31 August 2001

Something for everyone here…

Continuing our series celebrating great

country pubs, Farmlife visits The Swan Inn

at Inkpen, Berks, where Tim Relf meets

a farmer who bought his local

PRINCE Charless recent call to "make the pub the hub" as a means of revitalising rural communities struck a chord with Bernard and Mary Harris. For they, in many ways, have done just that.

The farming couple bought the 17th century Swan Inn nearly six years ago. At the time it was going the way of many village pubs – closed and likely to be used for residential development.

Call in today, however, and youll find it a bustling business. The pub and hotel, with its 10 ensuite bedrooms, is the largest employer in the village and has bucked the disappearing-village-pub trend. "We have a good sense of purpose here," says Bernard.

Sitting down to welcome Farmlife with a pint of Hook Norton mild, Bernard says the place has provided "vittals and sustenance" for hundreds of years. "In a way, all we have done is turn the clock back."

The couple have tried to make The Swan Inn a little different and offer something for everyone. "Whether its a sophisticated meal in the restaurant, a bar meal or a game of darts and a chat with your mates, you can get it here," he says.

But their business doesnt stop here. Attached to the pub is an organic farm shop which they run. The shop stocks, among the 1000 product lines, meat from their nearby 57ha (140 acre) organic farm.

The shop was opened two years ago, with the couple keen to establish a "more mature and sophisticated outlet" for products. They had long since decided that selling to supermarkets was "not a great way to get rich".

Theres a strong synergy between the shop, the pub and the farm. Visitors to the shop often end up in the pub and vice-versa. And the local organic produce aspect – the menu in The Swan Inn and the shops shelves feature home-produced meat matured and butchered on the premises – is an important marketing aspect. "Theyre different enterprises that feed off each other," says Bernard.

&#42 Strictly commercial

As for why they originally bought the pub, Bernard says that although hes always enjoyed a pint, he approached this venture on a strictly commercial footing. After all, buying it, funding the conversion and extension work and installing the butchery facility has cost "the thick end of £1m". "You dont spend that much money on hope and prayer."

Its been hard work. "The pub and hotel is open seven days a week. The last resident might go to bed at midnight or 1am, while the first one might be up at 7am. Were running a business that virtually doesnt close. Its quite a commitment."

&#42 Good lessons

But Bernard had plenty of experience of hard work when he was farming. And running a farm provided some good lessons for running a pub. "Both businesses require attention to detail. You can be caught out by being lazy and not energetic enough in chasing detail. Its no good putting off to tomorrow what you could do today. If youve got a problem, youve got to deal with it today."

Another aspect both businesses have in common, sadly, is how theyve been affected by the foot-and-mouth outbreak. The cost to the farm could be £25,000, plus theres the lost trade in the pub from walkers and cyclists. "A double whammy."

The Swan Inn, meanwhile, has carved a reputation for good old-fashioned homespun hospitality. "Rural hospitality," as Bernard puts it. The home-made desserts, such as blackberry and apple crumble and pears in red wine, are a speciality. And in an age when "tough and tasteless" seems to be the norm for meat, people appreciate the quality here.

"If they want McDonalds, fine, but thats not what we provide here.

"People come here to enjoy the best of the country," he says. And that extends beyond the welcome – it includes the countryside, for the pub is situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and within walking distance of the famous Combe Gibbet.

The Swan Inn features in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, has four real ales continually on the bar and won the West Berkshire CAMRA pub of the year. About which Bernard – a real ale fan himself – was delighted. The pubs also rumoured to have a ghost, a photo of which is proudly displayed on a wall.

The organic theme, incidentally, continues into the drink, with beer, wine and champagne available. Dont have too much, though, or you might just go home convinced youve seen the ghost.

We at Farmlife certainly think country pubs are a vital part of village life and a great British asset thats well worth celebrating. So, if your local is a bit special and is popular with farmers – let us know.

Call 020-8652 4928 or

e-mail tim.relf@rbi.co.uk