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'I've had plenty of people telling me it won't work' says licensee at launch of 'beer pub'

PUBLISHED: 09:40 27 February 2019 | UPDATED: 17:28 27 February 2019

Helen and Ivan Sheldrake at the Walnut  Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKE

Helen and Ivan Sheldrake at the Walnut Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKE

Helen Sheldrake

Incoming licensees at a newly-re-opened Suffolk market town watering hole say they have ditched the noisy trappings of the modern pub - and are convinced they're onto a winning formula.

The Walnut pub after its refurbishment  Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKEThe Walnut pub after its refurbishment Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKE

Ivan and Helen Sheldrake have got rid of the juke box, darts board, fruit machine, pool table, TVs and the meal menu at the Walnut pub at Stowmarket.

They have pared their offering down to the humble pint, in the belief that ‘beer and banter’ are the staples of a good local.

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Since reopening on Friday, February 22, after a six-week refurbishment, they have taken the Edwardian-era hostelry, which lies near the town’s new Chilton Hall housing estate, back to a bygone era, when the only sustenance on offer in a typical English pub was a scotch egg or pork scratchings, and the only sound was of patrons chatting while slowly sipping their beers.

The couple, who installed a new cellar for the 16 beers now on offer, with six lines of cask ale and 10 beer keg lines,

Beers lined up at the Walnut pub  Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKEBeers lined up at the Walnut pub Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKE

say they want to focus on high quality drinks in a relaxing atmosphere.

The reaction, says Ivan, has been very positive, but he admits he has faced a wall of scepticism from some customers who are scratching their heads at their approach, which goes against the received wisdom that the only way to make money in the pub trade is to offer food and noisy diversions.

“It’s frankly just not true. What you need is a really good, friendly environment for people to come and have a pint,” he says. “I’ve had plenty of people telling me it won’t work. They have said it won’t make any money. I don’t believe them. You need a little bit of imagination.”

The key was to have an offering that is “different and vibrant”. “The perceived wisdom of how to save a pub is basically not to turn it into a pub,” he says.

The board at the newly-re-opened Walnut pub  Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKEThe board at the newly-re-opened Walnut pub Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKE

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But contrary to popular belief, Ivan, who is a systems architect by profession, organising IT systems in warehousing, believes beer pubs are on the rise. Although he still does some systems work on the side, he started out in the pub trade by converting a shop in Market Harborough into a highly successful micropub called Beerhouse, which he still runs with the help of a manager. He wanted to move back to his home town of Stowmarket to be near his family and saw potential in the Admiral Taverns pub, snapping it up on a relatively long lease.

“I’m a big beer aficionado and I have another pub. I firmly believe pubs are opening at quite a rate as well as closing. They are beer-led pubs,” he says.

“They are pubs that concentrate on the beer and the experience you have at a pub. We removed the pool table, the darts board, the juke box and the fruit machines and the TVs. We then concentrated on what we were going to serve, which is the beer.”

He and his wife were motivated to launch their first pub after feeling disappointed at what was on offer. ”We kept going out and couldn’t hear each other and the beer was always the same.”

“We don’t sell any of the low end mainstream lagers, and the only spirits we sell are good quality, high end. It’s somewhere to come and explore basically.”

In what was once the pool room, they’ll be hosting a book club, a home brew night, a monthly cinema club and Ivan will be bringing in his turntable for a weekly ‘bring your own vinyl’ record club.

They believe their competition isn’t other pubs - it’s 25 to 55-year-olds opting to stay in their living rooms rather than venturing out. Their aim is to get them to drop in and catch up with friends and neighbours. So far the pub has attracted patrons returning after a long break and locals who have never ventured over the threshold before.

“It’s been surprisingly busy, quite a few people in. Most people were saying they they hadn’t been for years or had not been at all and word is spreading around the town – there’s a lot of comments about the beer selection,” says Ivan, after a ‘soft launch’ opening.

“It’s a relatively brave move to cut all noise from a pub other than conversation. But there’s nothing better than to walk into a pub and to hear the general hubbub,” says Ivan. “It’s very comfortable place to come and sit, so therefore you start to revolve more around the community.”

He adds: “It’s not rocket science – that’s what pubs used to be.”

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