The New Clarence closed it's doors on 30th June 2023. Since then a like minded group of people have come together aiming to revive it as a true community pub, owned and managed by the people it serves. Join the conversation, find out what's happening and, if you want to, how you can help. You're welcome!
The New Clarence wasn't originally a pub at all; in fact it was four separate buildings! These may have originally been four domestic residences, but numbers 77, 78, and 79 Charles Street would become shops, initially with accommodation above.
By the 1980s the corner of Charles Street and John Street was occupied by a Co-op store, with their social club above and offices on the top floor.
At some point in time, we think before the store was converted to a pub, a fire damaged the top floor. The roof was repaired, but the rest was left and simply sealed off - even the staircase(s) were removed.
After the demolition of The Clarence Pub across the road, the store was converted into The New Clarence pub. It seems to have always had a bit of a chequered history. John, who took over the pub in the late 80s told me how on his first day he found the chef reading a newspaper at the end of the bar because the food trade was so quiet. He told the somewhat surprised individual to "get in that kitchen and start sharpening your knives". John's plan was to sell food as cheaply as possible until he had built up the trade. It was a successful strategy - but one he told me he would be less inclined to try today!
By 2014 the pub was on the market, and the next few years saw it pass through the hands of at least half a dozen Pub Companies (more of those another day...). It seemed that with each new owner, came a new landlord - though that's not necessarily the way these things work - I'll be sure to write about that too soon. Nonetheless, it seemed the pub was never open for more than 6 months at a time. This also meant that nobody was doing much in the way of maintenance.
I took the pub over in September 2020. Yep, that's right, bang in the middle that pandemic thing...
We planned to open on September 24th. Before that day arrived it was announced that pubs would face a 10.30pm curfew as from... September 24th. It didn't worry us too much, our business plan had calculated for another lock down that would probably include Christmas and New Year, and not be over until sometime after Easter 2021.
There were good and bad signs in that initial opening period. I swear to this day that the only person we didn't already know as a Chilli Devil's customer who walked through the doors was a retired, alcoholic, ex-civil engineer who was at heart a lovely person, and who had no issue with being told that enough was enough and it was time to go home. (Note to self; do the research and one day write about how pub staff should deal with registered alcoholics). It was great though to see our existing supporters from Chilli Devil's Bar coming to see us in our new home. After that last lock down things went more or less according to plan for a while. We replaced a shed load of broken equipment in the pub (at my expense - another Pub Company issue to write about sometime), and ticked over as the takings slowly went up.
Then we all found out what a tyrant Vladimir Putin could be.
I'll not bore you with the sob story of how hard The New Clarence's fragile financial situation was changed by a 400+% increase in it's energy bills. The bottom line was we were surviving. Unfortunately this was almost entirely because of the deal we were on. We were on a very low rent; we paid only a fraction of the £30k a year the Pub Company thought that a 'successful' New Clarence should be paying. To make it worse, whereas most landlords running their business by leasing a building from a Pub Company are tied to a list of products that they have to buy through the Pub Company, at a profit to the Pub Company, rather than at genuine wholesale prices, we were 'free of tie' on many of the things we sold; this reduced our overheads, but also reduced the Pub Company's profits...
To be honest, it came as no surprise to me when Admiral Taverns decided to dispose of The New Clarence. It was part of a large tranche of pubs it acquired by buying out someone-else; a rationalisation was always on the cards. And therein is the nub of the issue. The New Clarence is ideally situated and suited to become a terrific community pub. We had the philosophy, but not the support from the Pub Company who would not make the investment the pub needed by them unless, first, we somehow created the turnover to pay the rent they wanted, before they made that investment in a much needed refurb...
When I finally handed over the keys, I also got to meet the new area manager from Admiral Taverns, who had been given responsibility for the pub a few weeks before, but had been so busy we hadn't yet had chance to meet (we were actually 10 days late doing the handover for the same reason. Needless to say I had to pay an extra 10 days rent as a result). When he arrived we walked the local area and chatted about the pub before getting down to business. The handover was easy enough, and as we parted I said I was sorry we hadn't been able to meet earlier (my attitude to Admiral Taverns may have been a tad frosty by then). I'll never forget his response; "So am I, if we had I don't think we would have been having this conversation today...". Another issue that many publicans tied to a PubCo will verify - a PubCo's area manager can have an inordinate influence on the success of an individual pub business.
And that's were I thought it had all ended, until...
Just a couple of days before we were due to close we learned about "Assets of Community Value". A few people got talking about how much the pub had meant to them. I was asked if I had some way of contacting regular customers. And the worm turned.*
* See Aesop's fable "The Farmer and the Viper", or Shakespeare, Henry VI Part II (1591) Act II, Scene II.