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Mark Dodds is back pulling pints

Added: Sunday, December 11th 2016

Mark Dodds

Mark Dodds is living proof that you can’t keep a good publican down. If you’d lost your pub and livelihood and been declared bankrupt you might throw in the towel. But he’s just re-opened a “failed pub” and is happily pulling pints once more.

Mark is one of the great pub campaigners. His experience at the hands of giant pubcos has turned him into their most vociferous critic and the Twittersphere is emblazoned almost every day with the latest attack by J Mark Dodds.

His brush with the pubcos took place in Camberwell in London but I met him some 350 miles north in the border town of Berwick-on-Tweed. It was good of him to see me at 10 in the morning as the Brown Bear had only opened the previous night and he was understandably exhausted.

But he has a tale to tell, culminating in putting his energy and passion into the Brown Bear, Berwick’s oldest inn. His family roots are in Newcastle and Morpeth and he was glad to be back in the North-east after his London experience.

He ran the Sun & Doves in Camberwell, an Inntrepreneur pub that was sold to Scottish & Newcastle for £660,000. S&N had a lease back arrangement with the Royal Bank of Scotland, with all the pub assets held by a company called West Register.

“RBS wanted as much return as possible,” Mark says. “The pub had a turnover of £700,000 but I was only breaking even. I was paying double the going rate for beer. In 2005 when I had a rent review I was paying £54,000 and S&N wanted £82,000.”

A long battle over the rent followed and took three years to resolve. Mark refused to pay the higher amount and ended up owing £155,000. In 2011 he was evicted and declared bankrupt.

His experience led him to set up the Fair Pint campaign with Simon Clarke and Dave Mountford.

“The whole industry is corrupt,” he says. “The pubcos are asset strippers. It’s become a cultural issue. Pubs are closing not just because of the smoking ban and supermarkets selling cheap alcohol but because so many pubs owned by the pubcos are selling a poor choice of beer.”

Mark believes pubs are about more than just selling food and drink: “They are the glue of local communities, neighbourhood places where people can meet. They’re also part of our history --no other country has anything like our pub culture.”

He has embarked on a new campaign to raise money and investment to buy and save community pubs. The People’s Pub Partnership aims to raise £5 million through crowd funding to buy freehold pubs and train managers in all the skills needed to run them.

Brown Bear Berwick

Before he moved to Berwick, Mark was inspired by the success of the Ivy House campaign in Nunhead, South-east London. The local community raised the funds to rescue a pub that Enterprise Inns wanted to sell to a property company to turn into housing. The Ivy House, still run as a co-op by the locals, is a vibrant success and an inspiration to all pub lovers.

In Berwick Mark was keen to take over the Brown Bear, the town’s oldest pub and named after its coat of arms. It was rebuilt in 1898 but is far older and may once have been a coaching inn on the Great North Road – a local historian is researching its history.

The landlady had run the pub for 18 years and wanted to get out. Enterprise put it up for auction in 2016 for £150,000 and it was bought by a local businessman, Frank Flannigan. A local group approached him and urged to save the Brown Bear as a pub and a community asset.

He was happy to oblige and Mark Dodds took over after raising £20,000 from his partner, his parents and supporters. Frank Flannigan’s continuing involvement is evident from the large skip bearing his name outside the Brown Bear on the day of my visit.

The pub was closed for a major overhaul. It’s spacious inside with low ceilings, alcoves, settles and open fires, with a beer garden to the side.

At present only alcohol is available but food will follow once

the kitchen is up and running. Mark and his supporters have big plans for the pub, as it has space for a micro-brewery, a cider press and a coffee roaster. Rooms upstairs will be turned into accommodation for staff and visitors.

But -- Mark is keen to emphasise -- future development will depend on raising investment through crowd funding and investment grants.

He is keen to praise Hadrian Border Brewery in Newcastle for their support for the pub. Four of their beers – Tyneside Blonde, Reiver’s IPA, Secret Kingdom and Northumbrian Gold – are on the bar along with The Village Lite from the Alnwick Brewery.

Mark has had less success with bigger brewers. He told Molson Coors he was keen to sell local and regional beers and they responded by offering Doom Bar brewed at the other end of the country in Cornwall. Talks with Carlsberg were discontinued when a deal included taking three ciders from them, including one called Bad Apple, which Mark thought was the wrong image for the pub.

Now, with a good range of local beers on offer, the Brown Bear is open for trading again and has restored an important part of Berwick’s turbulent history to the town.

And Mark Dodds, lover of community pubs and scourge of the giant pubcos, is back behind the bar.

*The Brown Bear, 27 Hide Hill, Berwick-on-Tweed.