A sight for sore eyes – and feet – on savage coast
Martin Hesp continues his series on Westcountry inns with a trip to Morwenstow, Cornwall.
There was a time when visitors to Morwenstow on Cornwall's savage north coast would rather risk hypothermia than enter the portals of the Bush Inn – but that was in the days when the Wreckers who drank in the place were more likely to slit a wrecked mariner's throat than offer him a warming sup or bite to eat.
Times have changed – visitors flock to the place now – but this vast historic transformation isn't the only thing that makes the story of this pub special.
A major factor in very recent times is that the people who have turned this remote pub around are dairy farmers. Rob and Edwina Tape farm 260 organic acres just up the road from the inn that sits so snugly at Cross Town, part of one of the Westcountry's most windswept parishes.
More than once in this newspaper's hikes pages I have said that this is where you really can go if you need to take a walk on the wild side – and a great many people do just that nowadays. The savage Wrecker's Coast that was the graveyard of so many stricken sailors down the centuries between Hartland Point and Bude is where you can go to remind yourself that not everything in the modern world is centrally heated, lined with fitted carpets, hermetically sealed and cosy.
But when people are reminding themselves of this most satisfying fact, they might well need a little inner satisfying and creature-comfort reassurance. The ancient Bush Inn is there to supply such succour, just like it has been for a thousand years. Although, as I say, it wasn't always quite so welcoming.
Rob Tape realised the potential draw of the pub when he watched as the place grew just a little bit weary back in the days when it was run by an elderly couple...
"Beryl and Jim had owned it for 41 years – it was always a beautiful pub in a stunning location, but in the latter years she was pushing 80 and there was no restaurant, children weren't allowed in – all the things you'd associate with a pub 40 years ago," he told Otter Brewery owner Patrick McCaig and I when we visited recently.
Otter Brewery and the Western Morning News are on a joint mission to both stimulate and inspire a renaissance in Westcountry pub-going in these times when so many inns are calling last orders forever – and also find out what makes certain successful hostelries tick. I've been calling in at the Bush every now and again for some 30 years, and so have seen it evolve from a snug but forlorn, often closed, place into a thriving business.
So let's allow Rob to tell the tale of what happened after he and his wife bought the old smuggler's inn eight years ago...
"We took on a rather large mortgage and thought we could probably come in, have it for four years, turn it around, and make £250,000. That was it. That was the deal. Use it to get rid of the debt on the farm," said Rob, who is the very personification of down-to-earth frankness.
"In those days we went to the bank manager and, with absolutely zero experience in the pub world, we borrowed £750,000. Without any quibbles and cash flows, he came back to us on the Monday and that was it.
"I've always liked pubs and my missus, Edwina, likes pubs – so we just bought it," Rob went on. "We thought – it can't be that difficult, can it? Loads of people do it. You don't have to be very clever – you have to be organised and methodical. You have to have good staff.
"The pub had always been wonderful, but there was no food after 2pm – there was either Beryl's stew, then, when that ran out, Beryl's soup – and after that there was a microwaved pasty. I'm not knocking it – that was the Bush Inn. Two hours lunchtime, that was it – no kids, no evening meals, closed on a Monday...
"We took it on when they had figures of less than £40,000 net turnover (per annum) and within three years we'd taken it to £525,000 net. And there was nothing clever about doing that," insisted Rob. "We just opened the door – we served food and beer all day, every day – and we welcomed everyone. We had the restaurant built and we added more space."
Actually, the green-oak extension that houses the restaurant is worthy of special mention.
Whereas the rest of the pub is suitably snug, ancient and dark – this area has vast windows which afford fabulous sweeping views of the Tidna Valley, at the end of which rumbles and roars the restless, mariner-defying ocean.
"So... then all was good," Rob continued. "Obviously it's been challenging work-wise – we have four children and it's not always been easy. But we converted a flat upstairs as a live-in place for staff and we put four B&B rooms in – then there was another room above the outside gents' which was an old community hall which had become redundant. That was turned into a holiday let and potential owner's house.
"As it all developed, my time became a bit more pressured – there wasn't enough hours in the day. Mother [Val] was helping with the milking – and she is still here as a key person. My time was – and still is – spent 60% on the farm and 40% here. That's how it's panned out.
"We took the annual turnover to £596,000 net in four and a half years and then we thought we'd sell it. But, stupidly, because everything had gone to plan, we thought: what a shame not to use all this pub experience we'd gained. A pub came on the market south of Bude, so we purchased the lease on that – and it's been a bit of nightmare until this year. It was run in to the ground and it takes time to turn things around.
"That would have been fine – if I'd been able to spend a day and half down there – but I didn't. The recession came along and loads of people wanted to buy the Bush, but no-one had the money to actually do it.
"That has been challenging, alongside trying to get another pub up and running. Plus we've had the farm as well. Although it has settled down now – last year was the worst year. So here we put in our fourth B&B room and built the 'hideaway' over there. It's a one-bedroom, one-bathroom place for two people and their dogs to come along and walk the coast path and have a lovely, romantic time. So that's all helped.
"And the pub, this year, has gone back to flying..." Rob concluded.
At this point Patrick joined the conversation. As managing director of one of the most successful breweries in the region, he knows a thing or two about pubs and he told Rob: "This is fascinating – I know a lot of farmers who have gone in to pub ownership because they live in a community and they love going into the pub.
"But I don't know anyone quite like you who has bought a pub..." he added, genuinely impressed by Rob's determination and drive. "Most of them have gone in with a dream and they've found they can't do both things – and they sell up. It is too challenging running a farm and pub."
Rob said he could understand that, but that at least the Bush's amazing location helped...
"The Reverend Hawker – he's the big thing around here. He was our mad eccentric vicar born a couple hundred years ago," grinned Rob. "He wrote the Cornish Anthem and was vicar for 40 years. He built Hawker's Hut out there on the cliff, out of timbers from ships that had been wrecked along the coastline.
"He used to haul up the dead and bury them in the churchyard – and for some reason he built a hut out there where he could smoke opium with his pet pig."
"And write sermons!" declared mum Val, who'd joined us in the old bar at the Bush and who obviously thought the Rev Hawker deserved a bit more respect than her son was showing.
"There's a theory recently that he was actually a Wrecker," Rob shrugged. "They did it by swinging a lamp to fool sailors that there were other boats moored up – but that's just a theory.
"Anyway, he's a massive draw and there's a circular walk which is all about him.
"If you park your car here, walk down to the church, on out to the coast, turn left past Hawker's Hut, and down into the Tidna valley – then turn left and come inland – you come up to the Bush Inn garden, where hopefully you will have a pint and a steak.
"And of course there's the South West Coast Path – and that really is a massive thing. There's more people walking nowadays – even in winter. People walk from Hartland to the Bush Inn, and then they walk to Bude. But there's always room for more."
Val commented: "We used to get a few walkers in winter years ago – but not many. Things have changed now – people just want to come for one or two nights and get away, whereas they used to do B&B for a week."
The draw of a location for visitors isn't something that always brings good news to the local community though.
"Holiday home-ownership – it's a big issue Westcountry-wide – and really is here and all along the coast," said Rob. "In Morwenstow, for instance, the shop has closed in the past 12 months, the post office is now open only two afternoons a week. There's probably a good argument for setting up a shop down here.
"As far as Cross Town goes, there are 10 houses here and five are holiday homes. Not even holiday lets. That means many are only used three weeks of the year. The only reason the school keeps going is because of GCHQ over there," he said, referring to the compound full of giant satellite dishes which dominates the hilltop scene in these parts and is known by many as the "spy-station".
If the WMN told you more about that, we'd have to kill you... Which is undoubtedly what a man called Cruel Coppinger would have done, had you been asking too many questions in the Bush Inn 220 years ago. He was the sole survivor of a Danish ship which wrecked at ironically named Welcombe Mouth in 1792 – and he happened to be even more ruthless and sadistic than the local Wreckers.
Cruel Coppinger's bloodthirsty deeds were the subject of one of Hawker's poems after mysteriously disappearing one misty night from nearby Marsland Mouth when chased by customs officers...
Will you hear of Cruel Coppinger
He came from a foreign land;
He was brought to us by the salt
He was carried away by the wind!
Enjoy several pints in the Bush Inn on a dark and windy night and you might still hear Cruel Coppinger now, wailing his woeful tale out along England's most savage sea coast...
To find out more about the Bush Inn visit bushinn-morwenstow.co.uk and click the 'History of the Bush Inn' link. For Otter Brewery, visit otterbrewery.com.