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Posted: 21st December 2021

After two decades running Shepherd Neame pub the Walnut Tree in Aldington, licensee Karen Barrett was presented with a Certificate of Achievement from the Mayor of Ashford Cllr Callum Knowles this month. 

The award states ‘In recognition of 20 years of exceptional community service through the creation of a hub for local groups and activities, tireless charitable fundraising and as a selfless volunteer caring for others through cooking and provision of supplies during the Covid lockdowns of 2020’.

It isn’t Karen’s first honour in recognition of her community work, as she was also presented with a Heart of the Community Award at Shepherd Neame’s annual Pub Awards in 2019. The Walnut Tree is a meeting place for a host of local organisations including the Aldington Women’s Institute, men’s church group, Microlight Society, Knit and Natterers, and the local bridge club, along with supporting Aldington’s football and cricket clubs.  Karen’s charity work includes volunteering as a trustee at Kaleidoscope Childcare, hosting a quiz for the charity on the last Sunday of each month, and she is also currently running a raffle to raise £5,000 for the Fire Fighters Charity.

To celebrate her achievement, we chatted to Karen about her life and career for the latest in our series of Five Minutes With… features.

Name: Karen Barrett
Age: 58 
Favourite Shepherd Neame beer:
Spitfire Lager 
Favourite non-Shepherd Neame tipple: Gin and tonic 

How did you get into the hospitality industry? 
When I was 16 we went on a family holiday to Wales where I got a summer job in hospitality and absolutely loved it. Two and half years later, I moved to South Africa where I lived for eight years, and during my time there I started running restaurants, gaining experience and learning as I went, and have been doing it ever since! 

What attracted you to Shepherd Neame?
After my time in South Africa I came back to the UK, got married and had my son. My brother was running the Red Lion in Rusthall near Tunbridge Wells, which was a Shepherd Neame-owned pub at the time. When he went away on holiday, I looked after the pub for him and really enjoyed it. Shortly after his return, he decided to pursue a new challenge so I applied to formally take on the Red Lion as licensee. I stayed there for two years before Director of Tenanted Operations Greg Wallis got in touch to see if I would be interested in taking on the bigger challenge of the Walnut Tree, Aldington. I am so grateful that I did. This pub has been a wonderful home for my family over the past two decades; both my children, who were three and 18 months old when we arrived, have grown up here. Running the Walnut Tree isn’t a job, it’s a way of life. The bar is my front room, where I’ve watched generations of families grow up, with parents bringing in their children who have grown and now visit the pub by themselves! I love working with Shepherd Neame – everyone has always been so supportive over the years, and they have really been there for their licensees during the extraordinary events of the past 18 months.

What personal characteristics help you in your role?
I would say that the key is to have patience and a sense of humour, as well as treating other how you want to be treated.  

What is most rewarding about the job?
It’s got to be all the different people I get to meet and interact with – and that means everyone, from my customers and my staff, to the Shepherd Neame team and everyone else.

Karen Barrett licensee of the Walnut Tree, Aldington

Walnut Tree, Aldington

What do you consider your biggest success so far?
We pride ourselves on being a village pub at the heart of the community, which is why we have always placed so much importance on raising funds for charity and supporting local residents and groups. One of my proudest moments was being presented with a Heart of the Community Award at Shepherd Neame’s annual Pub Awards in 2019. But without a doubt, my biggest success was a charity wing walk I completed years ago, raising funds for the village school. To amplify this further, comedian and broadcaster Paul O’Grady, who lives nearby, recorded it and played it on his show. Although Paul doesn’t pop into the pub often, during the first lockdown he called to check in on the team, mentioning the Walnut Tree on his podcast with Gaby Roslin. Paul also mentioned the Walnut Tree at the Pride of Britain Awards, thanking the team for our community efforts during lockdown, including delivering free meals to vulnerable people in the village. 

How have you coped during the pandemic?
Throughout the difficulties of the pandemic we have maintained a ‘glass half full’ attitude, thinking about what we can do to help others. We delivered meals to village residents, with no charge for the vulnerable. For some people, we were their only point of contact during lockdown. My daughter made some of the deliveries, which meant she got to reconnect with many locals who have watched her grow up. We were busier over that period than some weeks when open normally! 

What is the secret to your success over this time?
I have had ups and downs like everyone else, but to me, it is the people that support you that make the experience successful. If I had to pinpoint it, a life-changing moment was meeting the late Shepherd Neame Development Chef Carol Haime. Carol arrived when I was struggling to find ways to reinvigorate our pub offer, and gave me her time and instilled me with courage, helping me to move forward. I’d also like to extend a big thank you to my Business Development Manager Chris Hole, the current Development Chef Lucy Knox and Tied Trade Support Administrator Bev Hatswell, who have provided such amazing support. They are always there to help out, which is wonderful. 

What are your hobbies and interests outside work?
I have 18 cats – all different moggies – so that keeps me pretty busy! Mainly though, I enjoy catching up with people – whether that be my family, or socialising with my customers. 

About the Walnut Tree
The Walnut Tree is an historic pub in the village of Aldington. Built during the reign of Richard II, the pub, which would have started life as a modest wattle and daub hut, retains many period features, including oak beams and an inglenook fireplace.

Today, the pub is known for its excellent home-cooked food, including a popular Sunday roast, and for their famous ‘sizzling grillstones’. This ancient cooking method involves cooking meat on hot stones on the tables, to your liking. In addition, the menu offers a range of classic British dishes, plus vegetarian options, bar snacks, a children’s menu, and daily specials.

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