Wensleydale village pub reopens after Geordie living in the US spots business for sale online

Mike Burn outside Redmire Village Pub.

At a time when the area has seen a spate of small businesses closing and much of the hospitality industry nationally is struggling, a chance encounter on social media has led to an exciting new future for a Wensleydale pub and new life to a local community.

Regulars and visitors of the Bolton Arms in Redmire, were dismayed when the pub – the only one in the village – was closed in September 2022 after having been on the market since October the previous year. Despite a drop in price, no serious interest had been shown in taking on the pub and it was feared it might be lost forever,

In January 2022, a community meeting led to the formation of Redmire Community Pub Ltd, which was launched with the aim of investigating and, if possible, bringing about the purchase of the pub by and for the community, as has been successful in other villages, such as Carlton and Exelby.

Much work was done including the production of a business plan, which included the results of surveys carried out in the village and surrounding area, and which demonstrated how much people valued the pub and how they would like to see it develop in future, to serve all members of the community and to continue to welcome visitors.

Group members said however that the then owners of the premises were unwilling to cooperate with the group and the pub went on to close. After a pub-less Christmas and faced with a pub-less summer, hopes were fading for the community group and for the village pubgoers.

Then, out of the blue, on April 19 this year, an email was received by the community group from a Mike Burn, in Bend, Oregon, who said he had been following the group on Facebook, and how would they feel about he and his family getting involved – to the extent of having them buy it but then having it run along the lines of the published business plan, involving the community as much as possible.

In a second email Mike told of his connection to the UK and the reasons for his interest in the Bolton Arms, saying he had left North Shields aged 24 “where at the time there were not many jobs” and spent the following 24 years “knocking around America”.

He admitted to having been ”phenomenally lucky” meaning he was able to retire at 46.

He added: “Following retirement, I was looking for a project to invest in which included a connection back to the UK.

“Having family in Tynemouth, I’ve maintained my life-long love of the North and my wish was to contribute to that, and especially the things that are the true essence of the region – and what more so than being out on the fells or in the dales in horizontal rain in November and finding refuge by a fire in a pub, or a strong black milky tea with the dog at your feet – it’s pure magic, it literally brings a lump to my throat and a tear in my eye.

“It’s a tragedy to see so many of these cultural assets disappearing instead of evolving, as had happened to the Bolton Arms, it represents the slow steady erosion of culture and community.”

Mike continued: “As we were trawling commercial real estate from Leeds to the border, we discovered the Bolton Arms and from a further Google search we learned about the amazing community’s attempt to save the pub, and saw their business plan, which was designed to not only buy the pub but to run it offering something for all sectors of the community.

“We were quickly down the rabbit hole, and it went from ‘what a pretty building’ to ‘what an amazing project, what potential’ – and not just financial yields, we’re thinking about the story – which has always fuelled any success we’ve had.

“When I’ve worked with businesses and communities, the importance of the authentic ‘made of here’ ingredient cannot be understated, and then the idea is to package and present that in a modern way that will provide financial sustainability and success — that’s what we saw here.

“Our vision would be to create a building and a business for the long term, a true one hundred year pub.

“I know it’s really weird that a Geordie sitting in Bend, Oregon, a town with over 30 breweries, by the way, was interested in a community pub in Redmire, but we believed not only could we bring the financial capital to move the project forward, but maybe also some outside board level perspectives.

“I have taught at Columbia Business School in New York to global executives for many years and worked with executives of some of the world’s largest companies, as well as with communities and non-profits before retiring and I saw this as an exciting and impactful opportunity.

“Additionally, I was not looking for a job, but rather for a project to burn some mental cycles on as a volunteer, and I thought the time difference would help limit that, which would please my wife Kat – although having been now in Redmire for most of the summer, this last is in question!

“We know this is a different approach from being fully community owned, but our vision was and remains, to primarily see the establishment run by, for, and of the community – even if the bricks, mortar, and ground are owned by caring and involved partners. That is to say the goal is shared, the ‘how’ might be a little left field.

The sale of the pub went through on June 15 and a couple of weeks later Mike and Kat, along with their nine-year old son Alan, and dog Dave, were able to view the pub for the first time.

Some basic repair plans were put in place before the family left for an already booked holiday in Norway, after which Kat, Alan and Dave returned home in time for the beginning of the school term, while Mike remained in Redmire to oversee the renovation and to recruit a team to run the pub once he returns to Bend.

On viewing the pub in detail, it became clear to Mike and Kat that the tenancy model advocated by the community group would not work due to the amount of investment required to bring the building and business into shape, neither was it an option to simply install a bar manager.

Instead, they have chosen to use a model where leading staff are part of the executive team, driving the strategy, being involved with the decision making, and benefiting from the success.

Local feelers were already out and recommendations were coming in, and within a month Kerrie Mackenzie was appointed as managing director, to implement the strategies behind the ‘one hundred year pub’, overseeing the day to day running of the business, including hiring and developing the team, and forming and managing partnerships with the community, suppliers and groups outside the immediate area.

Kerrie has a life-long history of being in the hospitality trade and is already familiar with the community having worked in the pub, and a neighbouring one, in the past.

Once work started it became evident that every aspect of the premises would require major work in order to comply with hygiene and safety rules, as well as with the owners’ vision. As with many old buildings, fixing one job only revealed a dozen more.

So far, the whole bar area and the cellar including the floors, have been replaced, damp and water ingress problems have been addressed, the kitchen has been gutted ready for a complete refurbishment and a major redecoration program has begun.

Mike has plans to lower the running costs, by making a significant investment in renewable energy sources.  A massive efficiency has been already achieved by the replacement of the cellar cooling system, which has reduced energy costs there by 80 per cent. By the time the five letting rooms are open, it is planned that all heating and hot water for them will come from air source heat pumps powered by discreetly installed solar panels.

Mike admits the project has turned into something much larger than he first imagined – and that his own impatience has often led to frustration, particularly as regards the slowness of dealing with some of the utility firms.

Throughout though, he says he has been overwhelmed by the support of the community, who have given their time, skills and knowledge to bring about the opening. While expert contractors have been brought in to do the work on the cellar and bar, the vast majority of the other work has been done by a growing team of volunteers.

The opening date was set for September 16 – Redmire and Castle Bolton’s traditional feast day. Allowing more time might have been sensible but the pressure proved to be a great focuser, and a team of locals turned out daily to ensure at least the two main bar areas were cleaned and repainted throughout, new lighting and furniture were installed, the external paintwork was spruced up, and the beer garden, car park and patio were tidied.

After a soft opening on the Friday – when the team of volunteers were able to check the beer was flowing properly – the pub opened properly, as planned, the next day. Most of the village called in at some point during the day to inspect the renovations and have a few beers, and visitors from further afield also dropped by to join in the mayhem, as the pub remained packed from 3pm until closing time.

“It was incredible, Redmire blew us away – we certainly didn’t expect that,” said Mike about the opening.

It is certainly all looking very promising for the community in Redmire after a few bleak years. Currently the pub is open for wet sales only but the provision of food will play a massive part in the future, as will the welcoming of new and returning guests to the five letting rooms, which are being completely refitted.

A chef has been appointed, an appointment that again has come serendipitously though a local connection, and as overwhelmingly requested, the focus is to be on tasty, home-produced pub food, using local suppliers where possible.

The kitchen is set to have a complete makeover in the coming weeks, and longer term, the dining room is to be remodelled, with a new snug coffee shop/ice cream lounge that will also be available as a meeting room.

In adherence to the original business plan, the aim will be to reinstate the pub as the hub around which traditional village events revolve, to get back the darts, dominoes, quizzes and quoits so beloved by many, and then to continue to broaden the appeal more widely by being open to new ideas and services so everyone benefits and feels they have a stake in the place, and a reason to visit.

With everything changing, from the ethos, to the colour of the front door, it was decided the pub was deserving of a new name, that a fresh start was necessary. After much discussion and many suggestions, it was decided to keep things simple, and Redmire Village Pub, was decided upon.

A spokesperson for Redmire Community Pub Ltd said: “I love the new name – everyone in the village can feel they are part of things now. All we wanted was to have our pub back as a hub for village life. Mike and his family have brought this about, in record time.

“We are delighted with the outcome and will continue to support them in every way possible.”

For more information on Redmire Village Pub, click here.