Plumber Manor, a family-run restaurant with a 500-year past, celebrates its enduring appeal with its unique blend of authenticity and homeliness
While Plumber Manor may this month be celebrating its 50th anniversary as a restaurant, it has been in the family far longer. In fact, even when Thomas Hardy was living in nearby Sturminster Newton, it had already been the Prideaux-Brune family home for centuries, built by Charles Brune in the early 1600s.
Current owner Richard inherited Plumber (pronounced with the ‘b’) when he was 21.
‘It’s a young age to have a place like this. I was farming at the time, I wasn’t even married – not quite anyway. My parents had gone to the Isle of Man, and it just became patently obvious that the pig farming I was doing, although great fun, was not going to be sufficiently profitable to pay for the upkeep of the house.
‘Alison and I were married in 71, and we were friendly with a chap down in Devon who had a similar place. It was quite unusual; very un-hotel-y, you know, rather homely. We stayed with him a couple of times, and he said: “you should have a go, I think you’d be good at it”.
‘We umm-ed and aaaah-ed about it, but he came and stayed with us and gave us lots of advice. Then we got a job in Leamington Spa at a hotel to see if we could put up with … the change of hours more than the actual work. It’s completely different from farming, where you’re finished at seven every night. With this, you’re just starting! We came home and just decided to go for it.’
‘We opened Plumber in ‘73,’ says Alison. ‘It was exactly ten days after Katherine was born! Then a year later Susie came along. I used to feed them both behind the bar, popping them into a Moses basket while I was working. I was still breastfeeding, so it was five minutes into the basket to take an order, then back for a five minute feed … Susie actually arrived nearly a month early, so for a time I had two children under the age of one.’
‘We didn’t have a big staff,’ says Richard. ‘My brother Brian was doing the cooking and we had to have some staff, of course. We couldn’t manage everything ourselves, but in those days it was mostly just us.’
‘We did split jobs’ says Alison ‘Richard was in the office. I did the garden. But mostly we just all mucked in. In those days I did the early morning teas. If I had a small child that had just been fed, I took the teas round wearing a dressing gown. And no one thought anything of it!’
‘Things were different,’ agrees Richard. ‘I haven’t seen one single guest that I can remember in the last ten years come down to breakfast in a dressing gown. Years gone by it wasn’t necessarily normal, but you really wouldn’t have remarked upon it.
‘Mind you, people don’t dress for dinner anymore. I think that’s a sad thing. There used to be a formality; if you went out, you went out with a jacket and a tie. You don’t do that anymore.’
Alison added: ‘you have been known to say “Can I lend you a pair of trousers?” to the odd person who has turned up in a pair of shorts!’
‘We’ve always regarded ourselves as a restaurant with bedrooms,’ says Richard. ‘We were lucky enough to get into the Michelin Guide, which was quite important in those days. And people looked for a restaurant et chambres, because they didn’t have the same kudos, the same expense or the same formality. We knew they were very much sought after by our target customers. And it fitted us well – I’ve never thought of ourselves as a hotel, we don’t really give hotel service. We do our dinners. We do our Sunday lunch. We do parties. But we don’t have people having hot drinks and sandwiches and the like during the day. We don’t work like that; but you would be surprised if a hotel wasn’t doing that.
‘People ask why we don’t do lunch, and I’ll tell you exactly why. I’m paying two chefs at the moment. I don’t want to pay another chef just to fart around and do the odd lunch, that people usually want for next to nothing, pretty much. You must be joking! So we’ve never changed the format.
’The restaurant, to start with, was more important than the rooms, because we only had six bedrooms. We didn’t go in for a big advertising campaign, I don’t think we did anything much at all! We were mentioned in a couple of guide books before we started, which did us no harm, and we just rubbed along on word of mouth. But the restaurant, by end of year one, was full every Saturday night. We’ve been in the Good Food Guide every year for more than 40 years now.
Not for the toffs
‘The one thing that people do like is the fact that they all get treated the same. You’d be amazed, years ago, how many people thought Plumber was “for the toffs”, and “far too smart” for the likes of them. ‘Now, thankfully, everyone feels comfortable. It was very different when we opened – and it’s good things have changed. I remember one gruff military chap, he wasn’t a bad old stick really, who said: “I do hope you’ll keep the standards here old boy. The day you let ’em take their jackets off is the day you’ll be finished.” That was the attitude back then.
‘But our repeat customers are the best commendation we can get. Christmas is almost the same crew every year – they greet us like we’re family, and each other too, which is lovely; they’ve got to know each other because they’ve been coming here so long.’
Plumber Manor has been a popular destination since it opened, but over the years it’s particularly become known locally as the place for special occasions. Birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, new jobs … so many are marked by a meal at Plumber.
‘Our local support means so much – and it’s reciprocated. Everything we do is sourced locally where at all possible. Not just the food in the restaurant, either. Some years ago, we needed to change all the room televisions; we needed 20. Someone told me I’d get a deal online, but I said no, I’m going to buy them from Marsh’s. They tried to tell me it’d be far too expensive, but I bet I didn’t pay a tenner a telly more than anywhere else. Marsh’s have always looked after the local people. Harts is another great local business. We will always support the local businesses any time we can. I think that’s what it’s all about. A strong local market means that the chances are you’re going to survive when things are a bit tricky. You’ve got that support, and they’ll look after you in return.’
There must have been some tough patches along the way?
‘Possibly the most challenging was when the interest rates went up to 15 per cent in the early 90s. We were heavily borrowed, having extended the barn, and all of a sudden things dried up. Business went down as we were forced into these astronomical rates of interest. That was a very tricky time.’
The original six bedrooms in the main house were added to over the years by converting barns in the courtyard to create ten more rooms. I’m curious to know how much Plumber has changed since 1973?
‘There’s something which is said to me virtually every day,’ says Richard. ‘It’s always “Plumber just doesn’t change, it’s marvellous”. It’s the atmosphere, I think. You know, you can’t change a place like this unless you completely change the ethos.’
‘Although we have got rid of the avocado baths,’ adds Alison. ‘We had to work on that. Richard was not easily persuaded.’
‘Listen, I couldn’t give a stuff what colour the bath is as long as the water is hot. But what I didn’t like was having to pay for the replacements. That was the long and the short of it!’
Oldest daughter Katherine has overseen refurbishments in recent years, sympathetically and gently updating and refreshing, but not essentially changing things (she was thrilled when they finally removed the tired floral carpet in the dining room and discovered the original wooden flooring underneath. Not only was it utterly beautiful, it was a much cheaper option. Richard was thrilled!).
The Plumber welcome is one of genuine warmth – you get the feeling that Richard and Alison remember every single guest who has stayed with them in the last 50 years. Ultimately, Plumber remains a home at its heart, a fact that makes Alison happy:
‘The house is still the nucleus of the family. We all gravitate back here. One of our daughters has a birthday party here on Saturday. All the family are coming, grandchildren too. And we’ve got a big 50th the week after that, with all the family – and I do mean everyone. They all come here, because Plumber is where we celebrate, too.’