You did it!
On Wednesday, June 30th, Stoke Ferry Community Enterprise bought the Blue Bell on behalf of the community investors.
Renovation work is already underway, with many volunteers working hard to clear the grounds and the pub so that the trades can get in and start their work. Find out how to get involved.
The Blue Bell is ringing again
The purchase of the Blue Bell on behalf of the community is the result of a huge amount of hard work over 18 months to gather support and to raise the money to save the building from conversion into a house and prepare it for reopening as a pub and community hub.
Now is a good moment to look back at how we reached this point and what comes next.
The last pub in the Stoke Ferry
Longstanding villagers will remember a time when they could take their pick from several watering holes in Stoke Ferry. As well as the Blue Bell, other popular choices included The Bull Inn on Bridge Road, famous for its live music nights, or a drink after work at The Duke’s Head or a great night out at the Favor and Parker Social Club. Roll the years back further, when there were eight hostelries and at least two beer houses including The Crown Hotel on the Hill and The Cock Inn and The Trowel and Hammer, both on Oxborough Road. One by one, the various inns, hostelries and pubs closed their doors until, like the lone partygoer left on the dancefloor after a New Year’s Eve celebration, The Blue Bell was the last pub standing.
The Blue Bell has had many owners and licensees since 1794 when John Drake served ale to its first customers. It ceased trading in March 2018 and was bought by APJC Trading Ltd in July 2019. Initially there were reasons to be hopeful. The company which had bought it, and whose directors also traded as Oxygen 56, were keen to impress on the village their credentials as a successful pub management company, but within a few months the promised tenants had fallen through, and an application was made to Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council for a change of use to enable it to be converted to housing. In December 2019, the application was refused but it was clear by then that the owners had no intention of ever reopening it as a pub. The Blue Bell was under threat.
Villagers fight back
In January 2020, Jim McNeill, who at the time was Vice Chair of Stoke Ferry Parish Council, proposed the PC hold an open meeting to hear what villagers and other local people thought of the idea of a community buy-out. The Village Hall was packed, and it was clear then that there was strong support for an attempt to secure the Blue Bell for the community, and equally strong opposition to the owners’ plans to convert it to residential use. A second meeting was held in February 2020 to bring together volunteers willing to get involved in a campaign and from an initial working group. A more formal committee was formed from this, led by Chair, Stephen Ward. N.B. This is not the same Stephen Ward who leads the campaign for the Foulden pub.
In March 2020, responding to the will of the village, the Parish Council successfully applied to list The Blue Bell as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). This gave the community a period of time in which to try to raise the funds to buy the premises.
Pubs in Britain have been closing at an alarming rate for some time and not surprisingly the numbers hit an all time high in 2020 which saw over 6000 pubs close their doors for a final time. Community pubs however have bucked this trend. 20 community pubs opened in 2020 joining a growing movement.
So what makes community pubs so successful when traditional pubs are struggling? Looking beyond the figures, the stand-out success of community businesses is found in the social impact they achieve. They bring people together of all ages, backgrounds, interests, and give them a purpose to interact. Community pubs reduce social isolation and loneliness – and promote wellbeing. Put simply, they are so much more than a pub.
The UK Government supported the More Than A Pub Scheme with funding managed by the Plunkett Foundation and it has been so successful that it has committed to a new round of funding beginning Summer 2021 to help even more communities to benefit from facilities and amenities that are important to them.
We quickly set up a website and began building a mailing list and setting up social media to grow the campaign. In early March, we began a survey of the village, on paper and online, to find out how widespread support really was and to find out what people wanted from a revitalised Blue Bell. 150 people responded, a very high rate which meant we had the opinions from around one-third of all the households in the village. Over 90% wanted to see the Blue Bell reopened as a community asset.
The campaign needed a legal basis with a proper structure to raise investment and seek to purchase the premises. In May 2020, the committee established a Community Benefit Society (CBS), called Stoke Ferry Community Enterprise Limited.
The CBS is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Its assets and profits must be used to benefit the community and there are limits on the returns it can pay to investors. Its rules are published on our website. In September 2020 we received a bursary of £2500 from the Plunkett Foundation to help us finalise our business plan and membership of the committee continued to grow as new people with different and important skills rallied to the cause. The breadth of experience and skills in our community is stunning and has been a key part of our success.
Bringing the community together
When COVID hit, it would have been easy to put things on hold. So much of our planned work suddenly became impossible. We could not run pop-up pubs to get people involved and grow support. We could not go campaigning door-to-door to explain our plans and we could not hold any more in-person meetings.
Instead, we concentrated on what we could do. We leafletted every home in Stoke Ferry and sometimes beyond, several times and in all weathers including snow. We held online open meetings. The committee met every Tuesday evening on Zoom. We ran online wine and beer tastings and quiz nights.
When COVID restrictions allowed, we held events in the village on the August Bank holiday, at Halloween and for the Christmas Tree lighting in 2020 and this year at Easter and Whitsun.
All this activity grew support for the campaign. Just as importantly, it brought the community together during an extremely difficult time and showed the role a community hub like the Blue Bell can play.
The Share Launch
The Share Prospectus was launched at the end of November 2020 and ran until Mid-February. Banners were positioned at various locations in and around the village, posters were nailed to lampposts in all the local villages and the wonderful ‘Bell-O-Meter’ made by local woodcarver, Olly Brunton became a feature on The Hill with regular updates posted on its board as the clanger climbed towards the target figure.
The support from locals, other villages, businesses and organisations, family and friends was simply incredible. Secretary Alan Lury was kept busy during those lockdown winter months responding to requests for shares from across the globe. We even had celebrity support from England cricketer Ryan Sidebottom to comedian Stephen K Amos and of course, national treasure, Stephen Fry. Despite our global reach, of our 400 plus investors, more than three-quarters of investors are firmly and proudly local.
Our newsletters now go to 450 people, we have over 600 followers on Facebook and over 400 on Twitter. We have gained brilliant coverage from the Eastern Daily Press, Lynn News, Your Local Newspaper, BBC Radio Norfolk and of course the Village Pump. All of them supported us massively in getting out the message and galvanising support in Stoke Ferry, Wretton, Whittington and far beyond.
Getting the money together
We knew we needed around £180,000 to buy the Blue Bell and at least another £100,000 to renovate it. Here’s how we got the money together:
Community shares £115,000
More Than a Pub Grant £50,000
More Than a Pub Loan £50,000
Community Loans £40,000
In-kind support £15,000
Parish Council Grant £10,000
Buying the Blue Bell
It was a long road to purchase, and we had many challenges along the way, notwithstanding being in the middle of a global pandemic. The owners were keen to maximise their investment and achieving a change of use, for them, would have been by far the most preferable outcome. In the autumn of 2020, they appealed against the earlier planning decision but thanks in large part to the huge swell of objections from the community, the appeal failed.
Funding Hoops, Leaks and Legal Loopholes
In October 2020 we commissioned a commercial survey and valuation which confirmed our position that we could not pay more than £180,000. This was £40,000 less than the owners wanted. In November 2020, after yet another failed attempt to obtain a change of use, they split off a portion of land to the rear and right-hand side of the pub, transferring ownership from JC&AP Trading Ltd to one of its directors. It enabled the owners to have the ACV lifted as it technically constituted a sale. Was a legal loophole knowingly exploited? Whether it was or not, it enabled them to place both the pub and the land into auction in December 2020. Meanwhile we continued with our fight to have the ACV reinstated. Both lots failed to sell at auction and the ACV was reinstated in January 2021.
In February, a leak was spotted coming from under the back door of the pub and was reported to a committee member. The owners were informed and agreed to courier keys so that we could gain entry. The pipes to the hot water tank in the attic had burst after a particularly cold spell and the entire contents of the tank were pouring through two ceilings and into the basement. It was a flood on a biblical scale. The owners confirmed they were uninsured and saw no need for costly repairs. Hmm.
Meanwhile we kept on with a final push before our share offer closed in mid-February. And together we did it. We raised our minimum target and were able to start to tick off all the many due diligence requirements requested by our funders, lenders, and shareholders. But even that was not without its trials and tribulations. With no help forthcoming from the owners, we had to resort to other means. To establish exactly where the cesspit and its openings were for example, two committee spent an entire morning literally crawling through a wilderness of bramble and nettles.
Completion Day, 30th June
In the end, we paid slightly less that £180,000 for the premises, but there were of course other costs:
Purchase Price £177,635.00
VAT (18%) £31,974.30 (which we will reclaim)
Stamp Duty £1,192.00
Land Registry Fee £270
Solicitors Fees, Searches and VAT £5,151.22
Total: £216,222.52 (or £184,248.22 once we have the VAT back).
Renovating and reopening
Passing the pub, or through posts on Facebook or Twitter, you might have seen that volunteers have been turning out in force to clear the building and grounds so that electricians, plumbers and builders can get on with what they need to do easily. The energy, enthusiasm and commitment of those people is another brilliant demonstration of how much the community values the Blue Bell and its role in our future.
Look out for details of Blue Bell events soon ahead of a grand reopening in time for Christmas. Remember, the Blue Bell is going to be so much more than a pub. It is going to be a true community hub, including:
All day café services
A parcel depot
A hub for clubs, societies, individuals, retirees, and other social groups.
A regular Citizens’ Café where people can listen to and debate topics of interest e.g. local history, development of the village, Black History Month, Pride.
A swap-shop for books and home-grown produce and more
‘Café for Carers’; respite for carers to come together for mutual support.
An archive of images, documents & artefacts relating to the history of Stoke Ferry and the surrounding areas.
We will hold the first Annual General Meeting in September, when we will also present our accounts and the office holders will be elected for the next year. Look out for a notice soon.
Please carry on supporting The Blue Bell in any way you can, whether it is taking part on our new monthly lottery, The 200 Club; liking and sharing our posts on social media; taking part in future fundraising events; volunteering and of course, joining us in the Blue Bell sometime soon.
Our plan for The Blue Bell
A living room in Stoke Ferry with a warm
welcome for locals and visitors alike
Quality bar food, snacks, coffees/teas, cakes to have in or take away
Imaginative and appealing vegetarian/vegan dishes
Locally sourced foods and use of organic ingredients where possible
Local beers, spirits and coffee
All-day café service
A parcel depot and prescription pick-up service
‘Café for Carers’; respite for carers to come together for mutual support
The reborn Blue Bell will be a traditional, stylish, comfortable, welcoming, family friendly village local with all the modern extras:
A hub for clubs, retirees, and other social groups
A regular Citizens’ Café where people can listen to and debate topics of interest e.g. local history, development of the village, Black History Month, Pride
A history archive of images, documents & artefacts relating for Stoke Ferry and the surrounding villages
Use of recycled/up-cycled materials and purchases through Stoke Ferry Market Place and local web sites, thus keeping money within the local economy
Using local tradespeople and suppliers wherever possible