Today is a day for celebrating, all be it low-key and socially distanced! It's our first year anniversary at The Bell - we moved in on 28 October 2019 and started our new lives as the Landlords and owners on the 29 October.
Of course, it has not been the year we expected - I think we can all say that about 2020! However, whilst it has provided it's fair share of challenges, it has also provided opportunities and that's what we will take away from the experience of running a pub during a pandemic.
The first six months were a whirlwind of settling in, Christmas, New Year and then our first winter months here in Monkleigh. Then came March. Perhaps controversially, lock down was almost a relief, as when the Government suggested not going out to pubs, bars and restaurants when the seriousness of the pandemic became clear, we of course saw trade fall off a cliff. Worried this was how business would be for the foreseeable future, with no financial support announced, we spent every waking hour (and some where we should have been asleep) wondering how to survive and what horrible decisions we would need to make in order to do so.
Thankfully that period only lasted a week and on Friday 20 March we were told by Boris that we were going into full lockdown as a nation and that the financial support for businesses would be world-leading. And, as a small business that qualified for these packages, it was certainly what saved us. Without the furlough scheme, grants and tax holidays, we would have been in a very different position now. What this also meant was peace of mind, so we could turn our minds to what we could do to stay busy and productive through lockdown. We had gardening projects we could get stuck into, but there was only so many spaces for new plants!
So, when we were approached by Marisa Cockfield, our local Vicar, to ask if we could be part of the Covid-19 community response, we of course said yes. We set up the grocery service with the help of some of our brilliant local suppliers, who turned their businesses around on a hairpin to supply products for the domestic market and also teamed up with other volunteers in Monkleigh and Saltrens to help pick up prescriptions and help people in any way we all could to get through the lockdown months. Thank goodness the weather was kind - as we could make the most of our fabulous garden and walks from the front door in our lovely countryside.
The Thursday clap for key workers gave us another chance to bring people together (yet apart), by putting on live music outside the pub and ringing our bell out loud for the minute's tribute each week. We also worked with Monkleigh Garage next door to create a 'tree of thanks' using their Christmas tyre tree and asking local children to create a drawing to say thank you to our key workers they could then pin on it. It is still there, standing proud as a marker of the way people came together, put kindness first and looked after each other.
We started to do takeaways as soon as we could make it work logistically and had fantastic support from the local community to provide us with some much needed income and offer new fresh food ideas that we have continued on our menu.
So conversely, lockdown for us actually meant we met more people than we perhaps would have done. Chatting for a few minutes to those collecting their groceries (or on their doorstep if we delivered) and those gratefully picking up a takeaway so they didn't have to cook for a change was what kept us going. We felt more embedded in the community than ever and had the opportunity to take the time to connect with people - something I think we all craved and we were privileged to be in a position to get that opportunity throughout the closure.
When 4 July came round and we were able to open our doors again, we did so with excitement, but also a level of trepidation. The pub looked very different with all the new Covid measures in place and we knew the experience for our customers would be very different. Sadly it also meant that some of our regular weekly features, such as the darts league nights and our card players wouldn't be able to come back. Our bar stools were put into storage and we removed tables. However, we were open, we were back and people came, adapted, adjusted and were all absolutely lovely!
August saw us super busy, with the Eat Out To Help Out scheme and lots of visitors to our county as people staycationed rather than going abroad. We got into our groove with new cleaning regimes, covid-safe measures and a new menu as well. Had someone said beforehand we're going to completely change how you operate, what you serve and plonk in a whole new set of regulations for you to follow in your busiest month of the year, we would have probably had a melt down! As it was, our fabulous team rallied together, the staff came back, retrained and adapted and we got through more working hours in one month than ever before, serving so many great customers.
There is no doubt we still want to get back to normal (whatever that is) as soon as we can. We miss the faces that don't feel safe to visit yet. We miss chats at the bar with those enjoying a cheeky pint or two. We miss live music nights, parties, our monthly quiz night, dancing, singing and hugs! But in the grand scheme of things, we haven't faired badly. We have made peace with the new normal and, whilst the rules are an ever-changing landscape, we're grateful to be a small and therefore relatively agile business that can change with it. That is in large due to our fantastic team, Sophie, Sue, Mia and Josh. Plus our lovely customers, who we can't thank enough for their support, understanding and constant encouragement. And our neighbours, friends and family, many of whom made it to see us at some point after lockdown ended.
So here's to our first year, which we probably wouldn't choose to repeat in terms of the circumstances, but has presented a surprising number of opportunities and benefits that we will endeavour to continue - namely that community is everything and supporting each other is the best response in any crisis.