Keeping the village local alive

Walking into a village pub should be like walking into your living room. The epitome of slip-off-your-shoes snugness. A place to leave the cares of the world at the door and retreat, relieved, into a far more agreeable one.  

It’s a world where all comers are welcome – the tumbleweed moment as disapproving regulars set down their tankards to scrutinise the audacious newcomer being all but confined to fiction. The best village pubs are the ones where the word ‘artisan’ on the menu (and with it, whispers of ‘gastropub’) hasn’t stopped locals of all generations feeling perfectly at home, and where the vibe is so comfortably convivial that passing travellers can’t help but feel the same. 

Such pubs, in this sense, are great levellers – egalitarian realms where everyone’s after the same thing – a decent pint, unfussy (but no less delicious) food, a sense of community, and a warm, fuzzy feeling that isn’t just down to the booze. 

The Morston Anchor was always this kind of place. Cosy, quaint, awash with atmosphere; an in-the-know favourite of North Norfolk aficionados. When long-time landlady Jane Temple (whose family also runs the seal-spotting trips from Morston Quay) found herself reluctantly calling time last year, its future looked decidedly uncertain. 

Jane asked The Harper for help, and a lick of paint and labour of love later, Morston has its much-loved local back – its roughspun charm preserved for future generations to enjoy. The words “fish and chip pub”, unequivocally emblazoned on an A-board outside, swiftly dispel any fears of gastropub pretention. Other, equally down-to-earth delights are available (and very North Norfolk) – pint of prawns, dressed Cromer crab, cockle popcorn, even scraps (improbably tasty seaweed-salted batter scraps, to be precise) offered free of charge as a bar snack. Keeping the menu short and simple gives this secluded local its best chance of year-round sustainability.  

It’s a similar story in Langham, a mile or so inland from Morston and nearby Blakeney. On the quiet main street, The Langham Blue Bell was finding times just as hard, and when the landlord reached out to see what could be done, The Harper wasn’t about to stand by and watch this village, too, be deprived of its local. Looking much the same as it did in this 1915 photograph (save for the portly regular waiting for it to open), the Blue Bell was, until late last year, a mainstay of village life – a neighbourhood living room full of character (and characters).   

Nooks, crannies, and open fires provided the backdrop to centuries of local intrigue (“…she never did?!”). The absence of a bar in the building until mid-way through the twentieth century meant this was, quite literally, the living room – “the barrels were on stands at the side of the room” recalls one regular. Like countless similar examples up and down the land, the history of the pub is the history of the village, and to lose it would be a tragedy – particularly in an area where locals are losing their foothold on the property ladder, too (North Norfolk has one of the highest numbers of second homes in the UK).  

Happily, summer 2023 sees a spruced-up (but not too spruced-up) Langham Blue Bell opening its doors again. On the menu? Pies, puddings, and pints – the earthier, gamier equivalent of The Morston Anchor’s more nautical offering. This is hearty, classic British fare, beautifully cooked using ingredients sourced locally, and with a goodly selection of Norfolk ales behind the bar. The weekend roast will also be a welcome reinstatement – if the village pub is its communal living room, it’s also a big, communal dining room where friends and family gather to savour the pleasure of an unhurried catch up over the gravy boat. Like home, but without the faff (and with a little more in the way of liquid refreshment). Big, billowy Yorkshires, light as air, are the perfect foil for the flavours of what could easily be regarded as one of Norfolk’s best – a roast that, refreshingly, is also served on Saturdays.   

And so it is that this particular tale of two villages has a reassuringly happy ending. Across the country, it’s estimated that 51 pubs a month are closing their doors for good. In one small corner of it though, the local lives on at the heart of the community – a constant in ever-changing times. Let’s drink to that. 

The Morston Anchor

The Morston Anchor, The Street, Morston, Norfolk, NR25 7AA

01263 639 020

The Langham Blue Bell

The Langham Blue Bell, 22 Holt Road, Langham, Norfolk, NR25 7BX

01328 598 800