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Racing certainty to find something different

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 07, 2013

  • Landlord Gordon Reid at the Queens Arms in Corton Denham, Somerset

  • Martin Hesp (left) at the dog-friendly Queens Arms at Corton Denham. Locals and walkers call in for a quick pint and one of the home-made pork pies which sit on the bar, below

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Martin Hesp and Patrick McCaig visit The Queens Arms in Corton Denham.

The inn we've selected for this episode in our Going Down the Pub series is located on the far eastern fringes of this newspaper's patch, but is frequented by many Westcountry folk and that even includes people from West Cornwall.

Which might all sound like a lot of driving – but that is relevant too because the landlord of the remarkable Queens Arms at Corton Denham, in Somerset, is a retired racing driver who at one time in his career designed famous marques of motorcar.

It was Gordon Reid who told Otter Brewery's Patrick McCaig and me the amazing fact that Cornish people regularly use his pub as a convenient meeting place where they can catch up with their London friends.

"We get people coming from London and Cornwall and meeting here for lunch because this is a halfway spot," said Gordon when we met at the Queens, which is situated in the beautiful hills that you can see south of the A303 near Sparkford, on Somerset's eastern border.

Now, given that he's talking pretty big distances here – and also the fact that the pub is far from easy to find in those lovely green hills – this is quite a statement. But you only have to visit the Queens Arms once to find out the reason for its success.

It achieves that difficult-to-pull-off trick of being both high-brow and low-brow all at once. People travel miles to enjoy the fine dining produced by the pub's resident five chefs – but locals and walkers also call in for a quick pint and might partake of one of the home-made pork pies which sit on the bar next to jars full of chutney and mustard.

There is a slate sign by the front door saying muddy boots and dogs are welcome. Inside, the place looks pub-like in that classic, no-nonsense, way only British pubs have, complete with wooden floors and log fires – and yet upstairs the rooms you can stay in are as luxuriously fitted-out as any in top boutique hotels.

All too often I walk into pubs across the region and think to myself: "Oh dear, they've got this wrong." Or even: "Blimey – this is horrible."

But the moment I entered the Queens I thought: "Yes. This works. They've pulled off the difficult trick of making everyone feel welcome."

I was soon surrounded by a flow of incoming customers – and this was a November midweek lunchtime. When we left, the place was full.

"Apart from the people we've talked about who meet here we also get a large amount of customers coming from all over the world – Germany in particular. And the Americans love it because they say it's their perfect idea of what a pub should look like," said Gordon as we sat down to talk. "The thing is, the place is not pretentious in any way.

"We consciously went the way of not putting people at the front door to meet and greet," he added when I told him I'd witnessed this unwelcome development in some Westcountry pubs of late where the proprietors had decided to go "upmarket".

"I think if you have people greeting you at the front door, you feel threatened. We're not a restaurant as such – first and foremost we are a pub," Gordon insisted. "My background was in the motor industry and we always did a lot of research into people's behaviours – and a lot of people won't go into showrooms because they think, once they're inside, they're locked in and they have to buy something. That's the same thing as far as people coming into a pub is concerned – they don't want to be jumped on or feel threatened.

"In fact, we actually train our staff not to jump on people – just to be friendly and relaxed. That was one of the first things that hit me when I came up here before we bought the pub – I sat here chatting to the barman and the locals for a while, and it was all so relaxed.

"Later said to my wife 'I've found the perfect pub for us'," he said, going on to explain a little bit about how he and his wife Jeannette and son Kyle took over the business four years ago. "Basically I sold my company and was looking for another investment. My wife was in HR with a big company and our son was at university doing catering – and we thought: let's look for something for the future. We decided we'd buy something in the hospitality industry because our son was coming up through it.

"So we'd put our house up for sale – but the first pub we saw fell through. However, the house got sold – so what were we going to do? We started driving around looking at various places and I stumbled upon this place by accident – and fell in love with it. We met the owner the following week, shook hands, did the deal, and that was it. Done."

The way Gordon puts this is the same way he puts everything. The one time Scots racing-driver is quick and direct – somehow I could not only imagine him driving with extreme rapidity but also heading up a big car manufacturer's design centre and going against the grain to come up with a model that would shake up the motoring world (which he helped do with the Lexus).

"I worked for the Toyota Motor Corporation and I spent 16 years in Japan – then I set up my own company and sold that – then I set up another company and sold that again," Gordon expounded. "My time in Japan did give me ideas relevant to what we're doing now. If anyone's been to Japan they will know how well they treat people there. When they greet you, they mean it.

"This is our fourth year at the Queens. It was well known before but it had mixed fortunes – so it had been successful and gone downhill a couple of times. Since we've taken over we've increased the number of bedrooms and changed our food offering substantially. We have two different menus – a classic and an al la carte – but we don't stipulate that you have to have one menu only. You can eat anywhere in the pub – in the bar or in one of the two restaurants.

"The rooms have all the luxury items you'd expect in a top hotel – plasma TVs, iPod docking stations, all the linen is Egyptian – we give people the very best soaps and smellies that are around. In fact, this year the AA came along and they've awarded us the gold stars for our rooms.

"We have a professional team of five chefs in the kitchen and we also have an outside catering function. It's taken off fantastically, although it was only started a year ago.

"The unique thing we do is that our chefs and waitresses will go to someone's home and you get exactly the same food as you get in the pub for whatever number of guests you have. We have marquees, chiller vans – even a full bar in a trailer.

"We have our own farm where we source all our own pigs – you will see photographs of them all around the pub. And we produce eggs which we use in the kitchen. Again, we won an award for our breakfasts from the AA. People love the bacon – because we cure all our own."

This article could have turned into a long listing in which Gordon sang the praises of his own establishment – but I asked him to outline his general thoughts on what is, in some respects, a failing British pub trade.

"As a bare bald subject – and as an outsider looking in – I see that people's eating and drinking habits have change dramatically over the last few years," he replied. "Whereas people used to go out for fine dining – have a stuffy environment – people don't want that any more. They want good food, but they want it to be relaxed. Also, when they come into pubs, they don't want just the bog standard take-it-or-leave-it – they want choice. As you can see, we have one of the biggest gin collections in the country – the same with whiskies. We've got some unusual ales as well – and ciders. We even have our own ale The Queen's Revival, brewed specifically for us. And we have two guest ales which we change twice a week.

"We often look at the car park and see a Range Rover, a Ferrari, and tractor," smiled Gordon. "Everyone is welcome – because we are a pub. When that door is open anyone can walk in and we make them feel exactly the same.

"This is a destination pub," Gordon concluded. "People come here because they know they can get something unusual – not just run of the mill. If you want that, go to one of the big chains. We do something completely different."

And they do. If you're ever travelling out of the Westcountry towards London, turn right at Sparkford and discover what this difference can mean when it comes to creating a new kind of model for a classic English pub…

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