Georgina Matthews on rescuing Beckley’s village pub The Abingdon Arms

As with all good ideas, it started with a couple of beers round a kitchen table and now – nearly a year later – 270 people co-own our local pub, The Abingdon Arms in Beckley.

It has been one hell of a journey and a steep learning curve, but heart-warming to see the incredible support behind our campaign to save The Abingdon Arms. It has created a real sense of community cohesion – that’s the real reason I got involved.

Our local pub had been going downhill for many years and we realised that there was a threat that Brakspear would put it on the market. We didn’t want to see it sold off, run down and eventually converted to housing, so a group of us got together, determined to save it for the community. In a small village community, a pub is so much more than somewhere to get a drink – it’s the hub of village life. The pub has been trading for over 300 years and we didn’t want to see it close.

The Abingdon Arms is a beautiful 17-century pub right in the heart of Beckley, with fantastic views over Otmoor, the local RSPB reserve, and has been frequented by some literary greats. Evelyn Waugh famously drowned his sorrows at the pub on hearing that he’d got a third in his Oxford finals and the view from the pub across the chequered fields of Otmoor inspired Lewis Carroll’s giant chessboard in Alice through the Looking Glass.

The first thing we did was register the pub as an asset of community value to allow us to bid first in the sale process and give it valuable planning protection. Almost overnight in May, the For Sale sign went up and the race was on: we had six months to raise the finance to buy the pub before it went on the open market. The group of four founder-members round the kitchen table grew to a voluntary committee.

We did a business plan, set up a website and produced a share offer document. It all sounds quite straightforward but it took a lot of careful planning, a huge amount of work, and a large dollop of community spirit. I was doing the communications and marketing side of things after a full day’s work, and in between cooking and helping to answer homework questions on composite volcanoes, I was writing press releases, website copy and articles on saving our local pub.

We launched the Save the Abingdon Arms share offer on October 1 and a month later we had raised an amazing £475,000 from 270 people. We had investors from all over the UK from Cornwall to Scotland – and even from Australia and the USA – but the large majority were from the five local villages – Beckley, Horton-cum-Studley, Elsfield, Noke and Stanton St John.

The amount raised through the share offer showed how strongly locals felt about saving The Abingdon Arms for the community and maintaining a vital social hub. We put in an offer to Brakspear in November and the community became the proud owners of the pub this week.

This is obviously a big success story for our community but the challenge doesn’t stop here. We organised an army of volunteers to go into the pub at the weekend to clean, clear the garden and do basic decorating and DIY to get the pub ready for business.

Our biggest challenge is looking for a professional tenant to build a successful business at The Abingdon Arms. The pub has lots going for it as a free house and when I moved into the village 10 years ago, it was a flourishing village pub. I now have every hope it will be again.

We also have plans to develop The Abingdon Arms as ‘more than a pub’ with facilities beyond the normal role of a local boozer – perhaps a small shop, a library, café, art gallery, music venue and even a parcel collection service. We’ll see. One step at a time.

There were 67,800 pubs in 1982; today there are 50,800 according to the British Beer and Pub Association. With breweries selling off pubs all the time, the community ownership model is becoming much more widespread and The Abingdon Arms is the fifth community pub in Oxfordshire. Has it all been worthwhile? I’ll tell you over a beer when we reopen in a few months. I can’t wait.