Pub tale highlights Britain's new community ethos

LLANARMON-YN-LAL, Wales - December 20, 2010

Britain may be in the grip of a nasty cold snap, but it's business as usual at The Raven Inn. The workers have a big stake in keeping the pub going come rain, shine, sleet, or snow: They're among a group of local volunteers who took over the inn after it closed at the height of Britain's credit crunch.

The 290-year-old Raven Inn is the only watering hole in this tiny Welsh village nestled in the Clwydian Hills. Villagers were aghast when the owner put the property on sale for redevelopment - a cool-headed calculation that rising costs and a dwindling population of just 600 made it viable as a pub no longer.

For the property tycoon it was all about pounds and pence. For the villagers it was about the very fabric of their community.

So they did what's increasingly being seen across Britain in these times of stark austerity: they came together in the bulldog spirit the nation has shown time and again when the chips are down, through war time, natural disaster, and economic upheaval.

Across the country, volunteer groups have reopened local libraries shuttered by budget cuts. Parents have banded together to create new independent schools. In the town of Faringdon in Oxfordshire, volunteers operate the local bus service.

As pubs shut down around Britain at an alarming rate - almost 900 closed last year - a handful have followed The Raven Inn model to varying degrees. There are now around a half-dozen community-run village pubs across the country, most opened since Britain was plunged into economic crisis. It makes sense that the pub should be the focus of such community bonding: they're the heart-and-soul of village life, the place where news is shared, weddings celebrated, deaths mourned.

And for the people of Llanarmon-yn-lal (pronounced thlan-AR'-mon uhn yal), rescuing the Raven Inn meant preserving their identity as a village.

Crisis meetings were held. Funds raised. Pledges made. It helped that the owner couldn't find a buyer in the middle of a recession: he agreed when the village approached him with its plan to buy the pub's license.

Last year, the Raven Inn reopened with a two-week loan of 1,500 pounds (around $2,400), a month's free rent from the owner and the promised hard work of a motley group of villagers. In an acknowledgment of the magnitude of the challenge, locals formally registered the cooperative venture as Raven Mad Ltd.

A leadership committee was elected of villagers who - fingers crossed - had the skills to run a pub. They included a former ocean mapper, a cabinetmaker, an insurance salesman and, perhaps most usefully, a former bartender.

Mike Watkins, a retired chef with experience in Michelin starred kitchens, got a knock at his door. Would he be willing to run the kitchen? Watkins - who'd only moved to the village a year earlier - strapped his apron back on.

The weekend before the inn reopened, some 70 locals scoured the kitchen, repainted the walls and hung decorations they dug out of their own attics. Their traditional Welsh brass plates and spoons and historic photographs adorn the blood red walls and black brickwork.

"In any group of people you get a bunch of doers and not doers," mulls Dave Willis. "In this village, we seem to have more than our fair share of doers."

These days, the Raven Inn also doubles as the local post office. Along with pubs, post offices have also been shutting down across the country as the economic downturn bites. Llanarmon-yn-lal lost its post in 2009 - leaving only a tiny general store as a cornerstone of village life.

Just after the reopened Raven Inn's first anniversary in August, locals secured a license from Royal Mail to run a weekly two-hour postal service out of the pub every Thursday lunchtime.

It was another big step in knitting the community closer together.

On one recent Thursday, postmistress Claire Turner plugged in her mobile till and laid out her stamps on a pub table. A line of locals clutching parcels, letters, and bills stretched back to the bar. Elderly ladies broke away from their cake to collect pensions and post Christmas cards.

By the time Turner packed up a couple of hours later, she'd taken a sackful of presents and letters heading as far afield as Dubai, Egypt and Australia.

Carey Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University, calls The Raven Inn a perfect example of a switch of gears in Britain since the global financial crisis. He says the country is revising its values to a more European notion of community values.

"Europe, particularly Britain and Ireland, jumped on the American bandwagon," he says. "We've been off the coast of New York, the causeway if you like between the U.S. and Western Europe in terms of lifestyle, striving toward materialism and success."

"When the bubble burst, it made us reflect. Britain has decided to meet in the mid-Atlantic, taking some of the American zest and energy, but emphasizing a team-orientated approach."

The grassroots focus on community in villages like Llanarmon-yn-lal is increasingly being reflected at a political level in Britain as the new coalition government attempts to tap into the change in national mood since the global downturn.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has talked up his vision of a "Big Society" since coming to power at the head of a coalition government in May.

His Localism Bill, introduced this week, entails a radical shift in power from a central government to citizens and communities and follows plans announced last month to measure the nation's happiness level. They're part of his call for a debate about how "together we can build a better life," as he attacked businesses and governments for putting cash and economic growth above all else.

Cameron acknowledged that his pledge to spend 2 million pounds ($3 million) on developing a "well-being" index that will be formally gauged by the Office for National Statistics will be attacked by some as "airy-fairy and impractical."

But the British leader's initiative is a sign of the times in an age of massive government spending cuts to restore the nation's battered finances to health.

"From April next year, we'll start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life," Cameron said at the launch of the index.

In Llanarmon-yn-lal, there's no question that it's all about quality of life - and control over quality. At a recent committee meeting, there was talk about bringing in a full-time manager from outside, but that was quickly scrapped.

"There was a big feeling against that, because if you bring somebody in, it's not about the community anymore," current committee chairman Meirion Jones. "Having the villagers involved gives the village a sense of ownership."

There are some 30 permanent volunteers on the roster while others come and go - anyone can enter their name in the roster book that's kept in an open drawer of the pub's main bar. As a further incentive, and a thank you, volunteers earn food vouchers for a set number of hours worked. Local schoolchildren are employed as wait staff, earning the minimum wage and gaining some working experience in an area where little is available.

Volunteer Steph Bradley speaks for many when she says it was important for her to give a bit back to the community; she feels she's received still more in return.

"We have met more people in the last year than in the first five years we were here," she says as she pulls a pint of Purple Moose real ale for a customer - and friend.

The business is also proving itself financially.

It made a profit of 1,000 pounds ($1,600) on revenue of 190,000 pounds in its first year of trading - a decent effort considering 28,000 pounds worth of one-off startup costs.

The cooperative has just secured an extended 10-year operating lease and is considering opening up the bedrooms above the pub to capture hikers who trek in the surrounding hills.

"We came for a lovely pub in an idyllic village and then they closed the pub," says Jones as he takes a break from work. "So we had no choice. It's been a challenge ... But, you know what? It's been fun."

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