It was good to have the chance to talk to Simon Sturt, the man behind the transformation of the Queens Head from one of two pubs for Long Marston locals, into an attraction for visitors from far and wide. I remember my own daughter in the 1990s, back from University. She regularly invited friends from her social circle to eat and drink at the ‘Curry Pub’, all of them amazed that my wife and I had not previously known about this culinary phenomenon in our village.
Listen to the interview
I had to be content with a telephone interview because Simon now lives in retirement in Dorset. But even over the telephone Simon’s expertise and knowledge of the pub business came over strongly, as did his deep affection for Long Marston and the time he spent here.
Simon took on the tenancy of the Queens Head in 1987 after training as a Hotel Manager at Catering College. This was followed by seven years at Trust House Forte, a period running a bar at a London Theatre and four years as a pub manager. The Queens Head was then owned by ABC, part of Allied Breweries and was one of two pubs in the village, in competition with the Boot.
Simon modestly gave credit to others when I asked him about the origins of the ‘Curry Club’. It perhaps says something about his relationship with his customers that the two people who started him on that road were regulars who encouraged him to do something different. This was a turbulent period in the economy and many pubs were struggling to survive and it would have been difficult to become profitable via Long Marston customers alone.
It was fortunate that one regular customer, Kevin Preston – who lived in Tring but stopped at the Queens Head on his way back from his office – worked in public relations and was not short in coming forward with ideas. He started the whole thing with his suggestion of a ‘Curry Club’ which began to meet every Thursday evening. This was at a time when curries were becoming popular as the favoured meal when eating out and Simon, spurred on by suggestions from Kevin and other customers, began to extend the concept by introducing regional curries, all cooked by Simon himself, with a map on the wall to show the origins of each dish.
The Queens Head was not the only pub which was becoming popular for its curries and, in the early 1990s, the ‘Pub Food’ magazine introduced a competition for ‘Curry Pub of the Year’, sponsored by food manufacturer Sharwoods. It was another customer – Charles Darbyshire – who encouraged Simon to put forward the Queens Head and, after being a finalist several times, Simon finally lifted the trophy in 1995.
Simon was at pains to point out that, though the ability to attract outsiders was important, customers from within the village and his relations with the community were the foundation for his success and closest to his heart. He remembers with affection the meetings of the various clubs that took place in the meeting room and the many characters who spent their time at the bar, particularly Tom Chapman, Alan Kempster and Ted Michel. There was also much fun at the regular music nights which Simon organised at bank holiday weekends.
Simon left Long Marston in 1998 after eleven enjoyable and successful years. His reason for leaving was simple; on the news that he and his wife were to have their fourth child, it was clear that the Queens Head was not big enough to house his larger family. He found out that there was a tenancy available at the Grand Junction Arms at Bulbourne and successfully applied to take it over. The Curry Club – and the Sturt family – was lost to Long Marston.
The Grand Junction Arms was very different from the Queens Head. Bulbourne village is much smaller than Long Marston but its pub thrived on trade from the nearby canal which enabled Simon’s total volume of business to be much higher than before. The Curry Club continued but was a less significant part of the total; however it still managed to reach the final of the competition, now renamed as ‘Ethnic Pub of the Year’.
Simon stayed in Bulbourne for six years before deciding in 2004 to change from being a tenant to owning his own pub. The cost of purchasing in a similar area was a barrier so he looked elsewhere and found the Hawthorns Hotel in Glastonbury. This was an enjoyable and successful period of his life until Covid came along and disrupted the business, as it did to so many others. This caused Simon to decide that this was an opportune time to sell up and begin his retirement, moving recently to live in Tolpuddle in Dorset.
I asked Simon about his views on the secrets of success as a pub landlord. His answers were that it was all about hard work, patience and consistency as well as good beer!. Having spoken to him and heard about his career, I suspect that Simon’s success is about much more than that. For instance, how did he manage to receive such interest and support from his customers in setting up the Curry Club in our village?
A final comment from Simon confirmed the real secret of his success. He recently held a party in Glastonbury to mark his retirement and it was well attended. In particular there were over a dozen of what he described as the ‘young crowd’ who used to drink at the Queens Head in the 1990s. Though now not so young, they remembered enough of Simon’s hospitality that they turned up to pay tribute over 20 years later.
Yes, the real secret of a successful pub is surely the ability of the management to get on with people and create customer loyalty. Simon clearly has this quality in spades.