A village pub near Richmond has gone from a near-death experience to being named CAMRA's national Pub of the Year. Ashley Barnard reports

LANDLORD Stuart Miller admitted news of being named CAMRA’s best pub in the UK had not really sunk in, when we spoke just before the win was officially announced.

He was too busy running the bar and being head chef at the village pub – which ten years ago seemed destined to be just another inn to close for good – to think about his new status as the UK’s top boozer.

But according to CAMRA judges from around the country, the George and Dragon is just that. Stuart fought off the competition by keeping to what he knows and does best: a varied, and ever-changing ale menu, and simple, hearty food using as much Yorkshire produce as possible.

It was only in 2007 that the George and Dragon closed its doors seemingly for good, but determined locals refused to let the prospect of taking it on themselves daunt them.

While many pubs struggle to re-open once the shutters have come down, Hudswell residents managed to secure £220,000 to buy the building from First Commercial Bank in 2010, and have run it as a co-operative ever since.

This in itself is no easy task, and many other pubs have failed to even get that far, including the Travellers’ Rest in nearby Skeeby.

Despite residents successfully getting the pub registered as an asset of community value and the owner recently being denied planning permission to convert it into a private house, the Skeeby Community Pub Society have not been able to raise the funds needed to secure the building.

At the George and Dragon, mother and daughter duo Margaret and Jackie Stubbs were the first to take up the mantle as landladies under the new ownership, and brought the pub back to life with their friendly and community-spirited outlook.

Together they re-instated the village fair, ran a community library and shop, and held regular music and international food events – all of which attracted the attention of ITV’s The Dales, presented by Ade Edmondson, and the George and Dragon featured in an early series of the popular show.

Despite the success, sadly in 2014 the women decided it was time for them to step down from the job due to ill-health.

It was a difficult decision for the pair, but they were forced to leave the future of the pub hanging in the balance once again while a new landlord could be found.

Thankfully, it was not long until Mr Miller arrived after having searched the country for a pub to run with his wife Mel.

He left his IT consultancy job in London with plans to focus on North Yorkshire produce and celebrate local beers and ciders – something it is safe to say he has achieved.

In September last year the George and Dragon was named CAMRA’s best pub in Yorkshire, putting it in the top 16 in the UK, and achieved its first listing in the Good Pub Guide.

It has now gone on to be crowned the best pub overall and Mr Miller said he and the team are delighted – if a little overwhelmed.

It has been a hard slog to get to where he is today – he said even last year the winter period of December and January was “terrible” – but the consistency of he and his team has gone a long way in securing repeat custom.

It has meant there has been no lull period this year, with January and February proving to be as busy as many of the summer months, when punters and walkers are attracted to the stunning Swale Valley views from the pub’s beer garden.

And now Stuart has revealed plans for his own brewery, hopefully within Hudswell, where he can create his own range of traditional and modern ales.

He says: “I love ales so this is something I’ve wanted to do for ages. We initially looked to having the brewery on site but there wasn’t the space for the buildings or access so it wasn’t feasible.

“But we have found a couple of buildings in the village which would work, so we are looking into that at the moment. Hopefully it’ll be up and running in a year’s time – it will take some time to get up and running, but I want to employ a new chef so I have more time to work on the ale.”

Stuart plans to brew a mixture of traditional and modern cask beers, but “nothing too specialist, just a new version of an old brewery,” he says.

Stuart and the team have known about the CAMRA award for a couple of weeks now, and he says it has been tough keeping it under wraps.

“I got the phone call and got all the staff to the pub to tell them. But we had to keep it completely secret until the announcement so we are planning to have a part on Saturday, March 11, and have invited our friends and family, plus all our regulars to come for some good beer and a barbecue.

“We have all worked so hard to get to where we are today, I can’t quite believe that we have won this award, out of all the amazing pubs in the country.

“A lot of the win will have come down to the fact we are a community pub – CAMRA is really keen on that – but also I think we should be proud of what we have made of the George and Dragon. We really put our stamp on it, did what we wanted to do and proved that it would work.”