Plants and pints may sound unlikely bedfellows, but in a corner of a tiny village in Powys, mid Wales, Claire Austin is proving that they work together in surprising harmony. Surrounded by soft, green Welsh hills, yet sitting alongside a helpful A-road, is the village of Sarn’s 134 year-old pub. Named after the village, The Sarn has been given a new lease of life by the daughter of the world-renowned rose grower David Austin.
A plantswoman, nursery owner and perennials expert in her own right, Claire and her Australian-raised husband Ric Kenwood bought the freehold in 2017. They had moved to her father and mother’s timber-framed weekend getaway house a mile away after her mother’s death in 2007. That house, up a steep narrow lane tucked between those rolling hills, became the nursery for Claire Austin Plants. But what they still needed was a shop.
When plans for a community nursery project in the neighbouring Bishop’s Castle began to stall, and a friend mentioned that The Sarn had come on to the market, Claire’s interest was piqued.
“Old pubs are a really good idea. They all have a car park, most have café and restaurant facilities and this one already had permission for a shop,” Claire explains. Her experience running many nurseries over the past 30 years, combined with the fact that Ric had run a bar meant they knew they could do it. It was helpful, too, that they had experience of house renovation, because the building needed to be completely gutted.
There are old photographs of the pub from the early 20th century at the bar, and the building’s original framework has been carefully conserved. Claire and Ric have left echoes of the pub’s past in the new, bright and clean décor: the worn, old wooden front doors hang on the wall in what is now the lovingly stocked boutique plant shop to one end of the building. Inside are houseplants as well as art and crafts by locals and artisans from further afield.
The Plant Shop at the back of the pub is stocked from Claire’s nursery and offers a chance for pub visitors to pick up some plants on a passing visit. The paved back yard stretches over two levels and is constantly evolving. © Andrew Montgomery
Like everything else, the space outside also needed work. They dug it back, got rid of a redundant path and paved it and the result is a seemingly small wooden-fenced yard that, says Claire, is evolving all the time. She packs more than 500 plant varieties on pallets and in borders into the yard, choosing five of everything from the nursery for display. Claire thought about extending the space, but, she says, “When you are small, you can almost make your own rules.” On quiet days, the pub
staff keep an eye on the shop.
© Andrew Montgomery
The pub-plant format works on several levels. A meeting room upstairs is the venue for Claire’s specialist talks, and there are rooms for people to stay for a short break. Pubs are closing fast, while nurseries are expensive to set up and Claire maintains that using a pub creatively as a business is a relatively affordable option. “If you have enough for something like this, there’s somewhere to live and then you can sublet bits out,” she explains.
The pub is now a focal point for a fairly remote farming community that has no school on its doorstep and limited public transport. At the pub’s music nights, quizzes and WI meetings, Claire has found it buzzes. “They’ll usually start dancing!” she laughs. The pub trade and the plant trade feed off each other, with enthusiastic gardeners popping in for Sunday lunch and vice versa. “It’s our happy place,” she says. “We always said that if we’re not enjoying it, we won’t do it, and we do enjoy it.” But, the big question is, can she pull a pint? “No!” she laughs. “That I leave up to my husband.”
Gardens Illustrated is offering a chance to buy the revised edition of Claire’s book, Claire Austin’s Book of Perennials, for ten per cent off. This includes postage and packaging, unless you are an overseas customer, in which case postage costs are not included. Overseas customers should ring Claire Austin Hardy Plants on 01686 670 342 to arrange delivery. The offer runs to 12th May 2019. Use the code cabopoff20 and buy the book here.
Address The Sarn, Sarn, Newtown, Powys SY16 4EJ. Tel 01686 670880. Web claireaustin-hardyplants.co.uk Open Plant shop opens 10am-5pm, Monday-Saturday, and 10am-4pm, Sundays.