The Black Boy is a lovely old (late sixteenth century) pub in the North Oxfordshire hamlet of Milton. I like a pint and a sandwich at lunchtime and our Jack Russell likes a place after his midday walk where he is welcomed. The Black Boy is by far the nicest pub for miles and is well worth the seven minute car ride from Nell Bridge House to Milton. That is, providing The Black Boy is open when we get there!
The poor old Black Boy has a bit of a chequered history and has enjoyed or, more accurately, endured a whole succession of owners all of whom have come and gone again. When we moved to North Oxfordshire, it was known as “the sausage pub” and specialised in a large quantity of tasty sausages but there has been much water under the bridge and not a few sausages over the bar since then.
The pub’s constant undoing seems to have been debt as successive owners have borrowed to change but not always improve the building.
An early change was to build a large dining area over the rear courtyard where previous publicans had held extempore barbeques. Interest rates rose and the debt repayments must have become impossibly high and the publican fled, leaving a set of kitchen knives on the bar for the bankers and not a lot else if the story is to be believed.
A later incumbent wanted to sell off the garden and car park for housing – something that did not endear him to the village and he was soon gone.
The current incumbent is Marco Pierre-White and he has changed the poor old Black Boy substantially and not entirely for the better. He ripped out most of the bar to increase the dining area and he replaced the furniture in the remaining small bar area with utilitarian benches and tables which, I suspect, were intended to deter the likes of me from popping in for a pint and a sandwich! He has certainly succeeded in deterring a large part of the 150 population of Milton from going there. He has filled every available space with a collection of clutter that I think verges on the eccentric. The one welcome change he has made is the availability of wi-fi. As a bit of a workaholic and a nerd, I like to continue working with my pint and sandwich and you can always log on at The Black Boy.
In place of the old traditional village pub, he offers a good menu, not too expensive and a good selection of reasonably priced wines. The recently appointed manager, Hannah and the chef, Danny are friendly, knowledgeable and clearly hard working. Marco seems to be attracting the sort of people he wants – trendies who want to have eaten at a Wheelers gastro-pub – but I suspect there are not as many as he might have wished. He has also succeeded in losing much of his local trade; he may see this as a success; I think it is a short-sighted one and a long-term failure.
I got used to Marco’s strange sense of design and, while still lamenting the changes to this fine old pub, the welcome from the staff has always made up for these. The next blow was to turn up on a Monday or Tuesday to find that The Black Boy now only opens from Wednesday to Sunday. When one is retired, one wants to go for a pint when it suits and when there is time in the day. To have to remember “not on Monday or Tuesday” is a bit of a bore. I have used the Red Lion in Adderbury which tries hard but it is a hotel and does not have that special pub atmosphere. The Bell in Adderbury does not have wi-fi and has never been able to offer a lunchtime snack although the new owners may have changed that. A word of warning, though, the one menu I saw there was entirely vegetarian so certainly not for me or our Jack Russell!
The final blow was on Thursday last when I drove to Milton, walked the dog over farmer Adams’s fields and then expected a pint in the pub. Surprise, surprise; a sign in the window announced its closure for urgent repairs. I was flabbergasted and not a little peeved. A villager tells me Marco “borrowed” the chef from The Black Boy to work in another one of his pubs and this meant “no food: no pub”. I am not sure of this is true but the rumour is going around. I don’t know how often a business can close unexpectedly and expect its clients to accept it tamely and return when it decides to open again. I am getting near the margin now. I can always get myself a pint from the cellar bar in Nell Bridge House (which is as large as the bar area in The Black Boy) and I can make myself a sandwich at home as well. So, why bother to keep using The Black Boy? I am not sure I know the answer. The building has character; the staff are good; the food and booze is fine and getting out of the house is always healthy but, Marco, there comes a point when unreliability leads one to give up.
I hope you might re-consider your business model, Marco. If a Wednesday to Sunday gastro-pub is not earning enough to cover the debt costs, it may be that a more diverse business model that offers something of the old village pub style alongside your trendy gastro-pub might bring you more regular income and a wider client base? To have a pub that does not open two days per week at all and one that closes arbitrarily when it chooses and, apparently, to meet the needs of another part of the chain is not good business.
All in all, it’s a rum do, Marco.