There’s something a bit magical about the Spotted Calf café – the small but perfectly formed off-spring of the Spotted Cow pub at Holbrook.
It’s not just the quality of the coffee – roasted to perfection in the Derbyshire Peaks – or the tanginess of the home-made lemon polenta cake. It’s the cosy, welcoming nature of the place itself which, because it is run by the community for the community, represents everything good about village life.
Even on a bitterly cold winter’s morning, the cafe is a magnet for hikers, cyclists, villagers and visitors alike chatting over bacon butties and thick slices of plum bread.
If you should tire of eating home-baked panini bread oozing with melted cheese, you can always run next-door to the pub for home-made fish fingers and a pile of chips. The ‘Cow & Calf’ also cater for vegans, vegetarians, people with gluten intolerances and – since the addition of the post office with its banking service – those in need of a bit more cash to pay for another pint of hand-pumped ale. But the good news is that you can slurp, sup and snack away to your heart’s content because – as the Cow & Calf are owned by 225 residents (and counting) – you feel like you are doing your bit for the community.
It’s no surprise to find journalists and TV crews have also been drawn to the pub-cum-cafe since the grand re-opening in July 2017. In fact, during my visit, a lady rushes in clutching a cutting from the financial pages of a national newspaper about ‘how to save your local’ citing the Cow & Calf as the blueprint.
Not that anyone needs reminding of this fight. Most residents can still recall where they were when they discovered planning permission was being sought to knock down large parts of the historic building to build eight properties. The pub itself, which had been closed for more than two years, would also become a house.
“It caused a lot of upset as the pub has been at the heart of the village for so long. The census shows a farmer and beer retailer living here in the 1840s,” explains Stephanie Limb, a former teacher who is now affectionately known as ‘the lady who saved the pub’.
“My husband Christian and I moved here because of amenities like the pub. When I saw an application for planning permission on a lamppost, I was angry. I felt we should do something and talking to a councillor who said opposing the application was ‘a bit late now’ made me more determined.”
Her co-worker Tracy Beardmore agrees. “I also felt really angry as the pub used to be the heart of the village,” she says.
“I grew-up here and my mum Penny worked in the pub for forty years. It used to be very family oriented and the place where we’d get together to celebrate bonfire fire night and New Year’s Eve. Losing the Spotted Cow would have been like losing part of my childhood.”
Over a cup of coffee, Stephanie and Tracy describe how this ‘anger’ galvanised the village into action. “I spoke to a member of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and was advised to declare the pub an Asset of Community Value, a status which allowed us six months for the residents to raise money to buy it,” explains Stephanie.
“I also went to visit a community-owned pub called the Angler’s Rest in Bamford and they suggested talking to the Plunkett Foundation, a charity which supports rural communities. Their advisor not only helped with the practicalities like applying for a grant and setting up the community share offer, but she was the one who kept on telling us to ‘never give up’.”
Tracy’s abiding memory of this time is attending the Amber Valley District Council which met to discuss change of use for the pub in November 2016.
“We were all just waiting and waiting – I think we were the last item on the list,” she recalls. “It didn’t look good when a councillor said pubs close all the time and that we should ‘get over it’. Others were more supportive and one said we deserved a chance as ‘we’ve all got to have a bit of hope’.”
In the event, the application was refused and the villagers faced the unenviable task of finding the best part of £500,000 by March 2017. Undaunted, they launched a crowdfunding campaign in January 2017 with the intention of selling shares in the pub with a minimum investment of £250.
“We sent out the questionnaire to see if there was an appetite to save the pub as the Holly Bush and Dead Poets Inns are both nearby,” recalls Stephanie.
“The overwhelming response was the Spotted Cow should remain a pub but become more family friendly and provide a hub for the community. Knowing so many people were behind it gave us all confidence but I didn’t believe we’d do it until the keys were in our hands.”
Incredibly, the villagers raised a massive £193,000 within four months. This was matched by a further £100,000 grant from a social investment fund. By April 2017, when the original owner decided to retain the top of the car park to build three houses, the villagers were in a position to secure the pub for £275,000.
But, getting the keys was only half the battle. The community had been awarded a loan towards the costs of the pub’s refurbishment, but the majority of the hard graft had to be done by an army of volunteers wielding spades, paint brushes and brooms.
“We had to use experts for the job to be signed off by the council. Other than that, we relied on a wealth of talented people from in and around the village,” explains Stephanie.
“People have asked since how we did it and my top tip would be ‘work with what you have’. We didn’t have all the skills we needed but everyone got stuck in.”
For Stephanie – and many others – it meant personal sacrifices. “I was running an after-school club and had to give it up because – along with my youngest son Sid (five) – I was at the pub every day,” says Stephanie, who is also mum to Ted (nine).
“Sid loved helping at the pub so much he didn’t want to go back to pre-school.”
By July 2017, the Cow & Calf was officially open for business. While the pub was put into the hands of seasoned licensees Cheryl and Paul Brew, the other employees – including 10 paid members of staff – were recruited from the locality.
Having spent a morning in both the pubs and café – in the interests of research you understand – I can personally testify to the willingness of everyone to go that extra mile. It can be seen in all the little things like the ‘muddy wellies and dogs welcome sign’ and the huge effort put into every event from the children’s parties to the recently resurrected ‘Damson Sunday’; a weekend celebrating all the things – vodka, jam, pies – made from the fruit once planted to provide dye for Holbrook’s long-lost textile industry.
“We host a lot of events because it’s a community pub,” explains landlady Cheryl. “We have worked in other pubs and they’re all unique. In Holbrook, our role is to give something back to the people who supported us.”
According to Paul, one way to do this is to support local micro-breweries like Amber Ales of Ambergate. “Although I won’t stock anything I wouldn’t drink myself,” says Paul proudly, a stipulation which has helped the pub gain a coveted place in the Good Beer Guide 2019. “We want to be the hub where everyone feels welcome.”
A desire to please the community also explains the existence of the cafe. When the village was polled, 81 per cent were in favour of creating a separate cafe in part of the pub’s former kitchen and an old storeroom.
“The villagers wanted a day-time cafe away from the pub so we applied for Lottery funding,” says Stephanie, who now volunteers at the café she helped to create, while studying for a master’s degree. “The overwhelming feed-back was that it had to be clean and modern – and serve bacon sandwiches.”
In the event, it offers all that – and more. The cafe boasts a well-honed menu featuring home-baked cakes, soup, jacket potatoes and those wonderful paninis made by Holbrook’s very own star baker Evgeniia Zhigacheva.
“Evgeniia was spotted by the local Womens’ Institute so that tells you how good she is – she even makes teacakes,” says Stephanie. “We always try to support the local economy. Our meat comes from Owen Taylor Butchers of Leabrooks, milk from The Duffield Dairy, coffee from Peak Bean and ice cream from Bluebells Dairy, Spondon.”
By 11 o’clock, the cafe is buzzing and one of the volunteers – Anna Newton, arrives for her shift. In addition to more coffee, and a huge slice of cake, Anna offers me a dazzling smile when I ask why she’s happy to give up her time freely to the community.
“I love it,” she says. “I’ve lived in the village for 35 years, I really didn’t get to know many of my neighbours as people go off to work during the day. I adore meeting people and it’s such a lovely team. When the pub was closed we lost more than a land-mark, now people are mixing again.”
Shareholder and fellow volunteer Liz Swift agrees; “It’s a meeting place, somewhere you can always find a friendly face,” she says. “I bought my shares before I moved here but I think it was always meant to be. Living in Holbrook is like being on holiday every day.”
The Spotted Cow and Spotted Calf can be found on Town Street, Holbrook. Phone (01332) 880798 for details. For details of the café, post office services and the B&B room above the Spotted Cow, ring 01332 882537.