Give it a Gardeners Rest!: The thorny history of our only community-run pub
‘Some of the things that were said and some of the things that happened were probably insurmountable’
Good morning, readers — and welcome to this Thursday’s Tribune.
“I’m sure Dan won’t mind doing your weekly shop for you,” my editor told me, after I explained how I intended to write about Sheffield’s much-loved community-owned pub. “You know, when your name is MUD!”
She was joking — but only sort of. The Gardeners Rest in Neepsend, which was a popular institution even before it became “more than a pub” in 2017, boasts the kind of widespread appeal that some politicians would make a deal with the devil to obtain. My recent piece on the future of Kelham Island’s hospitality industry, for example, attracted multiple comments asking why I had neglected to mention the quirky spot overlooking the River Don. “Come on Tribune,” one reader implored, “it is about time you focused a piece on this community-run pub.”
Say what you want about this piece — and I readily expect to hear some strong opinions in the comments from our paying members — but at least I have delivered on that.
First, however, an undercover investigation reveals how desperate the University of Sheffield is to attract international students and Hercule Poirot visits Sheffield.
Your Tribune briefing
🔎 An undercover investigation by the Times has revealed that Britain’s top universities are paying middlemen to recruit international students with far lower grades than those they would require of other applicants. As we’ve reported previously, international students pay higher fees than those from the UK, meaning recruitment in this area is a huge money-maker for universities. Given the “panic” allegedly gripping the University of Sheffield, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Times’ reporters found they used recruitment agencies like Egyptian-owned British Educational Services Group to usher international students in through “special pathways”.
👮 Plans to ban begging, loitering or drinking alcohol in the city centre took a step forward earlier this week, after Sheffield councillors voted to consult with residents on a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO). If introduced, the PSPO would give the council and police more authority to crack down on anti-social behaviour, but critics of such orders suggest they go too far and disproportionately penalise society’s most vulnerable. The Tribune hears the debate in the council chamber on Monday got fairly rowdy — we covered both sides in a briefing from October here.
📽️ Could you help the Showroom Cinema raise money for a new projector? After almost three decades in use, it’s time for the cinema’s oldest projector to enjoy a well-earned retirement. The new one will give a clearer, sharper picture and be much more energy efficient – saving over a tonne of CO2 every year. You can find out more about how to support here.
Things to do
🍔 What better way to celebrate the end of Dry January than with Sheffield’s legendary Peddler Market. Market number 79 will include food from Brúm Mì (authentic Vietnamese bánh mì from Birmingham), vegan street food from Bamboo, and burgers from What’s Your Beef. There will also be lots of craft stalls, live music across both days and entertainment from Amazelab. The market will run from 5pm-11pm on Friday and 2pm-1pm on Saturday.
🎭 On Friday at the Crucible, join actor David Suchet for Poirot and More: A Retrospective. For over 25 years Suchet has captivated millions worldwide as Agatha Christie’s elegant Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. This retrospective is a rare opportunity to see one of the world’s most celebrated actors in conversation about his many roles. Two shows will take place on Friday, including one signed performance at 7.45pm. Tickets are priced £35-37.
💃 On Saturday night, the Drama Studio is hosting Showwomen, telling the lesser-known stories of extraordinary women performers from a century ago. With the help of cabaret artists wielding swords and fire, the award-winning production “asks why and how women perform dangerous and taboo acts and explores the legacy of forgotten and marginalised diverse British entertainers”. Tickets range from £6-13 and are available here.
Give it a Gardeners Rest!: The thorny history of our only community-run pub
By Victoria Munro
Ellie Ormeno, a 24-year-old bartender who has worked at the Gardeners Rest in Neepsend since she was fresh out of school, tells me she basically landed the position because the people running it were unwilling to exploit her. “I was drinking here and asked if they needed any volunteers, because I had no experience and they weren’t hiring,” she explains. “They let me do a shift and then said it felt like slave labour if they didn’t pay me. So that’s how I got my job.”
It’s an anecdote that is in many ways representative of what the city’s first and so far only community-run pub has aspired to be since 2017: ethical, inclusive and something that truly serves the people of Sheffield. Even when the Gardeners Rest was a more conventional business — owned for many years by couple Pat Wilson and Eddie Munelly — I’m told it was already community-oriented, albeit in a more quiet way. It had to be, or it wouldn’t have survived. Back then, Neepsend was deserted and few would have considered it their local, so its success relied on people loving it enough to go out of their way to get there.
And people did love it. In fact, they loved it enough that, after Pat and Eddie announced plans to retire in 2016, they were willing to reach into their pockets and buy it. The couple, horrified at the thought that the pub might be incorporated into a chain or even knocked down, had declined to put it on the open market, instead writing to a number of regulars to see if anyone would take it off their hands. In the end, more than 400 people from across Sheffield and even further afield chipped in to a mass community effort to purchase the building, raising more than £237,000 and becoming the new pub’s shareholders.
That sum, though impressive, wouldn’t quite do. The building was Pat and Eddie’s retirement fund and they wanted at least £280,000 for it. Thankfully, the project was able to secure a £50,000 grant from the lottery-funded More Than a Pub programme, on the basis that it would deliver something far more visionary than a quality selection of real ales. The new Gardeners Rest would, its application for grant funding promised, offer jobs and work experience for people “disadvantaged in the labour market,” whether due to a learning difficulty or other health problems. “You can’t just go to them and say ‘we would like to buy our local pub because we like it a lot’,” explains Dan Carter, a 37-year-old who was instrumental to the early days of the project. “There’s got to be something more and that was the ‘more than a pub’ bit.”
Carter hasn’t set foot in the Gardeners Rest for years. I’m told no one from Yes2Ventures, a social enterprise dedicated to helping disadvantaged people into work, still drinks there. As its founder Mark Powell puts it, none of those involved from their side “have had the heart to go back in” because, though they wish those now running it all the best, the pub represents a “tremendous disappointment”. Carter, who stresses that he can only speak for himself and not the Yes2Ventures organisation, adds that he’s saddened that its involvement seems to have been written out of history. “The story from the board members now is that they all sat down over a pint and decided to buy the pub,” he says, “but that’s not quite the full story. They just like that version better.”
Certainly, it’s clear that Yes2Ventures would not have come up in my interviews with those now running the Gardeners Rest — the shareholders elected to sit on the board as volunteers — had I not brought it up. Janet Ridler, a Sheffield Labour councillor on the board, tells me she set up the pub’s partnership in 2019 with Freeman College, which educates young adults with learning difficulties and regularly sends students into the pub for work experience. “They can come into a very safe environment but it’s still a real-life experience for them, where they can learn basic work skills,” she tells me. What she does not mention is that this partnership replaced and continued work that was previously being done by Yes2Ventures, before their acrimonious departure that same year.
When I ask about this, she at first seems keen to downplay the strength of feeling involved. “I think they have a number of different interests and, as far as I understood, they decided they were going to focus on other ventures,” she says. When I refer to a statement written by Powell at the time of the split, which describes an “undercurrent of resentment” and claims the project’s efforts towards social inclusion had become “tokenistic at best,” she says she’s not the best person to talk to. “I really can’t comment on anything that predates my involvement,” she explains, “nor would I wish to speculate or guess.”
Mark Beckles Willson, who has been chair of the Gardeners Rest board for six years, is better placed to give the pub’s side of things. He’s happy to say that Yes2Ventures “did a fantastic job in the early days” and that the buy-out might not have happened without them. In his view, the way things ended was hugely unfortunate. “I blame myself — I don’t wake up at night worrying about it — but I held it together for some time and perhaps I tried too hard.” Like Powell and Carter, it’s obvious he wishes those on the other side of the split the best in their future endeavours but, eventually, the schism became unavoidable. “Some of the things that were said and some of the things that happened were probably insurmountable,” he tells me. “There was no going back from those.”