Meet the Worcestershire villagers pledging to save 160-year-old pub from closure by selling shares

Rosie Dowsing reports on community efforts to save a 19th-century pub from closure.

People living in a rural village in Worcestershire say if they can't save their local pub from permanent closure, there will be nowhere left for people to meet and socialise.

The Bell at Pensax closed in October 2022 having served residents for 160 years.

A working group has now formed asking people to pledge shares, so that it can be reopened as a community-run pub.

Pensax, near Wyre Forest, has lost its primary school and village hall in recent years, so residents say the Bell was the last remaining hub for the community to get together and socialise.

The Bell at Pensax has been a traditional pub for 160 years. Credit: Facebook/Save the Bell at Pensax/Richard Whiteman

Working group member for Save the Bell at Pensax, Toby Wise, told ITV Central he 'has been drinking here for 30 years' and wants nothing more than to see it reopen.

He said: "We are asking people to pledge one or more shares costing £250.

"No money is needed at the moment but if we get to our target we can go ahead with our share offer and hopefully we can make this the next community pub.

"There are now 160 community pubs in Britain and only one of them has ever closed, so it's a great model, and we are looking to follow that same model."

The Brewers Arms in West Malvern is a nearby success story. It was saved in July 2022 after the community raised £400,000 in shares.

The Save the Bell at Pensax group want to reach a £420,000 total to buy the pub and cover reopening costs. It's raised more than £130,000 so far from 200 share pledges since 1 March.

The Brewers Arms in West Malvern was successfully transformed into a community pub after efforts to raise £400,000. Credit: Facebook/The Brewers Arms

Nick Crabbe, also part of the working group, says he started visiting the Bell in his teenage years like many of the locals, and is helping the campaign with financial planning.

He said: "In simple terms we need to raise a fair bit of capital to buy the asset.

"If people really want the local pub open at the centre of our community, the hub where we've all traditionally met, socialised and eaten together, then they should pledge some money."

Lisa Bailey joined the working group to help with the marketing side of things, and arranged the distribution of over 3,000 leaflets to residents of nearby villages without local pubs of their own.

She said: "I’ve been to the Bell since I was probably about 17 or 18, it’s brought me in touch with people who I’ve known for many many years.

"In fact, most of the people in the working group I have known for years and years. We all met through regular visits to the Bell."

'I just want it to be open again'

Luise Middleton bought the early 19th-century pub with her partner Gareth Clowes just before the pandemic, after having enjoyed drinking there over the years.

But the former landlady says the various lockdown restrictions and the impact of the energy crisis crippled their business-model, after having invested money in renovation work and transforming the beer garden.

She told ITV Central she feels 'guilt' about the way things have turned out, and hopes the working group can gather enough shares to turn it into a community pub.

She said: "I have made a lot of friends being the landlady, so I feel an awful lot of guilt, and sleepless nights, and I guess embarrassment that we didn't make it work. I just want it to be open again.

"I would really like to see the community buy it, because I think they have the passion for it, and that's the thing with community pubs, there are so many people involved that want that pub to succeed."

'I've been coming to the pub since 1982'

The Bell at Pensax has been a traditional pub since the early 1800s, and some of the village's older residents have decades of memories there.

Luke Grant joined the working group with a passion for looking into the pub's local history.

He has found newspaper cuttings from the 19th century involving punters paying fines for being disorderly, and he is particularly fond of the hatch that was formerly used to serve drinks - a remaining historical feature of the current pub.

He said: "There was a bench seat in the parlour area where people who had been coming to the Bell for a long time could sit.

"I sat in there on my third visit in 1982, and suddenly realised I had been paying for everyone's drinks."

Old photos shared on the Facebook page for the Save the Bell at Pensax campaign show people enjoying the pub throughout the decades. Credit: Facebook/Save the Bell at Pensax

Former staff member Freja Stevens started working at The Bell when she was 15, and says she has fond memories serving customers in the beer garden which overlooks Worcestershire's rolling hills.

She said: "Ask anyone around here where their first job was, and it was probably here. I do miss it, I do really miss it.

"I've become very insular, since it closed, because I don't see everyone everyday, and the locals - I really became friends with them."

Why are so many pubs closing?

More than 150 pubs have disappeared for good from English and Welsh communitiesover the first three months of 2023, according to figures from the British Beer and Pub Association.

Analysis of official Government data by the commercial real estate intelligencefirm Altus Group shows the rate of pubs being demolished or redeveloped for other purposes has increased by almost 60% at the start of the year as rising energy bills havecrippled the sector.

In 2022, 386 pubs were lost for good.

The British Beer and Pub Association warned that the average energy bill for a pub would rise by £18,400 a year from this month with the Energy Bill Relief Scheme ending.