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'Somehow, you just keep looking forward and keep going': The country pub as a safe haven

By Linda Rudd

In 2017, my husband Matt and I gave up our respective careers in law enforcement and nursing to follow our dreams of buying a country pub. We purchased a sad, run-down establishment and have worked extremely hard to renovate it into a contemporary hotel.

It was a real tree change, leaving Sydney for little Batlow: population 1,000. It’s a picturesque town, best known for its wonderful Batlow apples and annual Cider-Fest.

Like any business, we experienced highs and lows, stresses and pressures, often compounded by the hot summers and snowy, harsh winters. But the most challenging times were still yet to come.

Bushfire, COVID-19 and death of a close friend

On 31 December 2019, the Dunns Road bushfire hit Batlow’s surrounds and we began to experience a panic like no other. Within a few days, the bushfire had swept through town. As we packed the car to leave, Matt turned to me and said he was staying to defend the pub! The old girl turns 100 this year and we couldn’t lose her now! The fire came about as close to the pub as you can get. It was harrowing, but in the end we were only a little singed around the edges.

The fire consumed much in its destructive path: farms, houses, orchards, stock, native animals. We even sadly lost a resident. But the Batlow Hotel remained open and became a safe haven for those who stayed to defend what the authorities had thought undefendable. We made sure whoever came to the pub was fed a hot meal and provided a place for people to congregate and talk.

Eventually, business picked up, and we received great support from grassroots movements like Empty Esky, Stay With Them and Spend With Us. We were also given donations for fire-affected communities.

We had planned our annual holiday six months before the fires. After all that we had gone through, we needed a break. However, right before we were due to leave, we suffered the unexpected loss of a very close friend. The grief of the previous months came flooding back and hit me quite hard. Her husband was completely devastated, and we decided that he should join us on the trip. At that time, COVID-19 was ‘a cold’ affecting China and a little bit of Europe. We were travelling to Bali and there were no reported cases or travel warnings.

Days before we were due to return, the world appeared to turn on its head. We were asked to return to Australia and self-isolate for two weeks. Limits were enforced on the number of patrons allowed in the pub, and the information changed daily. In isolation, we brainstormed every day how we were going to keep the business afloat. New information from the government was ever-changing and overwhelming.

Three days in, we were told that the bar had to now close and we were not to offer any sit-in dining. From our homes in isolation, we closed the business. We had phone meetings with the staff and designed a take-away menu and home delivery service.

We were able to keep four of our staff on. By utilising JobKeeper we were turning over just enough money to cover their wages and stock. But there are several other costs associated with running a business that we were struggling to find the money for. We made use of government subsidies and I worked casually at the local hospital, which saw us through.

How we got through it

This has been an extremely hard time, and 2019/2020 takes the cake in being one of the worst years for us. Having to let staff go made us feel like we had let them down. Some of our staff took the opportunity to move away and start new lives, which was sad for us, but we supported and encouraged them. People have to do what they have to do. And now we can offer opportunities for new staff.

We were very lucky to secure long term accommodation rentals for our rooms, which has helped us immensely. Looking to the future, we have called on the Business Enterprise Centre, Australian Hotels Association and the Chamber of Commerce to help us follow the new rules and regulations.

During this time, I have been utilising phone support through the National Association for Loss and Grief (NALAG) to assist me in the grief process, and actively using meditation and relaxation techniques. My husband Matt has walked our dogs and ridden a bike to help with his mental health. We talk a lot, we laugh a lot. We’re a great team. We have also taken this opportunity to further renovate the pub, which has kept us positive and motivated. Somehow, you just keep looking forward and keep on going.

About Linda Rudd

Linda Rudd and her husband Matt gave up their former careers to become the owners and proprietors of a country pub. They renovated and opened the ‘new’ Batlow Hotel in 2017. The hotel turned 100 in 2020.

This blog piece was contributed by our partners from the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, as part of their work with Everymind and on their Wellbeing in Rural Small Business project.

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