The Bell Founding Members

Our Story

Your favourite pub ought to be special - if not, why not? - and this one has been for decades. It’s had a great reputation for live music going back to the ‘70s at least, and has been one of the unofficial headquarters of the arty / techie / provocateurish Walcot set for nearly as long. Walcot itself was outside the city walls, and a part of the town with a large number of pubs because of the cattle market and the coaching trade.

You’ll have read all this on other pages but I repeat it here because it was the particular community that treats it as its alternative front room who rallied round, all 537 of them (and more who didn’t get on board in time) who raised getting on for a million quid (NB. This figure includes a bank loan, but we’d not have got that if we hadn’t had the support) because of how special they found the place. Communities can be hard to define, but in this case there is one self defining indicator (at least) that marks us out, that we chipped in because we didn’t want to see our favourite hangout become a gastropub or be run by people with more money than sense.

“To me, the Bell is a crucial and integral venue and a great window into the world of music and entertainment in the West Country."

Robert Plant
Bell Inn Buyout, Robert Plant
We tell the story this way because without this community we’d not be where we are today. Of course some members just liked the idea of saving a pub, and others spotted that it was likely a sensible financial proposition, but neither of those groups would have raised that kind of money without the bulk of our members, those who identified with the place or the kind of place, and wanted to make sure it survived.
And if you’re looking to do the same trick, that’s where you need to look first, your community. Pub projects we’ve met who have failed to raise the asking price, despite the hard work and clear arguments of a core group, are all places who didn’t identify and reach the community who wanted it enough.
In our case that community don’t all live round here, and that’s very worth remembering if you’re looking at, say, saving a walkers’ pub in a beautiful area where too few people live to support it year round. We have members around the country and even around the world – and we have succeeded in having these because we managed to tell the right story to the right people - because other members of our community bothered to spend the time stirring others up and getting the story out.
Without much experience in anything other than selling gigs we managed to get press and media locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. We were lucky because it was a story whose time had come, but that’s ok, it’s not one whose time has gone away yet either.
We owe a lot to the volunteer Bell fans who took the time and developed the connections to get some big names in music on our side (we were lucky, some actual legends do drop in to the place from time to time) and they helped the story grow and spread. There’s a list here of those who visibly aligned themselves with our cause, and for the most part they or their circle also bought into the CoOp. Other musicians with local connections, some legendary and some the local favourites who pack the place on a gig night also signed up on the share register (we don’t publish that so you’ll have to take our word for it).
There are visual artists, writers, actors, performers, festival organisers, cultural figures. But there are also many many who wouldn’t call themselves any of those, people who seriously care about a good time and get themselves out there to support it. They're the actual bedrock of the party

"For more than 30 years Bath has evolved as a great place for music and especially for nurturing new talent in many areas. The Bell has always been a key part of Bath's live music scene, often giving musicians their first break and always providing music that is vibrant, diverse and free.”

Peter Gabriel
Another crucial collection of people are those who were enthusiasts for collective and community ownership. Some of these were among the founder members or early supporters, and others responded over and beyond the remit of their jobs to help us out. Together we were trying to ‘write the book’ about how to do this, to map the path and make the mistakes so you don’t have to.


Under this heading we have to pick out Avon Cooperative Development, the Community Shares Unit, and our then MP Don Foster (Liberal Democrat). Those organisations or their successors are worth consulting—there is also a lot more online now than there used to be.

Note that there are a variety of routes to the kind of organisational structure, incentives, financial rules, and legal & democratic safeguards that a healthy organisation of this sort needs, and different organisations emphasise different models—CoOps (that’s what we are), Community Benefit Societies, Community Trusts, Community Interest Companies, Partnerships—it’s worth getting your thinking organs around a few of the alternatives, and it’s worth talking about and comparing them among the people you want to do it together with, so you own the decisions. We did a lot of talking, and just about all of it was useful one way or another, even if some of it turned out to be things we didn’t decide to do.
Peter Gabriel and The Bell
Yes we talked a lot. To start with persuading ourselves it was a good idea to do something, then getting the feeling for the motivation as to why and how. It’s long-winded but it ended up with a lot of people being completely on board and connected to even the minutiae of what we did, and there’s no substitute for that. Pubs are landmarks in a built environment, often for centuries, so you have to build something with staying power, and you need your current and future communities on board to do that.

We owned the process. We ran our own share offer, we wrote or commissioned business plans, share offer documents, media releases, and that’s still how we’d do it if we did it again.

In December we heard there was a problem. In January, Steve called a meeting and it became an opportunity. We had some more meetings and it was a proposal. In July we had the keys, we were running, the pub had been open throughout, we’d had some great parties - and the people kept on coming.

The departing owner, Ian Wood, shaped the process, at least partly unwittingly.

He wanted everything done quickly, and that was the one thing I would have changed if we could have, not least because it really wore out some of the core group. But it did have the unforeseen positive consequence that we didn’t have a long slack period where nothing much happened and no money was coming in. In any community buyout you’re going to get some of the money at the beginning but most of it at the end (if you‘ve reached enough people with your story in the meantime) and a long pause without much happening can be dispiriting. Whether more so than feeling you’ve got a mountain to climb very quickly, well I don’t know…

Ian was converted fairly quickly to the idea that a community buyout would enable the place to continue being the one that he’d spent years building up (always a good argument) so he was happy enough to deal with us if we weren’t being too slow (once starting the process he wanted it over). You won’t always be lucky like that, although ACV (Asset of Community Value) status can help slow down an owner who is just trying to move quickly to the payout (it might not make for good relations, so plan your reasons carefully and make sure everyone knows why.

Announcement of the final figure raised

Ian also helped us by continuing to pay the then manager Patrick Cave (who doesn’t always get all the credit he deserves in this story), including enough time to draw up the figures for the business plan, which would otherwise have cost us more time and money.

Ultimately, this was a really positive experience. It was a lot harder work and took more time than any of us thought, but was also one of the biggest feelings of success that any of us has been involved in – and if we carry on playing our cards right we have a social and cultural institution (and thriving business, and nice place to go) that we value to pass on to further generations, and that’s not something that many can say.

“The Bell and Glastonbury Festival are both part of the same family and are trying to do the same thing in their own distinct ways. We must not allow the Bell to become just another chain pub or worse, and I would urge everyone to support this splendid community enterprise."

Michael Eavis, founder and boss of Glastonbury Festival
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