Stu Miller is pulling a pint, but something is in the way. “We need to find a place for this,” he grins, sliding a big, brassy plaque down the bar.
It’s the Pub of the Year award, and there are too many certificates already on the wall for the latest accolade to find a space. Together, the awards trace the journey of the George and Dragon, a community-owned pub in Hudswell, North Yorkshire, from local champion up to county champion, and now, as of last Friday, to national champion.
The pub has more gongs than a musical instrument shop, which isn’t a bad return for its novice landlord. Four years ago, Stu was an IT worker in the City, but swapped dull for dale when he saw that the George and Dragon was in need of new management.
We didn’t want TV or games. We wanted people to eat and drink – and talk
Martin Booth, HCP board member
Closed in 2008, the pub had been resurrected by the dozens of villagers who became shareholders in a new cooperative. Hudswell, which sits on the ridge of a hill overlooking the river Swale and amounts to little more than a short grey trail of grey houses, had next to no commercial potential for anything approaching a shop, let alone a pub or library, but all three came under the purview of the relaunched, community-owned George and Dragon.
The library is little more than a bookshelf, whose stock is periodically rotated by the local council, and the shop is a room on the side of the pub whose shelves are crammed with essentials and treats and whose till is manned by volunteers on 90-minute shifts. But together the library, shop and pub provided a vital service for the village’s immobile elderly and a welcome social hub for the rest.
It’s a humble, rugged building, much like those who frequent it
When the mother and daughter duo who had initially managed the pub stepped down, the co-operative’s board began searching for a replacement, and by now Stu had decided he wanted to change his life. “I didn’t enjoy the rat race, even though I was quite successful,” he says.
Having grown up in York, he felt the call of God’s own country, and being a self-confessed beer geek knew that he wanted the pub. When his wife, Melissa, a Canadian, fell in love with the Dales, they decided to make the move – if the co-operative, the Hudswell Community Pub Limited (HCP), would have them.
There was some scepticism of the IT man who’d come up from the South for his interview by the board. “Because you’re coming from London they think you’re from London,” says Stu. “It’s a village thing. There’s always people who are going to be change-averse.”
But Stu won over the sceptics, beating three other candidates to the unanimous approval of the board. They were impressed by his plan to attracting visitors as well as locals, and heartened by his family’s expertise: Stu’s father and brother are both chefs.
Next, Stu aims to open a brewery in an old rope parlour down the road, and has been promised villagers’ support
“It was a bit of a risk,” says Martin Booth, a board member. A Hudswell resident, he visits the pub two or three times a week. “Stu has done a fantastic job.” Martin, 63, explains that villagers wanted a traditional pub. “We didn’t want TV or games. We wanted people to eat and drink – and talk.”
It’s hard to imagine that the George and Dragon does anything but satisfy this ambition. Today there is a fire crackling, a dog in the corner, dark ales on dark wood tables. It’s a humble, rugged building, much like those who frequent it. Which makes it all the more surprising to see its landlord sporting an East London-style plaid shirt and beard combination.
“Are you a hipster?,” I ask Stu.
“No!,” he splutters. But there’s the big black price list that looks like it’s been flown in from a bar in Brooklyn, the whirling array of craft beers, the minimalist grey paint – this isn’t an ancient-tankards-on-walls sort of place.
Then again, there’s not much pretension in here. Even the record player is fed by old favourites brought in by regulars. “It’s comfortable. It’s not what I’d call a ‘flash pub’, or a ‘gastropub’,” says John Curry, an ale-sipper who is visiting with his wife, Sandra. The George and Dragon’s award was bestowed by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), and this is the 17th consecutive year in which John and Sandra have visited the winner.
He’s right: it’s not a “flash pub”, or a “gastropub” (though the pies are good). Perhaps “old man pub” would be a better description; the pub even closes for a couple of hours in the afternoon, just like the pubs of yesteryear. I suspect this went down well with the CAMRA judges, a somewhat conservative group.
“I was peeling spuds when they phoned with the news,” Stu says. “I didn’t really understand that we’d won the national award. That evening I got all the staff together, including Melissa and my mum [Stephanie, 60, a good-humoured barmaid] and dad [69-year-old Keith, the chef]. They were all thrilled.”
So were his customers. Stewart Maxwell, a Hudswell resident of 20 years, is spending much of his retirement in the pub, which he says has transformed the village. “There are people here who don’t visit the pub, but that’s a lifestyle choice,” he says, kindly.
Next, Stu aims to open a brewery in an old rope parlour down the road, and has been promised villagers’ support. He works hard, starting at 9am in the kitchen and locking up at midnight. “You’re never off-duty”, he says. None of his neighbours will begrudge him a celebratory pint. At least once he’s nailed up his plaque.