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Mason's Arms: Snowed inn in deepest Devon

05 January 2006

At the end of November Jack Frost and his snowy cohort paid a visit to north Devon. "I'd been joking for a couple of days that Knowstone would be snowed in at some stage," laughs Mark Dodson, chef-proprietor of the Mason's Arms, "and when we woke up, the world outside was white!"

The village is tucked away in a hollow at the end of a winding country lane, which meant that roads were icy and dangerous. The Dodsons' immediate problems were whether or not to take their daughters to school in nearby villages - they remained at home in the end - and how to get a North Devon College student who had been on work placement to the station.

Luckily, when they bought the Mason's Arms back in June, they also purchased a four-wheel-drive vehicle, so Mark was able to "gingerly" drive the student there and then pick up sous chef Darren Edwards, who had no other safe means to get to work.

But it wasn't only staff who were experiencing problems getting in and out of Knowstone. While he was on the way to the station, Mark got a phone call from his wife and co-owner, Sarah. "One of our delivery drivers was on the top of Knowstone Moor and didn't fancy the steep hill down to the village, so we rendezvous-ed en route instead," Mark tells me, "and he was very grateful."

Unsurprisingly, the weather influenced business, too. A table for five booked in for lunch was cancelled, and during the day all the evening bookings followed suit. There was only one route the Dodsons could go - that was to close the restaurant for the evening. They kept the doors open for lunch: three hardy souls turned up from afar, as well as a few locals. Mark says: "We gave the locals a bowl of soup and complimentary warm bread, which they were very appreciative of - and, after lunch, set about building a snow penguin with the girls."

Naturally, that day turned out to be their poorest day of business. "There's absolutely no point in panicking," says a philosophical Mark. "We just cleaned the place from top to bottom and had a great time with the girls."

But every cloud has a silver lining. The next day the snow thawed and it turned out to be the busiest day since the couple bought the Mason's Arms, with 52 covers in total. "The two days were weird," concedes Mark. "We took £182 on the Friday and £1,850 on the Saturday - a tenfold increase. You don't want that to happen too often."

We were speaking in mid-December, with Christmas looming on the horizon. With nothing to benchmark Christmas business against, the Dodsons had decided to open for most of the festive season, albeit for lunch service only from Christmas Day to 27 December and on New Year's Day, with the intervening days, including New Year's Eve, operating on more normal lines.

For Christmas Day, Mark had drawn up a five-course set-price menu (£57.50 per person), with alternatives at first course (ballottine of foie gras with quince chutney and pickled beetroot, or smoked salmon and crab parcel and a citrus fruit salad), main (medallion of Devon beef with mushrooms, or turkey with traditional trimmings) and dessert (Christmas pud, or chocolate caramelised hazelnut mousse). The second course was a light pan-fried scallop with apple and hazelnut salad and a cider nage, while the meal was rounded off with coffee and mince pies.

Predicting which wines would sell well against the meal was difficult because of the option of white meat, fish and beef. In general, since the onset of colder weather, more reds than whites have been ordered, so Mark, when pushed, took a punt on Chteauneuf-du-Pape (£28) and a slightly more expensive 2003 New Zealand Pinot Noir from Quartz Reef (£36.50) as being likely to get the tills turning.

As Caterer went to press in the third week of December, bookings were good, with only one table left for Christmas Day. "We've got mostly locals in over Christmas, so we're going for open seating with a buffet brunch on Boxing Day," explains Mark. Which was probably just as well because, if the weather forecasters were right and snow made a return over the holiday, locals were more likely to make it over the inn's threshold for their festive day out than guests from further afield.

The story so far

The property: Mason's Arms, Knowstone, Devon
Bought: 21 June
Owners: Mark and Sarah Dobson
Purchase price: "close to" £695,000
What is it? 13th-century inn with small bar and lounge, plus 18-seat restaurant
Early accolade:Egon Ronay Restaurant and Gastropub Guide, one star; rave review by Jan Moir in Daily Telegraph, 30 June
November turnover: £25,000 gross (above business plan projection)
Target annual turnover: £275,000 gross

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