The revived Oyster Inn moves to the centre of Butley village life
PUBLISHED: 12:30 29 May 2018 | UPDATED: 12:30 29 May 2018
Tessa Allingham visits the renewed and revived pub now at the centre of village life in Butley
Last Tuesday was Foreign Film Night at the Oyster Inn. Ticket holders – film licensing laws mean there can be no charge, so the term is used loosely – filed in, took a seat (a proper tip-up one on tiered rows), shuffled around a bit, fell silent. Andrew pressed ‘play’ and the classic 1953 Japanese film, Tokyo Story, rolled.
Afterwards, everyone gathered in the pub for a drink and a chat. They talked about the film, about the weather, about family, friends, work and holidays, about the rigours of winter, and their hopes for the then fledgling year. Some had a bite to eat as they shared news, ideas, made connections, maybe even met someone new.
The cinema is in a barn at the back of the pub. It’s just along from a micro-brewery, a community shop and a function room, all of which have been created thanks to the hard work, vision, and dogged belief of Andrew Newman and his wife, Judi, who bought the derelict property in March 2016.
A gratefully received contribution of £25,000 from the Princes Countryside Fund nudged the otherwise privately financed project along, and the revived, renewed Butley Oyster re-opened for business in March 2017.
There’s been a watering hole for some 400 years at this junction of the back roads between Woodbridge and Orford, and Hollesley and Snape. The oyster beds used to be nearby too – this spot is moments from the marshy creeks and inlets of the river Alde which wriggles to the sea around Orford. Smugglers, they say, would gather here to plot shady derring-do back in the 1700s, and use the pub’s cellars to stash loot.
The rooms would have been as smoke-filled then – the chimney refused ever to draw – as they were in more recent pre-ban times when the walls would ring to the sounds of fiddle, harmonica and the folk songs of rural Suffolk. The music would no doubt have been interspersed during the 20th century with the orders of Vera Noble, doughty licensee for some 60 years until the mid-1990s.
She would summarily eject guests found playing cards on a Sunday, though she did let guests fill their tankards if her favourite soap was on television and she had better things to do than pull pints.
Now things are a lot tamer, and the air is clean because the chimney draws and nobody smokes indoors. Landlords Jo Cullum and Carrie Potter are warmly welcoming, the cellars hold nothing more suspect than stocks of real ale, and the closest you’ll get to dastardly smugglers’ tales is the chit-chat that accompanies the click-clack of knitting needles during a ‘Stitch and Bitch’ evening, or the ramblings of walkers who divert from hikes through Rendlesham Forest, or the local Morgan car club meeting in the car park to lift bonnets and share enthusiasm.
The Butley Oyster of 2018 meets a very different – but no less important – local need, its refreshed presence acting increasingly as a hub for the local community. “Andrew is a keen cyclist,” Judi explains. “He would pass the pub on his rides, see it derelict, and feel angry that it wasn’t being used. The closure was pulling the village down, it was depressing to see it empty.”
It took much family discussion and several very deep breaths before the pair agreed to pour their shared business acumen and experience in the charity sector (Judi was previously development director at the Suffolk Community Foundation) into the project.
“Working with the SCF taught me about the importance of giving job opportunities to young people, particularly in rural areas, and the difference you can make to a community by doing that.” Support from the Pub is the Hub, the not-for-profit initiative that provides expert advice and support to pub owners working to keep their local alive, was invaluable too.
One year on, the Butley Oyster, sitting prettily at the crossroads and looking down towards the collection of houses that are the village, seems to be doing its bit. The cinema has been hired for private parties, the Six Nations rugby tournament was a big draw, and the feast of summer sports will no doubt fill seats, with guests perhaps lingering over a pint of the Butley Best 4% bitter, going through final tests in the micro-brewery.
The shop, open during pub hours, came into its own during the frigid ‘beast from the east’ days when getting out and about was difficult, selling bread from the Cake Shop Bakery in Woodbridge, biscuits, teabags, toiletries, milk, even Sherbert DipDabs.” A pad and pen acts as a ‘visitor book’ for customers to jot down what they’d like to see the shop stock, and Judi will oblige if she can.
“The pub and everything around it is a community asset, that’s how we want people to see it. We have about 50 regulars, but people need to use us! If everyone round here had just one meal a week at the Oyster, it would ensure that the pub is not lost again.”
According to CAMRA, UK pubs are closing rapidly – 7,000 between 2005 and 2015. In Suffolk, the impact is felt keenly, where twice the national average of people, over half of the county’s lone pensioners, live in rural areas and isolation is very real.
Judi is sensitive yet pragmatic. “We’re not running the pub as a charitable act. But we want to provide something for the village – glue the community back together a bit!”
Taking on total renovation of a pub is no small undertaking, so it’s not surprising to see Judi’s pride and relief. Having bought the Oyster they drew willing village volunteers to help dig the garden over during the summer. “Right from the start we involved local people, invited them to visit the site, and I wrote a blog with progress reports.”
Then Marlesford based Stowe Building Contractors came on site, working with a joiner from the village. The Oyster is a place for good, homemade food, like lasagne, fish pie, Dingley Dell sausage and mash, and vegetarian options like a mezze platter, baked Camembert with fig relish, halloumi burger.
“It’s the sort of thing we like eating as a family. Neither of us has a hospitality background – I’d never pulled a pint before! So we’re using our instinct, and are extremely grateful to our first landlords, Rob and Tracey Butcher, who helped get everything going.”