The Railway Inn – striving for the high notes!

Local blogger David of Venturing Near and Far gives us his review of local pub The Railway Inn and explains how they need our help more than ever.

The Railway Inn Winchester

Winchester’s live music venue at the Victorian-built Railway Inn (located near the station in Fulflood), has been part of the Winchester cultural fabric for many years. It is the city’s only place providing regular music and other events virtually every evening of the week. Even if I have not got along to the venue as much as I really should have, it is heartening to know that Winchester has a long established live music venue of this kind.  Yet sadly, its future has been at risk.

Over the years, it has put on a variety of artists, some of them new on the scene, some of established vintage, some on tour from North America and always willing to support upcoming local acts. They showcase just about everything from rock and blues to folk, jazz and hip-hop. Oliver Gray’s SC4M September weekend festival of Americana and other promotions have seen a line of outstanding American acts regularly stop off here on their UK tours.

Previous artists have included Laura Marling who began her career at the Railway Open Mic sessions, Razorlight and Frank Turner. The venue’s website provides a far more extensive and impressive list of past performers.

Struggling to exist
The Railway has kept going on a precarious existence over recent years despite changes in landlords. It is certainly at something of a cross roads, either continuing to struggle along as it is at the moment, or expanding into a much broader cultural, creative, arts hub serving a diverse community.

Live grassroots music venues have been under constant pressure in recent years. Some will remember the draconian licencing conditions introduced under New Labour at the start of the century. Thankfully the Live Music Act 2012 eased the regulations surrounding grassroots entertainment and music venues.

The Music Venue Trust (established in 2014) reports that 5 venues have closed in 2018 alone.  Several others are believed to be under serious threat due to financial difficulties, planning threats and a lack of national funding. Regionally for instance, both the Joiners Arms in Southampton and The Brook in Portswood have faced periods of uncertainty. More locally, it is now several years since the County Council sadly axed The Tower in Winchester as a community arts venue. This year, the Railway Inn has faced the realistic prospect of closing, but has confronted it by launching a crowdfunding appeal in April.

Business rates have been a critical factor affecting the viability of The Railway and venues like it. Rising commercial rates have hit it hard as it is not eligible for any discounts that would be awarded if it was recognised as an arts or cultural facility. This does feel rather harsh.

The Railway Inn Winchester

Community value
Establishments like this should not be regarded as purely commercial businesses, but be recognised and valued as creative hubs that support and foster the arts in its many forms which do much to nurture fledgling artists and the potential stars of tomorrow.

The Railway does not just host live music but also caters for a wider diversity of artistic interests such as ‘open mic’ nights, poetry, comedy, ‘club nights’ and has more recently held talks and quizzes. It retains ideas for expanding this palette further. One idea is to revive some theatre which reportedly went down well in the past. The Railway very much recognises its responsibility to continue supporting the creative community in and around the city. It has been a good neighbour having peacefully co-existed with nearby residents without noise complaints being made for at least a couple of years.

In effect it is two venues in one.  For bigger gigs there is The Barn (carved into St Paul’s Hill with one side completely underground) providing a capacity of 150. The Attic (capacity 60) provides a more intimate space upstairs.

Over recent months, there has been a noticeable broadening of the type of events and art forms that the venue has hosted and it claims to want to go further with this. Initiatives such as providing a professional space for 9-16 year olds to rehearse, develop, and perform their own music; hosting educational speakers and networking events that champion social responsibility and sustainability issues; and offering internships to students interested in developing a career in the creative industries through practical experience and hands-on access to the inner workings of the creative industry. 

If the venue were to close, it would be a hammer blow to the local creative community that would then have only limited chances to flourish.  

The Railway Inn Winchester

The pub owners
The Railway Inn is owned by Marstons.  As a listed building, Marston’s could not in all likelihood knock it down for any kind of redevelopment. There is almost a compulsion to continue its existence in some form or another.  Although Dan Lloyd, the current tenant landlord, is obliged to stock the drinks from them, he retains the scope for developing the pub within the terms of his 5 year lease. He and his staff show a great enthusiasm for enhancing this grassroots venue.

However, it arguably suffers from being in a less than ideal location away from the centre of the city, and having the capital to realise the ambitions is an ongoing issue.. 

Crowdfunding campaign
In order to secure its future, the Railway began a crowdfunding campaign to seek community financial support that would allow it to modernise, undertake renovations and generally improve its facilities and equipment. 

To encourage support they offered a range of rewards from specially designed T-shirts, a year’s free pool, to ‘loyalty card’ schemes offering discounts and advance notifications of events. For commercial enterprises, potential sponsorship opportunities and other services were offered.

On 13th May 2018, the immediate target of £10,000 was exceeded thanks to the contributions of over 250 supporters. It has provided a confidence that things are looking up. This will enable the venue to not only keep going but also provide improved disabled access to toilet and gig facilities.  

Beyond this, further funds are still required for renovating the performance areas including suitable air conditioning in the Attic; sustaining and improving internship schemes including the need for upgrading sound equipment; and creating a bespoke multi-generational space that supports educational and entrepreneurial initiatives for all members of the community.

More fundraising measures will be needed and it feels as if the project will likely take longer than initially hoped for but there is a re-assuring tone that the imminent risk of closing has been addressed. That does not mean that one should be complacent. More needs to be done.

Seeking new foundations?
Standing back and looking in from the outside, may be the Railway needs to re-conceptualise itself. Rather than being regarded as a pub with a music backroom, it could promote itself as a music or performance venue with bar facilities. This may be a tricky balancing act, but may be they might then get a more sympathetic listening as far as business rates are concerned. Perhaps an imaginative re-launch of some kind would help generate favourable publicity to boost its presence and announce upcoming events as it enters a new era. 

I’m not claiming to have all the answers here, but it feels wrong to regard grassroots music or performance venues as solely commercial concerns which too often has been the path to ultimate failure. Reconfiguring it as some kind of social enterprise or Community Interest Company where any profits or assets are used for wider public good, would perhaps better reflect what the Railway is trying to provide.

Whilst Marstons have been supportive, or at least acquiescent to the crowdfunding initiative, they could do more to support this community-orientated, creative and performance art facility and the nurturing of local talent. They claim they have a commitment to local communities. According to their 2017 Annual Report, celebrating local communities is one of their five corporate responsibility priorities.

Whilst this might explain their tacit support for the crowdfunding initiative, it seems that with a little bit of imagination Marstons could extend this strategy while at the same time gaining greater kudos for helping The Railway to flourish!

With a collective will it seems Marstons, the Council along with the enthusiastic  commitment of the Railway’s landlord and staff should get together to form some kind of supportive partnership. There is a pedigree of something fairly unique happening at The Railway which deserves fuller support. It would be a tragedy to allow this facility and its vision for the creative community to collapse.

The Railway Inn Winchester

How can you help?
If like me you think that live music and other creative art forms need supporting, then individuals can do a number of basic or simple things that will help support both the venue and the commitment of the staff.

Although the formal crowdfunding initiative has formally expired (at least for now), may be the best thing to do is get out and support a gig or two, or just make a point of dropping by for a drink. The bar takings help subsidise the events that can be put on. There is a good outdoor seating area for relaxing if the weather is kind. 

Sitting at the edge of Fulflood and the maze of narrow streets behind Oram’s Arbour, it’s a nice area to stroll around, so why not make the pub part of a neighbourhood stroll.

They have already put on dedicated fundraising gigs where all proceeds go towards further boosting the crowdfunder kitty, so keep a look out for the next ones.

More generally, if you still wish to donate, or can offer any assistance then email  The Railway already benefits from the work and commitment of volunteers and friends of The Railway Inn, but help is still required for various other finishing touches, furnishings and décor improvements.  

Fancy helping out, anyone?

David Tozer ©2018

To find out more about David and his passions, follow him on Instagram or head over to his website.