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How A Scrappy Community Bought Its Own Pub... Well Almost.

'There used to be a pub there'. On one side of the cottage the old sign still hangs, its empty frame rattling a little in the breeze. The community has shrunk back. In the common space where it used to thrive, there is quiet now.

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That could’ve been us. Just over two years ago, Hail Weston was on course to lose its pub. The Royal Oak had been sold. It was closing a month later. It would be gone, and soon people would forget it had ever existed.But something else happened. The community, anchored in the Royal Oak for so long, hit back on a scale no one imagined. Hundreds from this sleepy, quirky Cambridgeshire village – some from opposite ends of the neighbourhood, some neighbours who’d never met – got together to try to buy their pub.Today that burst of camaraderie, the kind that usually falters as the difficulties and disappointments well up, has only grown stronger. Two years later the campaign is in full swing, with dozens of active volunteers and hundreds of local investors - all pitching in to re-open the Royal Oak as a community-owned pub.After all, the Royal Oak has been with us for more than three hundred years. Nestled in the very middle of the village, it has always been the hub of Hail Weston’s community life – the host at every usual juncture in the calendar, and instigator of the village’s own traditions. It brought us the ‘egg dump’ championships, the ‘onion bowl’, the New Year’s Day go-kart races that careen down the street. This is what pubs do for a village, and like in so many others, the Royal Oak is our very last.And on New Year’s Day 2012 it shut. The Charles Wells Pub Company sold up to a developer in November 2011, and soon the pub was being auctioned. In March, it was advertised with 'development potential'. It failed to sell. In May it was up again, this time as a 'cottage' and 'former public house'.When news broke of the auction, 130 residents rushed to an extraordinary Parish meeting. Soon after, our small village had blueprints for a co-operative pub, and strong backing from local councillor Jonathan Gray. The local MP, Jonathan Djanogly, made the pub one of his key campaigns, launching a petition on his website supporting the community’s bid. (You'll find it the bottom if you'd like to sign too).In January 2013, the Royal Oak became Huntingdonshire’s first registered ‘community asset’ – temporarily shrouding it from an instant sale. The village began buying shares, and before long our community-pub-to-be had more than 150 co-owners.In November 2013, we made a formal £200,000 offer. It was rejected. Professional valuers believe the Royal Oak is worth no more as a pub. But then, if it ever won planning permission for housing its value would soar.So we remain a village without a pub. Well, almost. Because all the while we’ve run a pop-up, the ‘Makeshift Royal Oak’. It might not be quite the same, but it does tell you something. At times the idea of ‘community’ can seem just that, an idea. Something lost in romance. Hail Weston, and a good many other villages like it, are the antidote to that. They show just how resilient communities really are, and just how much they can achieve. In truth, running a pub will be just the beginning.Want to take part? You can. Here's how:Sign the Royal Oak's online petition, and help show the local Council just how much support there is: www.jonathandjanogly.com/royaloak.Buy shares in a community-owned Royal Oak online at: www.savetheroyaloak.org.uk A version of this article first appeared in the Village Bystander magazine.

That could’ve been us. Just over two years ago, Hail Weston was on course to lose its pub. The Royal Oak had been sold. It was closing a month later. It would be gone, and soon people would forget it had ever existed.

But something else happened. The community, anchored in the Royal Oak for so long, hit back on a scale no one imagined. Hundreds from this sleepy, quirky Cambridgeshire village – some from opposite ends of the neighbourhood, some neighbours who’d never met – got together to try to buy their pub.

Today that burst of camaraderie, the kind that usually falters as the difficulties and disappointments well up, has only grown stronger. Two years later the campaign is in full swing, with dozens of active volunteers and hundreds of local investors - all pitching in to re-open the Royal Oak as a community-owned pub.

After all, the Royal Oak has been with us for more than three hundred years. Nestled in the very middle of the village, it has always been the hub of Hail Weston’s community life – the host at every usual juncture in the calendar, and instigator of the village’s own traditions. It brought us the ‘egg dump’ championships, the ‘onion bowl’, the New Year’s Day go-kart races that careen down the street. This is what pubs do for a village, and like in so many others, the Royal Oak is our very last.

And on New Year’s Day 2012 it shut. The Charles Wells Pub Company sold up to a developer in November 2011, and soon the pub was being auctioned. In March, it was advertised with 'development potential'. It failed to sell. In May it was up again, this time as a 'cottage' and 'former public house'.

When news broke of the auction, 130 residents rushed to an extraordinary Parish meeting. Soon after, our small village had blueprints for a co-operative pub, and strong backing from local councillor Jonathan Gray. The local MP, Jonathan Djanogly, made the pub one of his key campaigns, launching a petition on his website supporting the community’s bid. (You'll find it the bottom if you'd like to sign too).

In January 2013, the Royal Oak became Huntingdonshire’s first registered ‘community asset’ – temporarily shrouding it from an instant sale. The village began buying shares, and before long our community-pub-to-be had more than 150 co-owners.

In November 2013, we made a formal £200,000 offer. It was rejected. Professional valuers believe the Royal Oak is worth no more as a pub. But then, if it ever won planning permission for housing its value would soar.

So we remain a village without a pub. Well, almost. Because all the while we’ve run a pop-up, the ‘Makeshift Royal Oak’. It might not be quite the same, but it does tell you something. At times the idea of ‘community’ can seem just that, an idea. Something lost in romance. Hail Weston, and a good many other villages like it, are the antidote to that. They show just how resilient communities really are, and just how much they can achieve. In truth, running a pub will be just the beginning.

Want to take part? You can. Here's how:

Sign the Royal Oak's online petition, and help show the local Council just how much support there is: www.jonathandjanogly.com/royaloak.

Buy shares in a community-owned Royal Oak online at: www.savetheroyaloak.org.uk

A version of this article first appeared in the Village Bystander magazine.

Hail Weston Go-Kart Races. New Year's Day 1996. June Hamilton.
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Hail Weston Go-Kart Races. New Year's Day 1996. June Hamilton.

The Onion Bowl, 1982. June Hamilton.
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The Onion Bowl, 1982. June Hamilton.

Heartsease Folk Dancers at the Royal Oak Pub, Hail Weston. 1993.
Via st-neots.ccan.co.uk

Heartsease Folk Dancers at the Royal Oak Pub, Hail Weston. 1993.

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