Sweffling White Horse - A Wonderfully Unique Suffolk Pub
With fortunate synchronicity, I find myself interviewing Maz and Mark in the run up to the tenth anniversary of the day that they bought the Sweffling White Horse at auction. Supping a pint of Green Jack's Red Herring, as we sit in the campsite at the back of the pub, I listen to Maz tell the story of how they came to be here.
"We had both been in office jobs and wanted to do something different. We were looking for somewhere we could open a campsite, a property with enough space, in the right kind of location, natural screening, good access, with a building that could be our home, and close to a good pub. Most of the properties we were looking at were in Wales, Scotland and Lincolnshire; we loved Suffolk, but we didn't think we could afford it. Then we saw the particulars of the 'former pub', the Sweffling White Horse. The estate agent really lured us here under false pretences. If we'd known it was a pub, we wouldn't even have come to have a look at it.
"It really was a perfect site; it was just such a shame that it was a pub. The estate agent suggested that it wouldn't be too difficult to get permission for a change of use, as the pub had been closed for five years. When we investigated this with the council though, we were told that it certainly wouldn't be easy, and might not be possible at all. We were really disheartened at this point, as we went back to our camper for the night.
"Then we spent about two hours talking it over - It would be perfect if it wasn't a pub - It's such a shame - Could we reopen the pub? - Maybe we could - Let's do it. We basically talked ourselves in to it. Even then though, we still thought that it was a pipe dream. It was up for auction and we just didn't know who else would be bidding, or what price it would go for in the end."
|From pipe dream to reality - Photos of Alde Garden|
The auction itself took place on 3rd June 2008, and Maz and Mark won the property, but that was far from the end of the story.
"We had a mortgage agreed in principle with the bank, so we asked them if they needed to survey the property before the auction. They said no; they would deal with that if we won it. Then, when we went back to them after the auction, they said that they wouldn't lend us the money because it was a pub. I spent a whole day going to every single bank on the high street and they all said the same thing!
"Luckily we knew someone who was a mortgage advisor. He managed to fix us up with a bridging loan to start with, and then a mortgage. I don't know what we would have done without him."
It wasn't until September 2008 that Maz and Mark were actually able to move in. At this stage the garden, now their campsite - Alde Garden, was totally overgrown, and the pub itself was in quite a bad state of disrepair. While Mark was still working in an office job in nearby Woodbridge, they started to work on preparing the campsite, which finally opened in June 2010. It took until 23rd December 2011 before they were able to open the pub itself.
If I wanted to sum up the White Horse in a word, and also Maz and Mark for that matter, the word would have to be quirky! If there is a stereotype of the typical village publican, then Maz and Mark are probably pretty much the polar opposite. The pub itself is only open from Friday to Monday, apart from the odd special occasion. However, if it says it will be open you can rest assured that it will be open.
"We’ve had the experience of cycling to a pub only to find it closed when we get there, and then having to cycle all the way home. We will NEVER close early," says Maz, "even if we are sitting in the pub by ourselves. You never know when someone might turn up and we would never want to disappoint a customer."
|A rare glimpse into the taproom|
The pub always serves three local cask ales, a real cider, a range of bottled beers, soft drinks and spirits, which are locally sourced wherever possible. The beer and cider are all served on gravity from a taproom. In fact the White Horse is one of only about ten pubs in the country that doesn't have a bar. It is like stepping back in time to the days when an ale house was just a regular house that served ale. Although it is very much a drinkers’ pub, delicious local handmade food is served as well; around 70% of produce sold in the pub is from East Anglia.
The bar had actually been taken out by the previous owners, perhaps in anticipation of getting permission for change of use to a domestic dwelling. As it happened, this suited Maz and Mark's vision for the pub quite well, and so it is still outside waiting to see what might happen to it next. Although I have seen old photos of the pub with the bar, it is difficult to imagine how it fitted in as it is quite a small space. There is a small front 'bar' room, and then a lounge off to the side, with easy movement between the two. Both rooms are liberally adorned with odd nick nacks, including 'Where's Roman?'* masks, and a variety of games. With no bar a first time visitor might easily be confused as to who is staff and who is a customer. Actually, most of the small team of bar staff are also regular customers and this contributes to the close community feel of the pub.
Despite being quite a cosy little pub, Maz and Mark manage to squeeze musicians in on a frequent basis. The pub is always busy on those evenings, when people come from a little further afield. During the summer there are often visitors, sometimes from the campsite at the back, but more often from another nearby campsite. Throughout the year, the pub is well used by people in Sweffling, and the neighbouring villages.
|Maz and Mark receive an award from Nigel Smith, Ipswich and East Suffolk CAMRA|
With a regularly changing range of well-kept beers (over 500 beers and ciders from small, independent East Anglian brewers), and it's welcoming atmosphere, it is no surprise that The White Horse has won a number of awards. In 2015 it was East Anglian Pub of the Year, making it one of the top 16 pubs in the country! Since then it has also been Ipswich and East Suffolk Pub of the Year in 2016 and 2017. Such is its reputation, that no less than Roger Protz had been intending to stay at the pub in order to write a feature on it. Sadly, personal circumstances meant that he had to cancel, giving me the opportunity to beat Roger Protz to a world exclusive - how many beer bloggers can say that? Hopefully, his visit will be rearranged; in which case, I will happily sign a printout of this blog for him, and maybe he will sign one of his books for me!
Looking to the future Maz and Mark have all sorts of plans, although they like to play their cards close to their chests. One thing that they were willing to divulge is the possibility of an autumn beer festival at the end of the campsite season. Hopefully they will be able to put that together, as I'm sure they will have an excellent beer selection, and that it would be well supported.
If you haven't yet had the pleasure of experiencing the Sweffling White Horse, then I can wholeheartedly recommend it if you are ever near this corner of Suffolk.
Maz and Mark have been known to stand a jug of ale and a plate of sausage rolls for performing morris dancers, including myself; also I didn't pay for the pint that I drank during the interview. Perhaps more significantly, I have to say that I consider them both to be friends. In defence of my impartiality, and the validity of this piece of writing, I have to say that they only became friends because they run a great pub. I am unashamedly a fan of the Sweffling White Horse, but that is only because of its merits.
|A warm welcome awaits from Maz and Mark (photo - Andy Greenacre)|