With 400 years of history within its walls,Hardy’s Pure Drop Inn – The Crown at Marnhull – would have a few tales to tell. Rachael Rowe reports
If walls could talk, the Crown Inn at Marnhull would reveal more than 400 years of history. Walking into the bar, which dates from the 16th century, feels like a step back in time. And yet this business is very much focused on the future.
In the Hardy Room, I met operations manager Ryan Proudley and directors Gemma Proudley and Eric Montgomery (known as Monty).
Ryan and Gemma recently got married – the Crown was shut for three days so the entire team could celebrate.
‘I left the Royal Marines after several years.’ says Monty. ‘I was working in bars in Bristol but wanted to set something else up.’
‘I used to work with Monty in Bristol,’ adds Gemma. ‘I started out at 17.’
‘We decided to do something together.’ says Monty. ‘We looked at a lot of pubs but they weren’t quite right. Then, in 2015 we found The Crown through Hall & Woodhouse.’
‘As a bit of context, when we found this pub it had been through 12 landlords in 10 years. It had not been looked after,’ says Gemma. ‘But we saw the potential. We walked in and thought about all the things we could do with the place. And it was a nice village – everyone was really welcoming. We’ve been here eight years now.’
Monty is clearly a history buff, and is fascinated by the inn’s past. ‘The parts of the building under thatch date from the 1500s. It was once part of the estate of Henry VIII. Catherine Parr lived up the road at Nash Court Manor. Nearby St Gregory’s Church is older, 800 years, and was formerly Roman Catholic. There’s a priest hole in the bar area and it’s said there’s a tunnel leading to the church. ‘When we were renovating one area, we found a bill of sale for a tea clipper that ran aground in Poole – the beams throughout the building are from that ship. ‘We also found a stone engraved with the date 1725 in the more ‘modern’ part of the building! And then Thomas Hardy set Tess of the D’Urbervilles here – this is the Pure Drop Inn. So now we have a Hardy Room, with a replica desk and his books – we have really embraced that theme.’
Tell us about the team?
We have 32 staff. Some are front of house, some in the kitchen, and some are part time or seasonal. We think of them as Team Crown.
We make sure everyone has the corporate and front of house training and knows how to greet people. All these little things are very important. Everyone talks about Team Crown.
What flies off the menu?
‘Our cod and chips!’ Ryan answers immediately. ‘And also our pies. And the chalk stream trout, which comes from Hampshire.’
The team has just added a ‘Dorset shelf’ in the bar where local spirits are displayed. Monty agreed that he had learned a few things about their bar menu items too. ‘When we started out we were told people wouldn’t want cocktails because “it’s rural Dorset”. But we sell loads of cocktails! We’re also very pet friendly and sell doggie ice cream. When the rep talked to us about it, we all thought he was mad. But in fact our second most popular ice cream flavour is Marshwood’s Doggie Vanilla –just behind human vanilla!’
Team Crown is right at the heart of the community in Marnhull. ‘We provide the catering for Marnhull and Child Okeford lunch clubs once a month and we also look after the cricket teams,’ says Ryan.
‘On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays there’s usually a load of cricketers in the garden with a burger and pint. We do well on the cheesy chips, too!
‘During COVID, we just worked hard – we did loads of takeaways which were really popular. And volunteers in the village helped us with deliveries.
‘We also have bed and breakfast rooms which are used by local businesses – the rooms run at 90 per cent occupancy.’
And your biggest challenge?
‘The energy bills,’ Monty is swift to answer. ‘Rising prices are an issue, but energy costs are the worst. Our energy bill was £19k a year – it’s now £100k.
‘So we have looked at where we can cut back – we should have been doing a lot of that anyway. But we also have to look at how costs can be absorbed. We simply can’t pass everything on to the customer.
‘Another challenge is finding skilled staff.’ adds Ryan. ‘It isn’t really anything to do with Brexit – finding specialist skilled staff who want to come here to a rural village is hard. We’ve been lucky in that the staff we recruited have stayed.’
One of the ways that the Crown has attracted staff is to buy a house in the village so workers can live locally but still have their personal space.
What are you most proud of?
‘The journey we have been on and Team Crown. They are not just employees but friends.’
Fri and Sat – 12 to 11pm
Sun to Thu – 12 to 10pm
Mon to Sat 12-2:30pm and 5-9pm
Sundays 12-2:30pm and 5-8pm
FULL takeaway menu also available seven days a week during food service hours