IN 2013, Oxford's most famous chef Raymond Blanc did an unusual thing.

When a pub in the village where he runs his world-famous Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons restaurant went up for sale, instead of snapping it up himself or trying to squash the competition, he invested his own money to help the locals buy it.

Five years on, the Bull at Great Milton is going stronger than ever – one of the most successful community-owned pubs in the county.

In fact, the pub has been so successful, the owners – of whom Raymond Blanc is still one – are now investing tens of thousands of pounds to expand and refurbish the dining room.

They are also planning to install new outdoor decking, an umbrella and a heater, and they've got enough left in the kitty to rebuild the entire traditional chimney following a fire last year.

So how has the Great Milton Community Pub company done it?

It has not been easy.

Villagers formed the company in 2013 when Greene King put the Bull on the market.

They managed to persuade more than 110 people – almost all villagers – to invest a total of £340,000.

Then the hard work started.

Steve Harrod, one of the nine-strong management committee and a county councillor, recalls: "We came into this when 52 pubs a week were closing, so the assumption was that there would be 52 landlords a week looking to take a pub on. They were not.

"We struggled to find people with the right experience."

The new Bull got off to a false start with the first couple who came in to run it because they simply had no experience of pub life.

However the management committee stuck gold in their current manager Natasha Keal, probably due in no small part to the fact she had already worked at the pub for a decade, and lives in the village with her husband.

Bill Fox, another member of the management committee, says: "Having that local knowledge is vital.

"Tash and Richard live in his grandfather's bungalow in the village and their daughter helps out at the bar."

That credo, which could be summarised as 'if it ain't broke don't fix it', has become the pub company's guiding principle.

While so many communities take over their ailing local and try to transform it into a fine-dining fantasy, the Bull's managers have been forced to take the complete opposite approach.

Mr Fox says: "Our secret to success has just been 'keep it simple' – the pub hasn't changed at all since we took it over.

"For example, one thing I wanted to do from the outset was open the whole bar area up so we'd have more space.

"We even got in a local architect to plan it all out, but the locals didn't want it, so we didn't do it.

"We've not tried to foist anything on the clientele that they don't want."

Mr Harrod adds: "It's a very old-fashioned concept pub bar and lounge bar.

"There have been a few pubs which have gone community pub and tried to turn them into destination restaurants with varying degrees of success.

"They may be successful as that but they're resented as village pubs."

That approach seems to have worked for the Bull: the pub is packed every Friday night and on Sunday lunchtime is forced to turn people away.

The current chef cooks up a mixture of old-fashioned pub grub (jacket potatoes, lasagne, cod and chips) and some more fancy dishes, such as French-style moules marinières in a white wine and garlic sauce.

The wine list includes bottles from around the globe and of course there is a decent range of real ales, lagers and soft drinks.

But now, the group are now making tentative steps towards improving.

Reluctant as they are to transform the Bull into a gastropub like the Seven Stars at Marsh Baldon, as a company which needs to make money they can't ignore the business opportunity staring them in the face.

Mr Fox explains: "We have only got 15 covers and that's not enough to attract a most chefs."

Mr Harrod adds: "We have a great chef who does good, solid pub food but we need to improve the profitability long-term and make it more secure in the long-term and get more covers.

"That would also enable Tash to expand if she wanted."

Another of the improvements planned is to install an outdoor staircase which will allow whoever is living above the pub – likely to always be the tenant – to get in and out of their living quarters without having to actually walk through the pub.

That, too, will make the Bull more attractive to potential future tenants.

The dining room expansion will make space for 12 extra covers.

That may or may not to lead to a new Michelin-starred chef coming in and competing with Raymond Blanc, and dozens of out-of-towners taking over the pub.

But the managers are hoping the regulars will notice little difference, except having a little more room to spread out at dinner.

After all, they shareholders they have to answer to at the end of the day are their own neighbours, who have invested their money, and a little bit of their hearts, to keep their local local.

Mr Fox says: "Our whole pitch to the village when we were asking them for investment was: 'this is an investment you make with your heart – not your head'.

"We've tired to stick to that."

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