The Chestnut Group’s growing family of inns was established in 2012 and is the vision of Suffolk born and bred Philip Turner, who left his career in the City to champion East Anglia. Emma Outten meets him at The Northgate in Bury St Edmunds
It doesn’t sound as though Philip Turner has any regrets about leaving his 20-year career in the City behind and buying his tired local pub.
From that moment when he found out that The King’s Head in Moulton, near Newmarket, was up for sale, it has led him to establishing The Chestnut Group, a family of country – and, latterly, coastal – inns, of which there are nine (and counting).
Sitting in a cosy corner of one of them, The Northgate in Bury St Edmunds, the 50 year old is clearly passionate about hospitality in East Anglia.
The grandson of a farmer, he grew up in Gislingham on the Norfolk/Suffolk border and went to Old Buckenham Hall School, before studying economics at Bristol University.
In his 20s, he had ideas of getting into the food business but ended up working in the banking and hedge fund industry, instead. ‘I lived in London, spent a couple of years in Hong Kong and a little bit of time in New York and had lots of fun but, all of the way through, I felt slightly like a fish out of water,’ says Philip.
In the mid-noughties he went through a divorce and met somebody he knew from childhood. ‘I reconnected with Suffolk and East Anglia, and moved back.’
To Moulton, to be precise. He recalls how he and his now wife, Amanda, took friends to see a fireworks display in the village and he noted that the pub ‘had one or two people serving’ and a ‘hundred yard’ long queue of people waiting to get a drink and a hot dog. ‘I thought ‘this is crazy – there has to be a better way of doing this’.’
So when it came up for sale, he bought it. ‘I had this clarity of vision – we were going to turn it into an eight-bedroomed destination place.’ The King’s Head became The Packhorse Inn and, as he recalls: ‘It was unbelievably busy from the moment we opened.’
One of the reasons? ‘We got the food right,’ says Philip. ‘Newmarket is all about red meat and red wine and it suited how we were doing things.’
The next acquisition was The Rupert Brooke in Grantchester near Cambridge, a different market altogether. Trying to replicate the Packhorse menu was a learning curve: ‘Our signature dish was coq au vin and we couldn’t have got it more wrong – there were a lot of vegetarians and people who didn’t necessarily drink.’
He continues: ‘We then bought The Northgate, which is where we are now.’ It’s a townhouse inn offering interactive kitchen and bar experiences, but then it was ‘two houses run as a bed and breakfast,’ says Philip. ‘It took us two years between buying the building and actually opening it.’ The rollercoaster ride continued in the meantime – let’s just say The White Horse at Easton was a short-lived member of the group.
The Black Lion in Long Melford and The Blackbirds in Woodditton both followed and the rollercoaster ride has continued. ‘I’d known the Blackbirds for a long time,’ says Philip. ‘Then we had the very unfortunate incident last March when it burnt down, so that was another blow.’ However, the hope is that it will reopen in the autumn.
Last summer The Chestnut Group added The Westleton Crown and The Ship at Dunwich to its family. ‘One of the areas we hadn’t yet got to, but wanted to get to, was the Heritage Coast,’ says Philip. With a combined 50 bedrooms, ‘all of a sudden I felt like that acquisition made us grow up as a business.’
But it doesn’t end there: ‘Just as people thought I’d finished shopping for the year I had a spree in December.’ So, at the start of this year, Chestnut announced that it had added The Weeping Willow (Barrow, near Bury St Edmunds) and The Eight Bells (Saffron Walden) to its family. ‘That took us up to nine properties across the portfolio.’
Could it go into double figures? Sounds like it, as he reveals: ‘We’ve got a couple we’re negotiating on at the moment.’
Philip is conscious that the Group has nothing in Norfolk. ‘I’d like to find somewhere two or three miles outside of Norwich.’
And he adds: ‘We are regionally ambitious. We are an East Anglian business and thrive on East Anglian products. Think about the food we have in the region, whether it’s Bressingham duck, Blythburgh pork, or The Fens, which has some of the best vegetables in the country. We’ve got a series of businesses which are here to showcase what the region has to offer.’
He says of the Group: ‘Our values are very simple: to be genuine, team focused, and have fun. I’m not on some big ego trip – I don’t put my name above the door.’
The year is going well. ‘We’ve had an amazing Mothers’ Day, we did 1121 covers,’ says Philip. The Group is planning to spend £1.5million on projects such as refurbishing the rooms in the coastal inns, and look out for the launch of a loyalty scheme in the autumn.
Does he have a favourite property? ‘On a sunny day going to lunch at the Weeping Willow is uplifting; on a cold winter’s night the Packhorse, with friends, is just one of those places where you feel like the building wraps its arms around you.’
Then again, he adds: ‘I’ve got four dogs, so walking them along Dunwich beach and being able to take them into The Ship and have fish and chips is one of the great life experiences.’
So, no regrets about leaving the City? ‘In comparison, the highs are higher and the lows are lower , but, no, I don’t have a moment of regret.’
Featured in issue 36 – May 2019 – Big Interview