In true rural style, husband and wife team, Peter and Lynda Hendrie are pulling out all the stops to make sure their community thrives.
Running an award-winning pub in the heart of Exmoor, they speak to Emily Ashworth about the challenges their village faces.
To the people who live in some of the most remote areas of Britain’s countryside, the local pub is a sanctuary of social interaction.
But to give you an idea of just how rural the The Exmoor White Horse Inn is, it is in ‘the geographical centre’ of the Exmoor National Park, which covers 692 square kilometres, says owner Lynda Hendrie.
As a second-generation hotelier, Lynda married husband Peter in 1981 and they made the decision to buy their own pub in Ilfracombe, making Lynda the youngest landlady in the UK at the time. Fast-forward eight years and the couple were looking for a better work- life balance and ‘more open spaces’ after welcoming three children.
Coming across the The Exmoor White Horse Inn, in Exford, the husband and wife team were attracted to its rich rural roots and the role it has played in the community since its establishment in 1592.
Lynda says: “We didn’t necessarily know the lineage of The White Horse at the time, but it was very built in to local culture.
“It was wound in to the immediate area and had ties with the Stag House opposite – a [longstanding] hunting house.
“There’s always been a tight community feel. When we first moved here the locals were outraged if we even tried to change the colour of the walls.
“It’s taken 30 years, but I think we’ve kind of integrated.”
But their success has always been in their dedication to the customers, and by looking for ways to support the community’s business and people. With 350 local inhabitants, the village itself has seen great change in not only how it operates, but in tourism too.
“When we moved here we had a local post office, a newsagent and a petrol station,” says Lynda.
“Now were down to one shop.
“The problem is that Exmoor is very rural, and the National Park doesn’t seem to have embraced economy. It manages the park and the farming aspects, but it doesn’t look at the businesses in the community itself.”
To try and rectify what Lynda and Peter see as an ongoing problem, they have fully immersed themselves into numerous projects which they hope will help to rebuild their village and encourage tourists. The couple are somewhat disheartened as they reveal that the numbers of visitors to the area has not risen in years.
“As time has gone on, we have tried to assist in supporting the local school’s renovation to build a new classroom, we subsidised the village green because its very beautiful and traditional, and have sponsored the local cricket club,” she says, most of which has also been self-funded by the couple by sheer passion for where they live.
Several years ago, the local hostel was deemed unviable having been a huge part of the community since 1962 and plans were formed to sell it off. But the couple bought it from the Youth Hostels Association, knowing its value to local custom.
“It allowed the village shop to remain viable because those staying in the hostel use the self-catering kitchen and buy local supplies from across the road,” Lynda says.
The couple pride themselves on their work ethic and staff retention, with 80 per cent of staff local, and some even third generation from in and around the area. Lynda goes on to admit that one of the chefs has been at the White Horse for 45 years and has his own theory on the demise of this classic countryside village.
“Our chef has lived here all of his life, but his perspective is an interesting one,” says Lynda.
“The demise of the village is down to cars. When he was a child, there was one car in the family and people would go in to the village shop and have a chat and the car would generally be for the father to get to work.
“At weekends, you would go out as family in the car.
“With the introduction of two cars into a family, the mother could go further afield to do the shopping and it completely makes sense.”
But she believes people are starting to crave that old-fashioned community sentiment, something which is still strong across rural Britain but is popping up in urban areas too, in the form of community run gardens or shops. “I think that’s going to be a new movement,” she says.
“Our success here has mainly been down to our able and loyal staff, and our guests come back because they know they get the same faces. But a lot of the shops across Exmoor Park are now community based.”
Over the years, the village has had its fair share of challenges, including the impact of foot-and-mouth. When the disease hit in 2001, Peter and Lynda took immediate action after seeing the devastating effect it had on their area, forming a campaign called Living Exmoor which saw support and grants go to farms and businesses that needed it the most.
“It literally stopped people coming and I have never seen the moors so quiet,” she says.
“We saw an immediate impact on the business and I was scared. “We lost three businesses within a 10-mile radius because of it.
“Living Exmoor was established to assist any ailing business, to promote Exmoor and raise awareness to linked groups, such as those in Cumbria and Dartmoor.
“I sat on the South West tourism board and campaigned to say ‘yes, it’s affecting farming specifically, but the fallout is much greater and will wipe out whole rural communities’.”
But the couple still face the challenge of trying to market themselves to the world, and as Lynda says, with the decline in paper advertising, they now must compete with the internet. And considering Exmoor is one of the least visited National Parks, it is difficult to move forward, especially as more holiday cottages pop up which do not always work in cooperation with the local amenities.
“It’s a high-priced area because it’s a beautiful location,” says Lynda.
“But holiday cottage owners need to have a sense of responsibility and try to get guests to use the local amenities or point them in the direction of local shops.
“I’m not above criticism. We have a holiday cottage and see people check in, and 10 minutes later a Tesco food van arrives.
“There are people who have bought holiday cottages down the road next to a local farmer who has always had a camping site, but are now complaining about the access.
“The farmer is now in a legal process where he must prove how long he’s been there.
“It has to be able to be a rural, agricultural business community within a beautiful space, and of course there should be no McDonalds or multi-storey carpark.
“People come to the village because of the community. But we’re not just a picture postcard, we need to be viable.”
The Exmoor White Horse Inn was recently crowned the South West winners in the pub category in the Countryside Alliance Awards. The judges said the Inn ‘plays an important part in promoting the area’, with ‘interests that support the local economy’, and is a ‘beacon of rural hospitality and enterprise.’
But figures from the Office for National Statistics also show that in the last decade, more than 11,000 pubs have closed in the UK, perhaps proving how vital it is to preserve establishments such as The Exmoor White Horse Inn.
That will not deter Lynda and Peter, though. There seems to be no end to the couple’s drive to help those around them. Their latest contributions include putting a defibrillator into the pub and moving the prescription service there too, after the village shop closed.
“We’ve always tried to fill the gap even though there’s not always economic value for our business,” says Lynda.
“We’re happy to do it because it makes our pub a community hub.”