I previously worked at Leith’s School of Food & Wine for eight years doing marketing and PR. I’m also a trained cook and have always loved food. After Leith’s, I briefly worked at Skylark Cafe on Wandsworth Common running events, and then Broomwood Hall for the charity NAEF. I’m from Scotland originally and grew up with my mother growing vegetables and fruit in the garden and living off the land – it’s why seasonality and local produce mean a lot to me. Meanwhile, my husband Simon’s family is from the West Country and he loves being outdoors.
Simon and I have owned a home in Dorset since the mid-2000s. The house was a farmworkers’ cottage – two-up two-down – and we renovated and extended it over four years. But we also bought a house in London – it was admittedly a bit back-to-front, given most people buy in London first and then hanker after a country cottage later. That said, we always had Dorset in our sights as somewhere we would move permanently one day – one of the things we loved most about being there was the proximity to the great village pub.
The Queen’s Arms had a great reputation. It was refurbished around the time we bought our house by the former manager of the White Horse in Pimlico – and we spent many happy hours there sipping drinks on the terrace and dreaming of owning it one day. I never imagined we actually would.
Our house is at the top of a hill and the pub is at the bottom in the village. We have incredible views over the Somerset Levels and are just three miles from Sherborne – a beautiful market town known best for Sherborne Castle, which was owned by Sir Walter Raleigh. We can still get to London on a two-hour train journey and Bruton, which is now a bit of a hotspot (it wasn’t when we first bought our house), is only 20 minutes away. There are so many artisan producers and so many creative types in the area, too – the owner of Sipsmith gin lives just down the road.
After renting out the Dorset house for a while, we made the move permanently in mid-2019. The kids were growing up and we wanted them to have the same country upbringing we had. Simon grew up riding and sailing, while I was completely ‘free-range’ in Scotland. We moved just in time – shortly after, we went into the first lockdown, so we were lucky to be able to establish ourselves and get the children settled in school – even if it was only for two terms!
During the lockdown, we heard the pub was up for sale. Despite making the move with the intention of finding a food-related job, I hadn’t imagined we might take on something as big as this. Our children were only eight, six and three years old, so naturally, I was nervous. But we got talking to the previous owners and decided to take the plunge.
We officially bought the property on 1st July 2020 and opened it on 4th July. It was hectic – especially with Eat Out To Help Out scheme, which put extra pressure on operations. We agreed with the previous owners they would stay on and run it as was, while I watched and learnt before closing on 2nd January 2021 to start the refurbishment. Another lockdown was helpful, in hindsight, as it meant we had time to really focus on the build, without worrying about losing customers and staff. It did mean we had the challenges with building supplies, though, which took twice as long to arrive – plus, furnishing the pub was harder, as I was trawling the internet for furniture and fittings, only to be told lead times were around three months on average.
The pub was perfectly fine and functioning – but it was tired. The bar was very small, the bathrooms were in the wrong place, and we wanted to remove a wall to open up the space, replace the windows and refurbish ten bedrooms. We also added a ‘Pub Hub’ (a small shop selling pastries, coffee, fresh bread, refillable milk etc) and added new outdoor space, including two covered eating areas and an extension to the back terrace.
Our friend Rupert White designed the interiors. I love colour and pattern, which probably goes against the grain of most hotels and pubs which are largely neutral, but after lockdown, I think people are in the mood for colour. We kept some rooms more muted in case it’s not to people’s taste, but all the rooms were done to such a high quality, with fabrics from Colefax & Fowler. We also used really good quality paints – the main room is done in an Edward Bulmer colour, and we also used a lot of shades from Paint and Paper Library. It wasn’t easy for Rupert – especially when you consider the long wait on all the materials and craftsmen during the winter lockdown.
I admit, I did doubt myself with the design at various points. But I’m so happy with all the bedrooms. Someone said they feel very homely, which I take as compliment. I’m also thrilled with our Pub Hub – we get a lot of people walking and cycling in the area, so it’s lovely for them to be able to pop in and grab snack or coffee.
We only had six months to finish the rebuild – and we reopened on 23rd June 2021. The builders kept saying we were asking them to achieve something in six months that usually takes a year to complete. But they pulled it off – despite the huge challenges in the supply chain and with staffing. Admittedly, they’re still popping in and out to sort out some teething issues, but their efforts were hugely appreciated. Good builders are worth their weight in gold – hiring people we knew and trusted meant there weren’t any dramatic mistakes along the way. The only major delay we had was the planning permission, which took far longer to get because the office was shut.
We didn't have time to stress test all the rooms, either. In one, there was a leak, so we had water poring through the ceiling into the main bar on day one – just after refurbishing. The builders were around to fix it, thank God, but it happened again before we found the root of the problem, so we’ve already had to fix and repaint the ceiling twice!
Ensuring the operational side of the pub ran smoothly was a top priority. I’ve learnt an awful lot in a short time – from cleaning beer pipes to staff training and drawing up costing matrixes – but our current manager was trained at Soho House, so he knows all about attention to detail. He was also involved in the opening of The Newt in Somerset, so also knows a lot about the process of setting up and reopening an establishment. Our chef also moved from London to Dorset – he was head chef at The Bird In Hand in Parsons Green, and also worked with the Nobu team. He’s married to an Italian, so his fresh pasta is amazing.
Even though we’re fully open now, there are still daily challenges to contend with – be it the constant staff training or ensuring customers are happy… we’re still learning as we go. We’re also ironing out little problems with the booking systems and still hanging the odd picture here and there. Of course, we also have issues finding enough chefs for the kitchen – something the entire industry is struggling with right now. I’ve stepped in to help with general prep and breakfast – it’s lovely to be in the kitchen to keep my hand in. One day, the plan is to open a cookery school on site for me to run. I want the children to see me working on something of my own, that also teaches them about the importance of healthy food.
The children have taken the move in their stride. In fact, I’d go as far to say they’re thrilled with it – they’ve come up with lots of kid’s menu ideas and other great ones, including putting an X-Box in our cottage that we also rent out as part of the pub. They’re looking forward to working there and are already asking when they can. We’ll probably start them off with the washing up before they’re promoted to waiting tables.
Simon was promoted at the same time as the refurb started, so he’s been busy. The bonus is that, with lockdown, he’s been at home more and can lend more of a hand with things like the school run. With me currently working in the kitchen, it’s been an adjustment – we’ve all had to adapt to my not being at home as much.
For now, our focus is to make the pub even more successful than it was and put it back on the map. If all goes well, another property isn’t out of the question. There were times when I thought we must be mad to take this project on – there were so many things to juggle I didn’t know if I was coming or going sometimes! That said, things never come along at the right time, so if we’d waited, the pub may have not come up for sale for another ten years – sometimes, you have to grab the bull by the horns. I was also realistic about what I could do. For example, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to be at the pub at 11pm on a Thursday night pulling pints with three small children at home, so we needed to set some boundaries.
If I was to tell anyone looking to take a similar risk anything it would be to know your limitations and hire a good team – don’t try to do it all yourself. So many people offered their help and advice along the way, and I was grateful for all of it. Ultimately, be brave and take the plunge. It won’t all be plain sailing or easy, but where would the fun be in that?
For more information visit TheQueensArms.com