New Forest pubs on the rise as customers say small is best

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The Mortimer Arms in Ower is one of six local pubs run by Debbie and Duane Lewis

THE New Forest’s pubs are slowly recovering after their numbers dropped to a 16-year low in 2017, according to official figures.

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Latest numbers from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for 2019 show there were 125 pubs in the district – up from 115 in 2017, which was the lowest count since 2001 when the statistics began. In 2018 there were 120 pubs.

The recovery has been led locally by smaller hostelries, with the number employing fewer than 10 people increasing from 40 in 2017 to 55 in 2019. Bigger pubs over the same period actually reduced by 75 to 70.

Anthony Climpson, chief executive of tourism group Go New Forest, said the growth was partly down to local landlords meeting demand for more characterful venues.

He said: “Over recent years there’s definitely been a growth in consumers seeking more individual and intimate eating and drinking experiences with a clear personality and this trend is being met by hospitality entrepreneurs who recognise the opportunity.

“Success in the hospitality industry has always been about constantly responding to change and as Go New Forest’s whole purpose is to support and promote everything that’s special and unique about the New Forest so it’s great to see this type of smaller independent pub making a comeback.”

It’s a different picture nationally, with medium and large pubs increasing as smaller ones shut down.

Between 2007 and 2019, pubs in the UK overall dropped from 51,120 to 39,130 – although employment actually rose from 426,000 to 457,000 over the same period, with a greater proportion working as kitchen and waiting staff.

A local success story has been Debbie and Duane Lewis who, since taking over the New Forest Inn at Emery Down, Lyndhurst, in 2009 have expanded their portfolio with five more pubs.

They now also oversee the Mortimer Arms in Ower, the Royal Oak at Beaulieu, Trusty Servant in Minstead, the Royal Oak at Downton, and the Bold Forester in Marchwood.

Debbie said the New Forest pub industry had “picked up” recently, but had also not suffered the scale of pub closures seen in urban areas. She said successful landlords were targeting the mid-market between higher-end restaurants and more basic food.

She said: “We have got the relaxed atmosphere of the pub. It’s not like the old spit-and-sawdust days with men down the pub and the landlord leaning on the bar – it’s more of a community feel.

“Look at what people want. They want good food, good service and to feel welcome. In the New Forest, as nationally, there were a few too many and too close together. I think people realise now that your community will support you if you support your community.

“Like, for example, we have let the Minstead village put their shop, which closed down, in one of the outside store rooms at the Trusty Servant. It’s about building back to being a community.”

In Christchurch the number of pubs fell from 35 in 2001 to 20 in 2017. It has since picked up slightly to 25 in 2019, comprising 10 pubs with fewer than 10 employees and 15 with more.

Commenting on the national figures, ONS senior statistician Hugh Stickland said: “While smaller pubs have been struggling to survive in recent years, bigger pubs have been growing in number.

“This growth has been driven by food rather than drink and we’ve seen a big rise in the number of people employed as pub kitchen and waiting staff.

“The latest year, however, shows the first rise in total numbers since before the financial crisis, with growth in pubs of all sizes. We’ll have to wait to see if this marks a revival for smaller ‘locals’.”

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