Behind the award-winning Derbyshire pub serving food all day

It had been a few years since I’d been to the Staff of Life, the largest pub in Ticknall, but I’d not taken against it. I don’t live far away and the Calke Abbey estate and its surrounds are a popular walking area for my family. We like the Milking Parlour, Tollgate Brewery’s bar in the countryside, and I am especially fond of the traditional cosiness and brilliant Draught Bass offered by the Chequers Inn in the village.

The “other” pub in Ticknall, the Wheel, is sadly closed again while Star Pubs and Bars try to get someone to put up a lump sum before the next “planned refurbishment”. Anyway, some weeks back the family were looking to rendezvous from various directions and we wanted to eat, but it was past normal lunchtime hours for most pubs and even for some cafes.

That was when the Staff of Life saved the day. Food is served all day – that really is quite unusual these days – and very good it was, too.

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The service was superb, cheerful, quick and the classic “nothing was too much trouble”. They had beers from Derby’s Little Brewing as well as from Timothy Taylor’s, so I was further impressed. It is a big building, perhaps not immediately obviously a pub from one angle if you are a stranger approaching it coming down High Street towards the centre of the village, but you can’t miss it.

I made a mental note to check back and find out the latest. I’d been aware that the Staff of Life, while locally-owned, had been through a number of managers over the years. Now it seemed to be heading in the right direction. And then, this week, I was prompted into finding out more when I read that the pub had won an award, having been nominated as an outstanding bed and breakfast establishment to something called the Prestige Awards.

The Staff of Life is a big building right in the middle of the village, with eight B&B rooms.
The Staff of Life is a big building right in the middle of the village, with eight B&B rooms.

Licensees John Pankhurst and Jayne Walls had taken their whole team down to Birmingham to receive it, and they’re understandably chuffed. They’re chuffed, too, with the way things are going. They have been at the Staff of Life for three years, having come in during lockdown, but they have just passed a year as owners of the business, having initially been managers.

John is a Londoner, although born to armed services parents in Germany, and Jayne is from Birmingham. They met in Spain, where both were running bars and restaurants. The hospitality business has figured large in both of their whole careers.

“I started out at 14 in a Little Chef,” says John. “Since then I’ve worked for several of the big pub companies. We met in Spain in 2015 and came back to England in 2018, where we ran a pool and snooker hall in Tamworth. Throughout my whole career, though, I wanted a country pub.”

“And I wanted a bed and breakfast,” adds Jayne, who has clocked up 25 years in hospitality since starting at 16. Well, the Staff of Life has eight letting rooms, so they have both been able to fulfil their wish in Ticknall. They liked the pub as soon as they saw it: “It felt comfortable when we first looked around it. I think you tend to know when something’s just right,” says Jayne.

They took on a two-year management contract when they came in, but with the owners looking to take a step towards retirement and with that contract coming towards its end, a conversation about something more permanent soon happened: “We’d put too much blood, sweat and tears into it to walk away,” says Jayne simply.

Table service had, of course, been a necessity when the pub first reopened after lockdown, but the couple have seen no reason to change it and it suits the layout of the pub, with its one main bar and a nice little snug off it: “Table service suited us, too, because we’d done that in Spain anyway, so we still do it here,” says Jayne.

Success is never guaranteed in the pub trade, especially in the current climate, but the Staff of Life is well set up to succeed, if run well, given that Calke Abbey is adjacent, Donington Park not far away and apart from a big criss-cross of walks in and around the village, it’s also close to both Foremark and Staunton Harold reservoirs. Naturally, there is a good deal of passing trade, but with their feet firmly under the table John and Jayne are also engaging the local community.

“We’re happy with how it’s going but you never take anything for granted,” says John. “It was a struggle when we came out of Covid, when there were still some restrictions. But we’ll keep doing what we’re doing because it seems to be working. We have eight staff and we took them all with us to the awards because this is a team effort – although they feel more like family than a team.”

A lot of people in business say that, of course, but it was a clear impression I got from my previous visit as a customer and I told them how good it had been to find they were still doing food deep into the afternoon: “The pub used to close in the afternoon but we think if we’re here, we’re open,” is how John sees it.

Actually, they open six days a week, closing, as many do, on a Monday: “It’s not so much a day off as a day for catching up with everything, though,” adds John. They seem to have caught up pretty well. It’s good to see such a big country pub doing so well.

Enjoyed reading this article? You can find more of Beerhunter Colston Crawford’s columns here.


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