A community effort to buy a north Suffolk pub at risk of being converted into a home has succeeded.

Members of community farm group Ikigai Farm Ltd or iFarm have raised the necessary match-funding needed to buy the freehold on the White Horse at Thelnetham.

The group leased the empty village pub two years ago after mounting a campaign to save it from being lost.

East Anglian Daily Times: Now it has triggered its Option to Purchase the property near Diss, paid the deposit - and expects to have completed the transaction and all the conveyancing by Thursday, February 29.

The next step is to raise additional funds so that it can renovate the premises, retrofit it and install renewable energy on site.

Already the pub - supported by volunteers - is a hive of activity - hosting Meet Up Mondays with free coffee and cake to try to bring the older rural community together and reduce social isolation.

East Anglian Daily Times: It also runs live music events, open mic nights and various community welfare activities - including a climate action group.

The community farm group started out by buying 10 acres of farmland at Blo' Norton - a 15-minute walk from the pub and just over the border in Norfolk - to create a community farm.

Susan Alps - a cashier at Stanton Garage - was co-owner of the land which eventually became the starting point for the iFarm venture. She welcomed the bid to buy the pub which will now provide a focal point for the farm's community work.

"We are losing the community and it's one of those things as a single person I couldn't do much about it but as a group we can - everyone benefits," she said.

East Anglian Daily Times: Joolz Thompson is chairman of iFarm, and John Grayling is chairman of the pub management committee. Thomas Hoepfner has taken on the treasurer role and they are supported by a host of volunteers - both on the farm and in the pub.

"We came together as a group of friends in 2019 to really think about how we apply our efforts to reducing social isolation and loneliness in the community," explained Joolz.

"We really wanted to look at a piece of land for horticultural activities  - a bit of community agriculture then (food) production, conservation and education on the environment.

"We had always imagined that piece of land we had got would have some facilities."

East Anglian Daily Times: Originally, they wanted a building on site so that they could hold gatherings, play music and promote what they did - but then by chance came across the perfect place not far from the farm.

Joolz - who was born in East Harling and grew up in Hopton near Thelnetham - learnt to play pool at The White Horse in his youth. Members of his family were regulars.

The traditional pub has been going for about 200 years - although some timbers may date back further to the 15th or 16th century.

After purchasing the land for the farm, the group discovered the pub had closed down. Not only that, but there were numerous applications to turn it into a home and they feared it was only a matter of time before it was lost to the community.

East Anglian Daily Times: "It was shut for three years," explained Joolz. "We hadn't particularly had our eye on it because I had been up in Newcastle for five years and really came back to my spiritual home post-pandemic.

"We were digging potatoes on the farm and we wanted a pint. So we came to the White Horse and it was closed and we discovered it had been closed throughout the pandemic.

"I turned to the four people in the car who were all volunteers and I said: 'Shall we buy it because we are in the business of starting community assets - it suits our purpose?'"

So they began their quest to buy the pub and secure it as a community asset - but they have faced many challenges.

"We put in an offer to buy it on the day - it had a market price of £245k. On the same day a private buyer put in an offer of £30k over the asking price.

"We didn't have deep pockets so at that stage we had almost lost hope."

East Anglian Daily Times: However, Joolz was put in touch with Mark Dodds of the People's Pub Partnership - a campaign to save community pubs.

"He explained what an Asset of Community Value (ACV) was," said Joolz. They duly applied, and their ACV nomination was granted by West Suffolk District Council in 2020 - giving them a pause and some protection for the pub to prevent it being turned into a domestic residence.

The road to ownership was fraught with complexity and has taken much determination and many hours from volunteers at the Community Benefit Society (CBS) they formed.

They needed to show evidence of the breadth of support for it from groups and individuals - and they needed to talk to the vendor to work out a way forward.

However, once they got into talks, the vendor was "very supportive" of what they were doing, said Joolz.

East Anglian Daily Times: "We had about an eight month period of negotiations during which we had community meetings and had to be socially distanced - we have got pictures of us meeting outside because we didn't have the keys and we were all 2m apart," he explained.

They had to raise £15k a year for the lease - and fund stock and equipment such as a new cellar cooler costing £2, 500.

They started in 2020 with 15 shareholders and by the start of 2024 that number had grown to 42. By the end of the process they expect the number arise again to around 100.

Towards the end of last year, iFarm scooped a £298,800 grant from the government's Community Ownership Fund to help buy, renovate and restore the pub.

However, they still needed to raise £60k to trigger the grant and buy the pub in only a short period of time. Locals backed the fundraising effort buying shares ranging from £50 to £6k.

Having secured the leasehold, they reopened the pub on March 18, 2022, fully staffed by volunteers - having got the keys to the premises on March 2. They have been steadily increasing turnover and profit - turning the pub into a viable business.

"Really I have been so impressed and encouraged by how the community has held together," said Joolz.

There is an army of volunteers that have helped make the project a success. They include Sharon Riches who works in adult social care and came up with the idea of launching Meet-up Mondays.  

Brian Gibb - who is originally from Dundee and has a decade of experience in land management - moved down to be part of the iFarm venture as work on the land began.

"We have got a deep connection with our farming community. As a lad, I grew up on a smallholding in Hopton and everything was ploughed and harrowed by hand with a Percheron (heavy horse)," said Joolz.

Thomas - the son of a vicar from Hamburg - is a director of a company called Bright Forest Ltd which specialises in sustainable building. He lives in London but lodges with a family in Thelnetham from where he helps out at the fledgling community venture.

"It's lovely," he said."It's the group dynamics which is interesting to experience - how people are getting on with each other."

Lara Lewington, who previously lived in Brighton, has also become involved. "I'm proud to be part of the team. It has been really interesting seeing how we can make this available to future generations," she said.

At the moment rental income for the three rooms at the pub helps "float the boat" financially by effectively paying for the tenancy.  

Three volunteers including Joolz - who works as a consultant with Suffolk Wildlife and Farming Advisory Group (FWAG) - are living there for now.

But they plan to renovate the rooms and create bed and breakfast accommodation which will help with their residential courses on subjects including nature, crafts and building with hempcrete.

They also want to install renewable energy and create "the greenest pub in Suffolk" as part of the "Greenest County" campaign.

The group plans to grow its own fresh fruit and vegetables on the farm, brew its own ale - and even generate enough green energy to supply homes.