Lorraine Hewitson celebrates 40 years at the Royal Oak!
The Royal Oak was the most Northerly Robinsons pub before acquiring Hartley’s of Ulverston in 1982. Historically, the pub sat on the main road connecting the north of the country with the south before the M6 was built in 1959, relieving the town of all the passing through traffic. The old coaching Inn is a nine-bedroom hotel sitting in the market town of Garstang, in between Lancaster and Preston. There is a total of seven pubs in the town today and the Royal Oak is the only place to stay the night, offering reasonably priced accommodation and great pub food.
We interviewed Lorraine to hear more about her life in the pub, how things have changed over the years and to reflect on the successful establishment she’s had for all these years.
So, tell us, what brought you to the Royal Oak?
The pub has been in my husband Michael’s family since 1959, so it’s been part of the family longer than I’ve been involved. 64 years in fact! We took over from his mother after Michael’s father passed away. She’d asked us to come to help out during her recovery from a hip replacement, and we never left.
The brewery had asked us to take over the pub from his mother, they’d originally asked my older brother-in-law if he wanted to take on the pub, but running a pub wasn’t his interest. But that’s just Robinsons - they’re polite. So we took over and Michael’s mother retired… and that’s 40 years ago this December.
A lot has changed in the world in 40 years. What was it like back then?
When we started we sold a lot of beer. Robinsons only had one lager, their own brand ‘Einhorn’. We didn’t sell much wine back then. Now we sell lots of it, because of our food offering.
We used to have a chill cabinet with the wine in, which was Robinsons’ wine. There were three to choose from, a sweet white wine, a dry white wine, and a red wine, and that was it. When Robinsons altered the pub 30 years ago, gradually customer choice started to change once they changed the pub. When we first started, there were fights every weekend, we’ve not had a fight in 20 years. When we started with food after the alterations, we employed a chef and began to do things differently, focusing on our food. Now, food and the hotel are my main streams of income – that’s how I like it at my age. I don’t want to be kicking people out at drinking up time. I’ll let the other pubs do that.
Back then, there used to be lots of farmers that came in, and they’d all drink spirits. Now we don’t sell so many spirits, other than gin. We’re also getting asked more and more for non-alcoholic options nowadays, that’s a change. When the smoking ban came in, that completely changed the atmosphere in pubs, making it a lot more pleasant.
Have you seen changes in the more recent years too?
People’s habits have changed since ‘lockdown’. People don’t stay out as late and they come out earlier. We now have a great teatime trade between five and nine. Now, I don’t need to ring a bell for last orders at 11:30, those in the pub just wander off without any prompt. You used to ring the bell and they’d be doubling up, trebling up and you’d never get rid of them. Other drinking pubs perhaps still have these patterns, but our customers don’t do that anymore.
I’ve also seen the change in who runs the pubs, half the pubs in Garstang are run by ladies, this wouldn’t have been the case once upon a time. I’ve got lots of women who also come in on their own, they feel safe and comfortable with me. We’ve seen an increase in families coming in too.
What’s your favourite time of the year?
I like it when the flags are up in the town. They were up throughout May, they look lovely when they’re fluttering away. I also love Christmas, we have a big Christmas festival, its called Victorian festival. It runs for a whole weekend and is great in the town. The people who do the flowers in Garstang throughout Spring/Summer are fantastic. The ‘bloomers’ they’re called - they work so hard keeping the town looking lovely and clean!
What’s your biggest memory since you’ve been there? A shift? a moment? Or a customer?
Ha, I couldn’t even go there with the customer. The relief when we finished the alteration 30 years ago is probably my biggest memory! Honestly, it took two years back in them days. We didn’t close so we were working around the dust, I was so glad when they’d gone! I think they finished about October, and at Christmas, we had a Robinsons party here, with Mr Peter and his brothers (fifth-generation directors). In fact, William (current director, pub division) was the architect back then, with Tom O’Shea Brown too. He (William) was only a young lad, in his twenties. God, it took so long. Some days, we only took £4, and that was an old fella who used to come drink. But I mean it was a building site, who’d want to drink in here then?
What does retirement look like for you in the near future?
A small house not far away and in walking distance to the village. I suspect there will be a party too. My locals have been asking. I said ‘I was just going to creep away and not bother you’ but they said, that’s not happening. I’ve got some regulars who’ve been coming in here since they were 17. We’ve been to so many weddings and seen babies grow up to be adults. In fact, I’ve even got staff, whose parents have worked for me at their age.
What’s been the highlight of running your pub?
It’s like being the extended family of the community. The people are what I love about running the Royal Oak. They’re my favourite bit about the job. Our locals know what they want and will say if it’s not happening, and I like that. It keeps every day interesting. We have lots of community groups and committees that come in and use our space. The current function room is filled with awards, trophies and other bits from the local community groups.