black with age; a cheese press weighted with a massive block of stone; a magnificent collection of pewter salvers dating back to Cromwell. White circles painted on the floor in front of the fireplace are kept clean to deny witches access via the chimney, and the ghostly form of Lola herself sometimes still appears in the rocking-chair in the Pewter Room.

This latest turn of events must have set her spinning in her grave. In her will she left the Fleece to the National Trust, with instructions that it should be maintained as a traditional village pub. The Trust first leased it to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), and this at first seemed a good idea; but in fact it failed, because widespread advertising attracted real-ale freaks from far and wide, and the place became too popular for its size.

The next lessee was an offshoot of Camra, Midsummer Leisure, which in 1990 was taken over by European Leisure, a company that runs mainly upmarket, private members' snooker and billiard clubs. As landlord they inherited John Griffiths (known to all as "Griff"), a local man who is a former butcher.

For nearly nine years everything went well. Griff and his wife Linda did all they could to preserve the pub's traditions: they declined to install piped music, fruit machines or television, and they continued to keep beers from numerous independent breweries. Thus, at the moment, you can get Old Spot ale from the Gloucestershire village of Uley, Fox's Nob bitter from the Highgate Brewing Company in Walsall, CHB bitter from the Warden Brewery in Northamptonshire, and Whistling Joe from the Brandy Cask brewery at Pershore, besides Brew XI from Bass, the holding company's main suppliers.

For nine years, in other words, Griff did his best to honour Lola's wishes. But now, suddenly, the job has blown up under him.

The trouble started last year, when European Leisure began putting pressure on him to secure larger discounts from independent brewers, or throw their beers out. (Bass, with their enormous output, can undercut smaller operators by a large margin.) Then, on 18 February this year, he received a directive headed "Drinks Stocking Policy", which ordered all "units" to give "maximum support to Bass and their products".

The list of approved products included no real ales from independent breweries. "Certain other products" might be stocked, but these were "very limited", the directive laid down. The rules "must be enforced vigorously". If managers failed to implement the new policy, the company "would have no alternative but to resort to disciplinary action".

This was too much for Griff, who handed in his notice. He was to have left yesterday, but on Tuesday a team from European Leisure descended unannounced to scrutinise his stock and accounts, and he himself was told that he would not be welcome behind the bar after 3pm. When I arrived at midday, the place was seething. Men and women in dark suits stood outside, glued to mobile telephones. A new young manager had been hastily imported from a pub in Stafford. Griff and Linda were gathering personal possessions. Regulars were bobbing in and out, bemused and angry.

Tim Fender, European Leisure's regional manager, was looking acutely uncomfortable, and explained that the whole upheaval was the result of a mistake. A copy of the memorandum should never have been sent to the Fleece, he said. He had tried to get Griff to reverse his decision. "The company's not going to spoil the pub in any way," he told me. "There's no reason whatever to change it. Why change things if they're going well?"

Locals are asking that very question. The darts team, the football club and the quiz league have already voted with their feet, decamping with the landlord to the bar of the British Legion club along the road.

Damage may be limited by the fact that European Leisure's lease will run out next year; but the row does highlight the difficulties that arise when traditional pubs - of which few enough remain - fall into the hands of firms governed by managers, accountants and "targets".