The fate of a rural north Norfolk pub has pitted its owners against villagers who say they want to buy the 18th century venue.

The Hunworth Bell, near Holt, has been closed since May following the departure of its landlords due to financial difficulties. 

Stody Estate, who own the freehold, say they now want to shrink the size of the operation and convert the rest of the site into housing in order to save the pub known locally as the Hunny Bell. 

But the plans have led to concerns among some of the villagers - and on Monday, July 8, approximately 80 residents attended a meeting where they voted to apply to North Norfolk District Council to register the pub as an Asset of Community Value (ACV).

Ben and Sarah Handley at the GQ Food and Drink Awards 2018. Ben and Sarah Handley at the GQ Food and Drink Awards 2018. (Image: Andrew Waddison/AW PR)

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Since 2008, the pub has been run by three different sets of landlords.

The "harsh reality", according to the owners, was that the pub was continuing to lose money.

In a statement sent from the estate to Stody with Hunworth Parish Council in May, they said they had been "heavily subsidising" the pub for years.

According to the letter, the plans would see the pub reduced to the original bar at the front with "a smaller, less risky operation focused primarily on serving locals" and a "much-reduced food offer".

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The proposal, which has not yet been submitted to planners, also includes approximately 12 houses being built on the site.

Charlie McNichol, one of Stody Estate's directors, said on Wednesday, July 10: "Our plan is entirely about trying to save the pub.

"We don’t want to close it, I can’t be clearer than that. We want to remodel it, to make it much more sustainable."

He said they had approached other operators in the area but had not found anyone suitable to run the venue.

He also asked that people wait until they see the full plans before they make up their minds.

"Unfortunately a hornet’s nest has been stirred up, people have been wound up with misinformation and false assumptions," he said.

"Our track record is clear. We have supported this pub to keep it going."

The Hunworth Bell has been facing financial difficulties and closed in May. The Hunworth Bell has been facing financial difficulties and closed in May. (Image: AW PR)

Despite Mr McNichol's assurances, there are concerns about the viability of the plans.

Karl Carter, chairman of Stody with Hunworth Parish Council, said: "Nobody believes the proposal will work.

"Our concern is this would shut the pub. If we allow part of it to be developed for housing, this is no future for the pub."

He said the village meeting saw "a lot of feeling, a lot of people saying how fantastic this pub is, a lot of deep feeling for the pub". 

After the meeting, the parish council applied to NNDC to register the pub as an ACV. This would give the community six months to come up with a bid to purchase the site.

"We are trying to put pressure on Stody Estate to sell the pub as a community asset but they are refusing to do that," Mr Carter said.

Mr McNichol said the pub is "not for sale" and that the estate had not received any bids for the business.

The most recent landlords, Ben and Sarah Handley, took on the lease in the summer of 2017.

Under their stewardship, the pub quickly gained a strong reputation, including being named the runner-up in the GQ Food and Drink Awards 2018 for Best Pub in the UK.

Mr Carter said: "They had done a really cracking job with the pub, they got it into a really good position.

"Unfortunately, they left in May due to financial difficulties. It’s a real shame."

Over the years, The Hunny Bell has welcomed famous guests including Prince Harry who dropped by while working with charity Walking With The Wounded.

The late John Hurt spent a number of months filming there when it was picked as the main setting for the comedy film ChickLit, which was later screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015.