Swan Investor | Ian Simmons at The White Swan in Woodnewton

Village pubs have faced a hard time over the past few years, none more so than the White Swan in Woodnewton. But after investing in the business, its new landlord is already turning it around

To say that the White Swan in Woodnewton has seen its ups and downs over the past decade is like saying The News of the World suffered a few editorial setbacks. Over the last 11 years it has been closed down and then reopened around six times. With it being in a small village and the restaurant itself equally diminutive, previous landlords simply didn’t know where they should position the place. Upmarket restaurant or a drinker’s pub? It even at one point suffered the indignity of having a pool table…

But Ian Simmons always had a vision for this beautiful sandstone building. ‘I wanted somewhere for people from the area to use. A relaxed atmosphere to have a drink in and a chat, even it’s just with me behind the bar.’

Like all good success stories, it almost didn’t happen. After selling his previous pub – the Montagu Arms in Barnwell – during 2006 and spending some time away from the business, in late 2010 he looked at buying the Rose & Crown in Oundle.

‘People kept telling me I should buy it’ he said. ‘I’d been thinking for a while I wanted to get back into the pub trade and since it was only a few doors away from my own home, it made sense.’ The turning point, though, was that his former chef at the Montagu Arms and close friend Keith Mickleburgh was also keen to get back into the pub trade himself after spending some time in the outside catering business. He first got to know Ian purely through being a customer at the Montagu Arms. ‘And then when I needed a job I simply asked if he needed anyone.’ He would work for Ian for 18 months but even after moving on the two remained close. In 2010, and after working in the outside catering business, just as Ian was thinking about returning to the pub business so was Keith.

After a deal was about struck on the Rose & Crown, a last minute issue with planning meant it didn’t go through. But Ian was fired up to get back to what he knew. Not long after he heard the White Swan had been put up for sale by its previous owners, a large pub chain.

‘They were keen to sell and I was keen to buy’ he says ‘and so the sale went through in a matter of weeks.’

Despite the change of plan, Keith was still involved. ‘Ian was going to get another pub no matter what happened and so I came here instead as head chef.’

So what had Ian bought? Situated in the middle of the picturesque village of Woodnewton to the north of Oundle the building had stood empty for some time. Although structurally it was fine, it was a mess inside. The previous tenants had laid a new wooden floor but the interior was painted in an uninviting shade of light blue. ‘It was the coldest place I’ve ever been in’ Ian admits now. But there was worse to come – the previous landlord had left the taps running meaning the interior was flooded. To start from scratch in a pub that had often closed down was a big gamble but Keith was confident in their abilities.

‘Everyone knows Ian, everyone knows me. We were sure everyone would buy into the place thanks to our past achievements.’

With only a few weeks before they planned to open Ian and Keith set to work, sanding the watermarked floor and completely decorating the bar and restaurant in warmer shades.

The result is a welcoming yet contemporary restaurant that – as the pictures of Keith hard at work hung on the walls prove – is very personal to them both. It isn’t huge (just 60 covers) but this makes it more intimate than the huge dining halls of chain pubs. ‘There’s always an atmosphere’ Ian says ‘even on quiet nights.’

He understood right from the start that one of the reasons the Swan had failed in the past was because it hadn’t been made part of the community. And so despite the restaurant side being very important, Ian has always made any locals who simply wish to drop in for a drink more than welcome.

‘We have three tables that other than on busy nights – Fridays and Saturdays for example – that are reserved for anyone who simply wishes to have a drink.’ This approach is working. Ian reckons that 80% of his business is returning locals, a good figure to guarantee the Swan’s survival.

Key to the Swan’s success, though, is the food and that’s down to Keith. ‘Ian’s name may be above the door’ he says ‘but I work with him, not for him, and I was free to create what I wanted.’

So what is the concept of his menu? ‘Fresh food made with as local as possible ingredients, that isn’t expensive, keeping it relevant to today’s market place.’

Keith’s menu reflects that. It’s all freshly made in the kitchen, although dishes like his homemade linguine, goats cheese flatbread and risotto give the menu a surprising Mediterranean feel. ‘We did this because it’s different’ Keith says. ‘It makes us stand out from the usual pub selling the usual food.’

He is proud that the majority of his ingredients come from the area. ‘We use a Peterborough-based butcher who sources all of its meat from Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire plus local growers and greengrocers for our fruit and veg.’ Some of what the kitchen uses, though, is incredibly local and proof of how well thought of Ian, Keith and the White Swan are by the villagers of Woodnewton.

‘Customers with allotments often bring us food they’ve grown which they can’t use, such as beetroot. This is seasonal, but whatever they give becomes the basis of our specials board.’

Now that the two have a thriving and sustainable business it’s time to look to the future and Ian tells me he has been given permission to build an extension for a larger restaurant and kitchen. What makes Keith excited is that he will have room for a huge, Italian, wood-burning oven that’s already bought but there isn’t space for in the existing set up.

‘With the new kitchen being open and viewable from the dining area it will bring the theatre of a larger, chain restaurant to a smaller, more intimate village pub.’

But apart from the visual aspect it will change how and what he can cook. ‘I will be able to produce genuine Italian pizzas in there while it will give some dishes – like my slow roasted lamb – a slightly smoky flavour.’

With an owner who understands the needs of a country pub, a talented head chef plus some exciting plans, this time round it looks like the White Swan is here to stay.

The White Swan
22 Main Street, Woodnewton, Peterborough, PE8 5EB
Tel: 01780 470944

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