A pub with a peal
PUBLISHED: 09:31 17 November 2015 | UPDATED: 10:11 17 November 2015
Linda Duffin witnesses the revival of the Six Bells at Preston St Mary, near Lavenham, and wishes it was her local
The chef patron of the Six Bells shudders visibly when I ask him what the pub used to be like before its make-over earlier this year.
“Horrendous. Green carpets. Tapestry. Meerkats in the back bar,” says John Tremayne. “And the welcome wasn’t warm.” Now it has wooden floors, taxidermy (more on that later) and a welcome so glowing you could warm your hands on it.
The pub, in Preston St Mary near Lavenham, has had a chequered history. By about 2000 it was trading so poorly that its owner was trying to sell the freehold to a developer to convert it into houses. It is a familiar story in many Suffolk villages, but Preston St Mary struck lucky.
Richard and Janet Martin had just moved to Preston Hall and decided to buy the pub to save it from closure. They had a series of tenant landlords, but as John Tremayne pointed out, by last year the Six Bells was old and tired. And that’s where two other members of the family come in.
The Martin’s sons, Tom and Ed, run a successful gastro pub and restaurant business in London, ETM, with 10 premises scattered across the capital. They have refurbished the Six Bells and brought in experienced people to run it and give it a new lease of life.
The Six Bells is now in the fortunate position of being owned by a couple who live locally and have a vested interest in keeping the place alive, backed by a restaurant group which has the financial wherewithal and business acumen to keep it afloat until it can realise its potential.
The Martin brothers brought in John, who as chef patron has a share in the profits and a say in how the business is run, and Hemi Cordell, who is the general manager. They have ambitious plans for the place and although to survive they need to bring in customers from further afield, they are anxious that it should remain a proper village pub.
“We’ve managed to strike a perfect balance between being a restaurant and somewhere you can pop in for a drink and a nice friendly chat. I think we could become an institution!” says Hemi, who has cheerfully given up an urban lifestyle to work in a small village not three miles from where his grandmother was born. John agrees.
“We don’t want to turn into a place where you can’t have a pint. That’s not a pub. We want to be the heart of village life. We want people on their birthdays coming here for a celebratory meal and in the same breath we want them to pop in and have fish and chips for lunch.”
Tom Martin says they invited villagers to vote for the beers they wanted to see on the pumps and to sample the food and drink.
“The locals are central to all we do at The Six Bells, their opinions and feedback are reaffirming the pub as a community hub for friends, family and neighbours. We love the pub and can see the huge potential. We have plans for separate B&B accommodation including shepherd’s huts and tree houses in the fields and also a farm producing vegetables, fruit, herbs and livestock for the pub.” And the taxidermy? It is apparently a common theme in ETM pubs and restaurants.
“We don’t think people should shy away from where their food comes from. We serve hare and game birds on our menus so there are taxidermy hares and game birds on our walls,” says Tom. That doesn’t explain the fox’s mask, but for anyone who baulks at the stuffed animals in the bar, the Six Bells’ conservatory offers an airy and light-filled dining space, with nothing more challenging in terms of decor than framed fishing flies. Outside, with six acres of grounds to play with, John is building raised beds for the vegetables and has installed a chicken run and pig ark ready for new occupants in the spring.
“Pork loins at Christmas, bacon three months after and ham 18 months after that,” he says with a faraway look in his eyes. “And my wife’s very keen on getting a goat to milk so hopefully next time you’re here you’ll have some freshly-churned goat’s butter.”
Food I love to eat
For a man who was born in Glasgow and brought up in Hobart, Tasmania, he has a surprising affinity for traditional English food. He is a big fan of preserving and curing seasonal produce for the lean months. “The art of true cookery is a bit lost these days. Everybody’s interested in a powder which dehydrates something, or a powder which makes it into a gel and that’s not what I’m about. I prefer the old ways. I’m not a particularly big fan of poaching things in a water bath.
“We believe good food is good ingredients treated with the right care and the right respect. You won’t be seeing pineapple with venison on the menu here.
“We’re lucky, we have a fantastic larder round here and this is one of the big reasons I came here. I have a local retired veg man who goes round all the local farms and pops in and sees what I want. The Red Poll beef is about as good a beef as I’ve tasted. I’m a man who likes to chew my meat so I’m not really into your USDA grain-fed, full-of-fat beef. I like slow-growing, fully-flavoured beef.
“The venison is shot locally and the fallow is in season now. Seasonal food tastes better. It’s something to look forward to. The food on this menu is food that I love to eat.”