The Bridge Interviews
The name Archie seems to be in vogue at the moment following the arrival of a new member of the Royal Family so it seemed appropriate last month for The Bridge to call on perhaps the most notable bearer of that name in this area.
Sitting in the lovely garden of the Swan at Swinbrook on a sunny July morning it is difficult to comprehend that the pub trade is having a hard time. Yet figures released earlier this year revealed that 378 pubs in England, Scotland and Wales had closed between July and December 2018. That’s 14 per week or one every 12 hours. And it is estimated that a quarter of all pubs have closed since 2001. At the top end of the market, which is well-represented around here, competition is fierce as landlords raise their game in pursuit of custom.
Archie took over the Swan in 2005 but his roots in this area go back much further. His mother’s family were farmers in Fifield (the one on the way to Stow, not the Lechlade version). “I grew up around here. I would have liked to be a farmer but the farm was not big enough” he says. Instead he joined the army, after Sandhurst being commissioned into the Blues and Royals, part of the Household Cavalry, though he was on the operational rather than the ceremonial side, specialising in light reconnaissance using armoured cars.
After serving for five years he left the army and went into the hospitality business. “I like the great atmosphere you get in pubs – a melting pot of people all under one roof. I worked in a pub at Ladbroke Grove in London for two years and realised that to get on you have to do it yourself.” One day 19 years ago, newly married, he was having a drink with friends at the King’s Head at Bledington which was for sale. It occurred to him to buy it so he formed a syndicate with friends, borrowed a lot of money and did so.
His wife, Nicola, was a milliner. “She has gone back to that after many years suffering as a landlady and mother”. They have three sons aged 19, 17 and 15. “The oldest is working in the pubs, the second is working there part time and the third is looking forward to joining them. They may not do it as a career but it is good for them to learn how business works and how to work as a team.”
At this point another important person enters the story: Deborah, the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and the youngest and one of the less scandalous of the six Mitford sisters, known as Debo. She had inherited the Swan some 30 years earlier. It had been closed for two years. “Debo wanted to reinvigorate it and tell the story of her family in Swinbrook.” Although her older sisters had hated moving from Asthall Manor to South Lawn at Swinbrook, she had only been four at the time of the move and had happy memories of the village.
“We were contacted about it by the Chatsworth House Trust. We were trying to start a microbrewery at the time and I didn’t think we had time to run a second pub. However after a few meetings with the trust we decided to put our names in the hat and we got it. At first there was just the pub with no accommodation. Then we got the accommodation next door in the Stable Block, followed by Riverside Cottage across the road which had been owned by Pamela Mitford [the least well known of the sisters]”. Debo took a close interest in the Swan and was a regular visitor. The room where she used to stay is now known as “Debo’s Room”. “Working with her was a great experience. She held several book launches here. She had lots of stories about living here, including going to the church and licking the pews” (an interesting image for the current Swinbrook congregation). Since her death in 2014 the pub has been leased from the Chatsworth House Trust.
As the many readers who have visited the Swan will know, it is decorated with photographs illustrating the Mitford connection with the village and is something of a shrine for those interested in the sisters, who still exercise a fascination long after their deaths.
Are there any plans for more pubs? “No. We ran the New Inn at Coln St Aldwyns but gave it back after a year. Two is more manageable. It is difficult to keep an eye on two places, I usually am here [the Swan] during the day and the King’s Head in the evening. If you have a good team it is straightforward but finding new people can be a challenge.”
Have there been any serious problems? “Both pubs were flooded in 2007. The King’s Head was flooded with two feet of water on the first day of the floods. There were a few inches in here on the next day. We reopened here after a week. The King’s Head took two weeks”.
The pub was in the news in 2014 when David Cameron held a summit meeting at Brize Norton with the then French president, François Hollande. They drove over to the Swan so that the president could have a pub lunch (reportedly potted shrimps, rainbow trout and crumble aux pommes.) “We had two or three weeks’ notice. The Downing Street machine went into overdrive and we got a lot of publicity.” Photographs of this encounter appeared in all the newspapers and it was shown on television. “David Cameron used to come here a fair bit”. Other visitors have included Sir Geoff Hurst, Jack Straw, Sir John Major, Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet fame and no doubt many other famous names.
Last year Archie was in the news again for saving the life of a customer. “A girl was choking. She was on the floor, turning blue and there was no sign of life. No one knew what to do. I had to give her the Heimlich manoeuvre. I had done first aid in the army and we had all had first aid training the year before. It was hard as I had to lift her up and support her dead weight for about two minutes and then perform CPR but eventually the blockage was dislodged. I was on my knees by the end. The air ambulance came.” Archie received a letter of commendation from the South Central Ambulance Service.
What is the secret of running a pub? “We try to have a menu that is accessible with a broad range of food, good value and as inclusive as possible. We try to keep a pub feel – we have some pretty thirsty locals. There are around 20 staff in each pub, including part- timers. It can be difficult to find staff. They work long hours and we have to motivate them and keep them interested. It helps that we have staff bedrooms here. We have Hungarians, Romanians, Poles and British staff – a good balance which I think you need”. It seems to be working. They have been Alastair Sawday Inn of the Year and last year were runners up for Good Pub Guide Pub of the Year. The guide describes the Swan as a “Smart old pub with handsome oak garden rooms, antique-filled bars, local beers and contemporary food”.
Does he find time to relax with two pubs to run and long hours? “I am now better organised. I play cricket, mainly for the King’s Head. I mow and roll the pitch at Bledington which is a good way of switching off from work”.
Is there a magic formula to running a pub? “Not really. The Debo connection has been very good for us. This is a very good location by the river and the garden is lovely in summer. You need to provide warm hospitality and good service. It can be stressful, especially if you lose staff, and customers don’t necessarily understand. Their expectations have risen and there is more competition. Online reviewing adds pressure. If there is a problem I would prefer customers to tell us straight out rather than going away and putting something negative online. “Future plans? “Just to keep going, not to expand, to keep standards up, keep the staff together and keep the customers satisfied. “ It sounds as if this landlord will not be calling time yet.