THE family who run a traditional village watering hole hailed as a “New Forest institution” are celebrating after winning Country Pub of the Year.
The Royal Oak in Fritham took the title in the prestigious Good Pub Guide 2021 despite having been forced to close for the first time in 22 years over Christmas due to the new Covid-19 restrictions of having to serve a substantial meal with drinks.
Cathy Wilson and sister Jenna Bessant help parents Neil and Pauline McCulloch to run the pub.
Cathy said: “It was a very hard decision to close when we have so many massively loyal and supportive customers. “
“We have old boys who have been coming in for a pint on a Wednesday night for 20 years.
“But we are a pub known for our local cask ales served with a ploughman’s. To try and become more of restaurant would have changed what we are too much.
“We are a very small pub with very limited seating inside although we have 60 benches outside.
“We did try table service in September, but it didn’t suit the pub.
“It is so important for us to keep the heart of the pub beating and the essence of a business we have spent over 20 years building.”
The thatched village pub has also featured in the Camra Good Beer Guide for the last four decades.
It described it as “a New Forest institution”.
The latest Good Pub Guide pays further tribute to the Royal Oak saying: “There’s a real down-on-the-farm feel to this appealing pub.
“The landlady’s daughter runs Howen Farm just next door whose livestock you can watch grazing in the fields as you sup your ale.
“Three neatly kept rooms, straightforward but full of traditional character, with black beams, prints and pictures celebrating local characters on the white walls, restored panelling, antique wheel-back, spindle-back and other old chairs and stools with colourful seats around solid tables on oak floors and two roaring log fires.”
Neil and Pauline have been in charge of the Royal Oak since 1998. Their daughters served behind the bar as teenagers.
Jenna, who with her husband runs the family farm beside the pub, took on a more managerial role in 2007.
Cathy, who had gone to live in New Zealand with her Kiwi husband, returned in 2013 when she also started working at the Royal Oak again.
She said the whole family were “ecstatic” when told they had won the award.
She said: “We were all just thrilled, especially coming after such a hard year. It is also testament to our staff who really believe in the pub as much as we do.
“They are brilliant, and we couldn’t have done it without them.”
Her parents thanked their customers for helping them to scoop the award, saying: “Even though imposed government regulations mean that we are currently closed we honestly couldn’t think of a better end to the year.
“Your loyalty and support over the last 20 years, as well as the understanding and cooperation you have shown us this year as we have faced never-ending challenges and a constant need to adapt to ensure a safe and enjoyable environment for everyone, really has made this whole adventure so much easier.
“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, we cannot express how grateful we truly are.”
When they spoke to the A&T before Christmas, the family said they would normally be welcoming Santa Claus to the pub and hosting a carol singalong.
Cathy said: “It is so sad to think we won’t be open during the festive period. It is the first time ever we have closed.
“We are just looking forward to having an absolutely fantastic one next year.”