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Saving a folk landmark from the property developers

The Royal Hotel in Dungworth is a stalwart of the Sheffield Carols tradition. Now under threat from property developers, a crowdfunding campaign is aiming to save it for the local, and folk, community. We caught up with Jon Boden to find out more.

You know the saying: you wait ages for the opportunity to help save a folk landmark and then two come along at once. Following our piece last week about the uncertain future facing The Matchstick Piehouse in London, we’ve unfortunately also got to talk about another important folk venue currently under threat.

Sitting high above the Loxley village on the outskirts of Sheffield is the village of Dungworth. There’s not much in the village – a small school, a village hall, a few dozen houses, and the Royal Hotel.

An photo of the Royal Hotel in Dungworth
The Royal Hotel, Dungworth

Built in 1813, the Royal isn’t much to look at. A solid, stone building with various later additions and alterations, it nevertheless holds a special place in the hearts of a surprisingly large number of people, both locally and further afield.

Approaching Dungworth, the verges and roadside are already lined with cars. From some way along the road the sound of raised voices in harmony already rings out as I approach. The pub windows are misted and as I open the door the wall of sound and the warm atmosphere welcomes me from the chilly morning air…

Peter Machan, Loxley: Wanderings in a Curious Valley, 2021

The Royal Hotel is not only an old-fashioned village boozer that has been serving its local community for generations. Along with a few other pubs around a strip of countryside north-west of Sheffield, every November and December it’s also home to what has been described as, “one of the most remarkable instances of popular traditional singing in the British Isles” – the Sheffield Carols.

We’ve written about this unique local singing tradition before so I’m not going to revisit all the versions of ‘While Shepherds Watched‘ (dozens, for the record) or a history of the carols (see Professor Ian Russell for that). No, today we’re talking about the very real threat that, after over 200 years, 2023 might be the last year carols are sung at the Royal.

Having run it for 25 years, long-term owners and landlords Dave and Jo have decided to put the pub up for sale in 2024. And, given there’s not a lot of money in country pubs these days, the likelihood is it will be sold and converted into residential housing units.

I should probably declare my interest here. Dungworth is around a five-minute drive from where I live, so I have both a local and folky interest in the Royal. I’ve always hoped my kids (currently aged six and three) would grow up visiting the carols at the Royal. They’re that kind of occasion; people of all ages coming together in a shared, common tradition. There’s chatter in the background – toddlers and young kids colouring in one corner, teenagers hanging out in the front room, grandparents and parents passing bags of crisps back from the packed bar. One hardcore caroller describes it as, “rekindling the atmosphere of Christmases that you had as a child.” I’m not from Sheffield so this wasn’t part of my childhood Christmases, but I’d like it to be a tradition my children grow up being around, and for me, Dungworth is the epitome of the carols experience.

Lyra, aged 4 at the carols in 2021

The annual carols are not the only folk connection the Royal can claim. Since 2009, the Royal Traditions folk club has been putting on gigs, hosting tune sessions and generally getting people together for a sing (and a raffle, obviously). The club was started and continues to be run by Dungworth local Jon Boden (you may have heard of him) with his then-partner Fay Hield (you may have also heard of her), and Jon is now taking the lead on saving the Royal.

We caught up with Jon to find out about the campaign and ask how the folk community can help.

Jon Boden on the Royal Hotel, Dungworth

How long have you lived in Dungworth?

Well, strictly speaking I live in the next village, but it’s a 10-minute walk to the pub. Since 2007, the area has actually changed quite a bit, with the chapel and the nearby brick factory closing. They also resurfaced all the roads when the Tour-de-France came through so it feels a lot less like a costume-drama film set than when we moved here. But it’s still very beautiful… and kinder on the car suspension.

A tradition as established as the carols themselves is Jo’s after-sing pies and treacle sponge

When did you first visit the Royal and what were your first impressions?

I came to the carols before moving to the village in 2006. I was blown away by the volume and by the amazing historic atmosphere of it all. I was surprised (and felt slightly sheepish) about how few of the songs I could join in with. After we moved to the village I made an effort to memorise them all, on the basis that the sooner I learnt them the more enjoyment I would get out of the carols. I recommend this – I think people assume words will just “go in” eventually, but often it’s quicker in the long run to just sit down and try and memorise them.

Do you have a favourite?

Star of Bethlehem‘.

Care to elaborate?

It’s an absolute banger.

Fair enough. So what makes the Royal special?

There’s such a great sense of history. I know that’s true of most pubs but the fact that it has retained so much of its original character is really significant. There’s the history of the carols of course, but also of the Saturday night sings which carried on into the 1970s (Professor Ian Russell telling me about this was one of the spurs to starting Royal Traditions up) and also other village customs like caking night, hunt sings, carols traipse from Storrs [the next village] ending there on Christmas Eve, etc. It’s an unusual layout for a pub but I think that adds to its character, and the views are pretty breathtaking.

View from the back of the Royal looking down Loxley Valley towards Sheffield.

Tell us more about Royal Traditions

Our main impetus was that we knew the pub was struggling for custom outside of carols season. We figured there might be a way of retaining some of the carollers’ customs throughout the year through a regular folk night. Also, it seemed such a shame that all the communality and exuberance of the carols should stop on 27th December.

We were very focused from the get-go on trying to bring communal singing into the heart of the club. My experience is that the classic folk club format often doesn’t necessarily lead to good communal singing, so from the start we picked six “house songs” that would be sung throughout the evening, and provided printed word sheets, very much taking the carols as our model.

The Sheffield Carols will absolutely survive the loss of the Royal, but it will be seriously diminished by it in the way English cricket would be diminished by the loss of Lords or snooker by the loss of The Crucible.

Jon Boden

Onto the campaign – how is it shaping up?

Early days. The pub is not going on the market until the spring, so at this stage we’re just trying to get a sense of how much we might be able to raise. We are just asking people who would like (in principle) to buy a £500 share in a Community Interest Company to let us know by filling in this form…

Why should people care and get involved?

Clearly, the loss of the pub will be felt most keenly (as in all such cases) by those living locally. I’m also aware that there are lots of other fantastic carols pubs in Sheffield, and so the Sheffield carolling tradition per se is not under threat from the closure of the Royal.

That said, I do feel like the Royal has become the iconic template for the Sheffield carols and to lose that would be a great loss to the cultural fabric of the whole country. For anyone who wants to experience the Sheffield carols, the Royal is the destination. It is where the BBC or the national press always come when they want to share the Sheffield carols with listeners/viewers, and it’s where visitors from overseas head to. Even if you only visit the Royal once for Sunday carols, that experience stays with you forever.

The Sheffield Carols will absolutely survive the loss of the Royal, but it will be seriously diminished by it in the way, I don’t know, English cricket would be diminished by the loss of Lords or snooker by the loss of The Crucible.

The singing has a robustness that would strike terror in the hearts of angelic choirboys. It’s loud and lusty singing with a raw edge, stripped of tinsel…

It’s singing with mud on your boots and a pint in your hand. And if a carol’s so loud that a lump of plaster falls off the ceiling, it’s reckoned “a good ‘un”…

Some of the older, more quavery voices seem to echo from another century. It’s a raw midwinter festival, an antidote to the commercialisation of Christmas…

The Telegraph, 10th December 2005

How can people get involved?

The main thing we need at this stage is capital. If anyone feels able to tie up £500 or more of their savings in a Community Interest Company to buy the pub, please let us know through the form. We won’t be collecting real money until later on in the process. If it looks like we won’t be able to raise enough capital we will not take the campaign any further, so please pledge sooner rather than later! 

What’s the ideal outcome?

The pub comprises existing residential property. If we could raise enough to buy the whole thing the rental income would guarantee the survival of the pub as a public space. Ideally, we’d like to then lease (cheaply) the pub itself to someone who is keen to make a go of it as a business, but there are other more collectivist models we can look at if that is not possible in the present financial climate. 

Take a walk to the Royal with Matthew Bannister on Folk on Foot from December 2019

Do you think folk and pubs are intrinsically linked? Do you think they are still important in the 21st Century?

I do, yes. I think there is something very special about a space where everyone has an equal claim to be there. Concert rooms are great but it is quite a specific, transactional dynamic. Home-based sessions can be great, too, but they are, by their nature, exclusive and “hosted” rather than participated in collectively.

Are pubs still important? Yes, but there’s definitely a risk that will drop off. The cost of beer is getting so high that it is a real disincentive to going out. I feel like maybe pub/cafe crossover vibes might be the way forward for bringing Gen Z/A into those spaces, but who knows? With social media and video streaming, we are becoming more and more housebound, and pubs are such an important way of breaking that up and reminding us about real people in real spaces. I also think it’s so important to spend time in the company of people who don’t agree with you. Pubs at their best are tolerant, live-and-let-live spaces that can act against the moral ghettoisation of social media.

I think there is something very special about a space where everyone has an equal claim to be there… Pubs at their best are tolerant, live-and-let-live spaces that can act against the moral ghettoisation of social media.

Jon Boden

Have you ever worked in a pub?

Briefly as a teenager. I wasn’t very good at it.

What’s your favourite pub? (apart from the Royal, obviously). Why does it stand out?

The Half Moon in Oxford. I lived there for six years in my twenties and it was a bit of a golden period in the Oxford folk session scene. It has changed hands several times since then but I went back recently to a Sunday night session, and it all felt wonderfully familiar.

Can you remember the best pub session you’ve ever been in?

Loads at the Half Moon. One that stands out was the night (singer) Ian Woods turned up out of blue. We sang until 5am and Ian ended up moving into a room upstairs. I also remember an amazing session at Gosport Folk Weekend with Martin Green’s left hand being amplified acoustically by the room. My most formative pub sessions were at The Colpitts in Durham as a student – sadly a Samuel Smiths pub, so the music there died in the noughties when Smiths had their PRS tantrum.

What’s your favourite song featuring a pub?

For a named pub, ‘The Old Dun Cow‘. For an unnamed bar-room, ‘Tommy’ by Kipling/Bellamy.

What’s the best pub snack, and why is it pork scratchings?

Yuck. I really love it when pubs hand out bowls of chips at quiz nights. Much better.

Thanks, Jon. We’ll agree to disagree on the pork scratchings.

You can find out more about the campaign here and keep up to date with developments via the Facebook page.

Or pledge your support below: