Pub landlords hit by 80% rise in bills - after ‘atrocious’ two years

Helen and Ivan Sheldrake, licensees of The Walnut Tree in Stowmarket

Helen Sheldrake with husband Ivan Sheldrake at the Walnut Tree in Stowmarket, says pubs face huge rises in costs - Credit: Helen Sheldrake

Crippling costs combined with the effects of the pandemic have made running a pub hugely challenging, says a Suffolk landlady.

New licensees Helen and Ivan Sheldrake couldn’t have envisaged a worse start after taking over a pub in Stowmarket the year before the pandemic struck.

They have run Admiral Taverns pub The Walnut Tree pub in Stowmarket for the past three years – but it’s really only been open for half of that time because of the pandemic, says Helen.

Luckily, Ivan is a job systems architect by profession, organising IT systems in warehousing, and it’s his day job that has helped keep them afloat.

Financially, it has been a huge strain. They did receive some government money - but even when the pub was closed there were bills to pay - a reduced rent and National Insurance and pensions for staff among them. They are not out of the woods yet – and now they are facing huge increases in their bills which have gone by almost 80%, Helen estimates. “The electricity is just astronomical,” she adds.

“If my husband hadn’t had another job, we wouldn’t have survived,” she says. “It has been atrocious and we only just thought we had got back on our feet when the price rises on gas and electricity have come along. It’s still month-to-month.”

Since lockdown, the town has been three pubs down for a variety of reasons. But measures such as pavement licences have been a help for the trade, she says.

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“There are lots of reasons why pubs are in decline not least because people don’t use them like they used to,” adds Helen.

The Sheldrakes had a courtyard built in July 2021 which was a game-changer and helped to offset some of the damaging effects to their business caused by the pandemic. As a wet-led pub it was particularly hard-hit by coronavirus restrictions.

“We were outside-only for a while. The fact we had built a pergola with a roof meant it didn’t matter what the weather was because it was sheltered and away from the wind. Obviously we could only have 30 people spaced out but that definitely kept us in the game,” says Helen.

Table service has also worked out as more efficient for them, she adds.

The couple’s dream was create a cosy oasis away from TV sets and other distractions so that customers could socialise and chat. On Monday nights they run a popular pub quiz and on Sunday afternoons, customers can bring in their own records to play. Their choice to run a pub was about lifestyle, she explains.

“It’s always been a difficult choice because it’s all-consuming,” she says.

“You live it and breathe it whether you just work there or whether you manage or own it. It’s a very different lifestyle choice – you have to want to do it anyway. I think people now are very careful about where they want to spend their money and what they want to spend it on.”

Despite the setbacks they are staying positive, she says.

“For us because of the kind of pub we are you are not coming to watch telly or play pool – you are coming to meet your mates,” she says.

“I think mostly we are positive, but every now and then you just get a reality slap.”