Alongside shops and post offices, pubs have long been the beating heart of rural communities - places that bring people together.

However, in recent decades many villages have lost their pubs - and part of their character and identity.

But people are fighting back. Here we discover how two villages saved their pubs from developers.

'It's a place where you meet friends - and make friends'

When a pub has its own ferry service, you know that it must be a very special place indeed.

Nestled on the River Waveney, it would be hard to find a more idyllic setting in which to enjoy a refreshing summer pint than the Locks Inn at Geldeston.

“We’re probably the pub that has the most customers arrive by paddleboard in the country,” laughs Graham Elliott. “I’m waiting for somebody to challenge that.”

The pub dates back 500 years – as the name suggests, it was originally a lock keeper’s cottage.

“It was in the middle of the marshes, with no access apart from by river. Lock keeper’s cottages sold ale to the passing wherrymen and I think its pub use became established pretty early on,” says Graham, who is chair of The Locks Inn Community Pub.

“And because of its remote location, it’s become a really special pub,” he continues.

“It’s right on the Norfolk and Suffolk border, people from both counties are allowed in there, which is good,” he jokes.

“Despite being in the middle of nowhere, it’s very much a place where you go and meet friends, and you go and make friends as well.”

It’s not all about the destination, but the journey too, and customers travel to them by water as well as land.

“I think we’re probably also the pub that has the most canoe access in the country, but that’s going to be a difficult one to prove,” says Graham.

And would could be lovelier than taking the 40-minute cruise from Beccles Lido on the Big Dog Ferry “looking at kingfishers and otters on the way”?

It’s also on bike and walking routes – and if you do need to drive, car sharing is encouraged.

“It’s a long and bumpy track, which makes you feel as though you are in the middle of nowhere when you get there,” says Graham.

As well as its spectacular location well off the beaten track, the Locks Inn is known for hosting an array of traditional and sometimes frankly bizarre events – such as the dwile flonking championships where two teams of players take a turn to dance around each other while attempting to avoid being hit by a beer-soaked cloth.

“We have the finest maypole dancing in the Waveney Valley and we have a great winter solstice celebration and conker championships, things that are a bit special really and probably unique as well,” says Graham.

But in September 2020, after the first coronavirus lockdown, the pub was put up for sale.

“We heard that the pub was going up for sale by auction in less than four weeks’ time, so it was a pretty sudden closure and heading for auction, which is the worst possible scenario for knowing what’s going to happen to it,” says Graham.

“It was during the pandemic, and there was a lot of interest from people who didn’t want to run it as a pub, and we just thought there was such a high risk of losing it.”

Graham himself has been a loyal customer for 30 years and decided to see if he could rally some support. The answer was a resounding yes.

“I put out a plea on social media and said who is up for forming a community bid and making it a community pub. And I did expect a positive response, but I didn’t expect how huge that response would be. It was just absolutely massive,” he says.

“We had many hundreds getting in touch, many thousands commenting – the first social media post reached 100,000 people, which is not viral by social media standards, but it was a huge reach, people were just desperate for this to work.”

Graham has a lot of experience in community projects. For 14 years he was a local councillor in Beccles on East Suffolk Council and Waveney District Council before that, and was involved in setting up Beccles Lido, the Big Dog Ferry and Beccles Public Hall.

“Community projects are probably my forte and I think what has really helped pulling this project together is people have known who I was and that I’ve got a bit of a track record on delivering on projects.”

The first thing to do was raise the money – the guide price was £395,000 and it was sold for £405,000.

“Hundreds of people chipped in, anything from a little to quite a lot of money and we bought the pub immediately prior to auction,” he says.

Then, says Graham, “the real work had to start. We had to make sure we did everything properly.”

They formed a Community Benefit Society, which is the standard model for community pubs around the country.

“They’re governed by the same act of parliament as co-operatives, but co-ops are run for the benefit of their members and CBS’s are run for the benefit of the community,” explains Graham.

They joined membership charity the Plunkett Foundation who gave them lots of advice and guidance and developed a business plan.

With time of the essence, between January and March 2021 they managed to get a share issue together.

“Normally these things take a couple of years to put together, doing research and business plans, but we did it at breakneck speed because it was so urgent. That share issue was done when we were in full lockdown too, so we didn’t see anyone face to face when you’re effectively doing a big sales pitch,” says Graham.

The share issue was a success and raised enough money for the emergency unsecured loans to be repaid.

“It was a relief to me, and also to the people that had lent us money,” says Graham.

A building survey revealed quite a lot of remedial work was necessary, and with repairs done to make it watertight (“We haven’t tarted it up, we’ve made it look like it’s loved again,” says Graham) the pub re-opened in May 2021.

Graham has been thrilled by the response from customers, which shows just what a loved and valued place it is.

“On a busy summer Sunday it can be absolutely heaving, with live music in the garden - you can have 200 or 300 people,” he says.

The management committee is made up of volunteers and they brought in Jodie and Frank Barrett to look after the day to day running.

“We wouldn’t have been able to take on the pub without knowing that we had really good managers lined up ready to do it,” says Graham.

Local beer is at the heart of what they do, with breweries including Lowestoft’s Green Jack, Mr Winter’s from Norwich, Woodforde’s from Woodbastwick and Lacon’s from Great Yarmouth represented.

“I think our real ales are some of the best around,” says Graham, who runs the bar at the Folk East festival.

“That was an important criteria for me. Our manager is very, very hot on keeping the ales well. There’s a whole range of good, local breweries, all within a few miles of the pub. And being a freehouse we can go anywhere we want and get the best beers.”

He describes the food as “not overly fancy, but good quality and value for money”. Think hearty dishes like mac and cheese, beer battered haddock and chips, burgers and superbowls – fries loaded with toppings like beef brisket chilli.

“There’s a good range and we cater well for people who are gluten free and vegan,” says Graham.

Pubs can provide a much-needed launchpad for new artists, and the Locks Inn has live music several times a week.

“When we did the very initial work it became very clear that music was a really important part of the culture of the pub,” says Graham.

“We have live music every Sunday afternoon of the year and it’s nearly all free. Every Thursday night there’s some kind of music or music session including storytelling and quite often on a Wednesday night there’s a folk band.

“A lot of people have played there and gone on to much greater things, not big names, but they’ve developed their musical skills and talent there. And it’s nice when they come back and they play a gig in the pub.”

The next thing they need to tackle is a major infrastructure project – and there is currently a supplementary share offer running with the aim of raising up to £150,000 to cover the costs.

“We’ve got one more big project we have to do before we’re secure,” says Graham. “Our main sewerage connection has to be done fairly urgently. It’s a chance for people to invest a little bit in the pub, join the 1400 [other investors], have a stake in the pub, but more importantly to help ensure that we’re there for the long term.

“So our current project is getting new members, raising some more capital to install the sewerage connection and then it will be a big sigh of relief when we can actually get on with running the pub, which is what we want to do.”

For more information about what’s on at the pub and the supplementary share offer, which is open until September 21, visit

‘It’s the centre of the village again’

When The White Swan at Gressenhall, near Dereham, closed in 2018, it initially sat empty for a while.

Then, when word reached the village that the owner wanted to redevelop the site and replace it with houses, the community sprang into action to save it.

Alex Begg set up Gressenhall Community Enterprise and the pub was put on the community asset register.

“So from there, if it’s a community asset, the owner has to then give the village the opportunity to buy it first and discussions then went on for us to try and raise some money,” says committee member Leigh Howard.

To do that, they sold shares and held events in the village – showing the great affection the pub is held in, they raised £260,000.

“We have over 450 investors, from in the village and from far and wide,” says Leigh. “So we have some from America, some from New Zealand. The minimum share was only £50, so it was accessible to everybody. If you’ve invested £50 or £5,000 you still only get one vote at the annual general meeting, so it was always a fair way of doing things,” says Leigh.

A further £100,000 was given to them in the form of a grant from the Plunkett Foundation, which is run to support rural community businesses.

They got the keys to the pub during lockdown in January 2021 and embarked on a full renovation, which was a real team effort.

"There was an army of volunteers who would come in, generally on a Wednesday the retired volunteers would come in, then everybody else would then come in on a Saturday, and it was nearly every Wednesday and Saturday for 18 months,” says Leigh.

“We had to employ some trades, so it was all up to proper specification, but we used local trades where we could.”

The pub re-opened in May, and Leigh says that it has “become the centre of the village again.”

“It was a huge sense of achievement on opening day,” says Leigh. “And relief that we’d actually got there.

“It’s really brought the community together, lots of people have formed new friendships, and since it’s been opened a lot of those people are still meeting together. You can walk into the pub and always see somebody that you know now.”

Snug Hospitality, which also runs The Chequers at Hainford and The Crown at Trunch, looks after the day to day running of the pub.

“We’d seen that they were looking for an operator, we’d heard about their story, and we dropped them a message to say that if they wanted any support then we were there, then it became a mutual conversation really,” says managing director Daniel Pratt.

“We came in towards the end of the refurbishment and helped to fine tune a few things. We focused primarily on getting the pub running, so that’s been focused on core business, in delivering a good bar service, launching food, and recruiting and training the team.

“We set out a vision at the start, we spoke with them about what the community needed, spoke with them about what the community wanted and worked with them to deliver a longer-term plan for the business.”

Leigh says that they wanted the pub to be “a local place for local people” - and supporting as many Norfolk producers as possible was an important part of that.

“We use lots of local suppliers,” says Daniel. “On the bar we’ve got local breweries including Moon Gazer from Fakenham, through to Wolf Brewery over in Attleborough to Mr Winter’s Brewery in Norwich and Duration up near King’s Lynn. All of the spirits are local.”

They also have what Daniel describes as a “a pub classics menu...that people will know and recognise.”

“Our fruit and veg comes from CC Wells, which is based in Dereham and we use the Norfolk Hub, which is a local distributor of Norfolk produce, so we buy a lot of things through them as well.”

And the pub is starting to offer community events in their barn, which they’re calling The Cartshed. It officially opened a few weeks ago with a gig by Against The Grain and there are plans for music, talks and games nights.

“When there’s that many people in the community who have invested time, who have invested energy and money into putting the pub together it’s great to then see people coming out and using the pub,” says Daniel.

“We’re really hopeful that it will remain a focal point for years to come.”