Joined: 25 Jul 2005
Location: St. Pauls, Bristol, England
|Posted: Tue Oct 13, 2015 10:54 pm Post subject:
|The death and life of the great British pub
Across the country, pubs are being shuttered at an alarming rate – scooped up by developers and ransacked for profit – changing the face of neighbourhoods and turning our beloved locals into estate agents, betting shops, and luxury flats. This is the story of how one pub fought back
Tuesday 13 October 2015 06.00 BST Last modified on Tuesday 13 October 2015 16.01 BST
The Murphy family, John, Mary and their adult son Dave, were preparing to spend a 33rd Christmas as landlords of the Golden Lion pub in Camden, north London when they heard the rumours. A mysterious figure was said to be looming in their corner of the industry, harrying publicans, striking down premises. There was “a Grim Reaper of pubs”, the Murphys were told, and he was circling their handsome Victorian building on Royal College Street.
It was December 2011. In front of the pub’s eyelash-shaped bar, beneath a blackboard that, for as long as anyone could remember, had advertised a heavy discount on tumblers of Irish Mist, the family met with a representative of Admiral Taverns. Admiral was the large pub-owning company – a pubco, as they are known in the trade – that leased the Murphy family their tenancy at the Golden Lion. “The rep told us she had bad news,” said Dave Murphy, a solid, red-cheeked man in his 40s.
Dave Murphy was 11 in 1978, the year his parents signed their first lease at the Golden Lion, and moved the family in to rooms on the building’s upper storeys. Their previous home, in Holloway, had backed on to a prison. Now Dave got to tell school friends he lived in a pub. Before remaking himself as a landlord, John Murphy, originally from Cork, had worked for years in London as a bus driver. Mary, from Galway, had been a nurse. “You’re nursing the sick. And suddenly you’re nursing the drinkers,” Mary recalled, of the transition. “I don’t think I found it too difficult.”
In the 1970s the Golden Lion was owned by Charrington: delicate tiling spelled out the name of the British brewery in magnificent celebration on the bar-back. In the 1990s, Charrington was absorbed by Punch Taverns, one of the muscular pubcos that were then coming to dominate the industry. When Punch sold on a batch of the pubs it had inherited from Charrington to Admiral Taverns in the 2000s, the Golden Lion changed hands once more. Dave Murphy said the family usually found out about these events informally, over cups of tea, whenever a rep from whichever company then owned them stopped by. “They had a habit of telling you everything afterwards,” he said.
Dave Murphy, the landlord of the Golden Lion in Camden, north London.
Dave Murphy, the landlord of the Golden Lion in Camden, north London. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
The family had learned to be bullish about the passing of their pub from one lofty brand to another. It never much affected their lives at drip-tray height. In the eyes of their regular customers, the Murphys were the Golden Lion. Their hands were on the taps of Guinness and Guinness Extra Cold, they signed the orders on boxes of Tayto crisps. The Murphys brushed down the pool table before evening league matches and heard the grumbles of anyone who had lost a pound or more in the flashing Dream Machine. They had hosted parties for weddings, christenings, communions. One regular, his photograph kept afterwards on a shelf above the till, had been served a last pint by Mary Murphy before dying on the pavement outside; his wake took place back indoors.
The Golden Lion is a local landmark, a towering red-brick building with a double-peaked roof and a high, pronged chimney. Seen from a distance along Royal College Street, the building looks a little like one of those Chinese cat dolls that wave. Closer, the exterior reveals fancy adornment, carved stone, colourful glazed ceramics, Dutch gables – showy work done when the Golden Lion was pulled down and rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. Its owner back then was a Victorian businessman named Will Hetherington. He put an advertisement in the parish newspaper at the time to boast of his expensive refurbishment, inviting locals to make use of the Lion’s “comfort and convenience”. In a century of successive ownership, the Golden Lion remained always a locals’ pub, used for the most part by those who lived and worked within a few hundred metres of the front door.
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Under the Murphys’ stewardship, carpets, curtains, and horsey wallpaper were removed over time, leaving a clean, pale-walled interior with bare wooden floors. The family brought in a jukebox, a dartboard, later a pair of flatscreen TVs, mounted at either end of the saloon and kept tuned, as a rule, to sport, quiz shows, or (on weekend evenings) talent contests. Benches outside were taken up, even in winter, by smokers. In the men’s loo a passing Arsenal fan had felt-tipped a crude club badge above the sink and Dave Murphy, an Arsenal fan himself, had not yet ordered it to be washed away. John Murphy, after decades in charge, had retired for health reasons, and Dave was now responsible for the Golden Lion’s overall management. Though he no longer lived above the pub, Mary did. She still served behind the bar every afternoon and evening.
During their meeting with the Admiral rep, the family were told the Golden Lion had been sold on once more. Not to another pubco, but to a private individual. Dave Murphy remembered the Admiral rep being sympathetic and, speaking candidly, she told them that the man who now owned the Golden Lion “was notorious for shutting pubs down”. After the meeting, Dave Murphy rang around some friends in the business. He read out the name he’d scribbled on a piece of paper: Antony Stark.
Had anyone heard of him?
“I was told, this was it,” Murphy remembered. “The Grim Reaper. That if he knocked on the door of your pub, well … it meant the end.”
2. A plague of developers
Counting the closures of rural inns, high-street noise boxes, sticky-carpet boozers of the backstreets, it can be said that roughly 30 pubs shut every week in the UK; a rate of decline that, as one group of worried analysts has calculated, would mean total elimination of the British pub by the 2040s.
The massive number of pubs in Britain, something between 50,000 and 60,000, is credited by some to the Black Death. Plague-struck, the 14th-century Britons who had not been annihilated were left in an emptier land, earning higher wages, perhaps better inclined to enjoy themselves. They spent more time and money than ever before in purpose-built taverns or private residences that would sell them drink. Some 700 years later, the pubs themselves have contracted a form of plague. Call it the Black Development.
Closures began on a pandemic scale around the time of the 2008 financial crash, when spending in pubs dropped with the recession. Landlords’ profits fell. Meanwhile many of the pubcos, which had undergone rapid expansion during the 90s and 2000s, found themselves over indebted. As the property market collapsed, they were urged by creditors to offload assets, and this meant selling on pubs – often in great anonymous batches. Though British pubcos tend to assume names suggestive of either boozy bonhomie (Punch Taverns, Faucet Inns) or basic vigour and drive (Enterprise Inns, Admiral Taverns) they are as a rule cheerless, lumbering concerns. Landlords whose pubs were traded by the pubcos after the crash were not often consulted, or even told in advance. The Murphys’ experience – of hearing about a major change in their professional lives from a visiting rep, and in the form of an “Oh, by the way …” – was common.
Some of the thousands of pubs that were sold on after 2008 went on to reopen under new ownership. Some even reopened as pubs, but the majority were remade as restaurants, cafes, minimarkets, community centres, flats (lots of flats), betting shops, loan shops, estate agents. The Beech Tree in Blackburn was converted into the headquarters of a religious charity. The Three Pigeons in Oswestry was bought by a local football team, for use as its clubhouse. The Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) estimated in 2008 that a third of all shuttered pubs were converted into secondary businesses. Another third became residential properties. The final third were demolished. The Turners Arms in Rotherham, in fact, became the office of a demolition firm.
Regulars at the Golden Lion.
Regulars at the Golden Lion. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
In 2010, an estate agent who helped broker the sale of the Beech Tree and the Turners Arms, Gavin Sherman, told the property magazine Property Drum that perhaps as few as 10% of sold-on pubs remained pubs. “Ninety per cent of what we sell is set for alternative use,” said Sherman, who then worked at a property agency called Paramount Properties, based in north-west London. Sherman brokered the sale of many of Admiral Taverns’ pubs. He explained some of the quirks of British planning law, loopholes that allowed sold-on pubs to be converted for other use without the approval of communities or local councils. “Planning permission is generally not required to convert a pub to retail or restaurant use,” Sherman said. But he warned that efforts to transform a pub into a house or a flat would incur greater difficulties: “Conversion to residential use is often fraught.”
It did not take long for Britain’s property developers to realise that a pub’s ample real-estate footprint could be turned for most profit should the building be chopped up and sold on in pieces: an assortment of individual flats was best. And rather in the manner that an ancient general might have kept a flattering portrait of his defeated rival, developers successful in their bids to convert in this way often kept the name of the lost pub for their new apartment blocks. Sometimes they even retained swinging signage outside.
The Golden Lion, as it stood in 2011, had four storeys and a cellar that were each around 92 square metres (1,000 square feet). An ambitious developer would have looked up at the building from Royal College Street and seen a five-layer sandwich of space. As a pub, it had a market value of between £650,000 and £700,000. Closed and emptied of customers, staff, beer barrels and Dream Machines, however, there would be room for seven or eight flats inside. A small studio apartment could be expected to sell in Camden for £250,000, a larger two-bedroom flat for twice that. “Do the maths,” Dave Murphy told his family, when he learned this.
Quietly, Murphy had hopes of buying the Golden Lion himself. The Murphys’ early years on Royal College Street had been very profitable, so much so that in the 1980s they took over the lease of a second premises, the Duke’s Head in Highgate, a few miles to the north. Over the years, Dave Murphy had built up other business interests outside the hospitality industry, and had been able to buy the Duke’s Head from the pubco that owned it. He had even done some development, converting upstairs rooms at the Duke’s Head into self-contained flats. By spring 2011, Murphy felt he had the funds to make a bid for the Golden Lion. He emailed Admiral, expressing interest, but did not hear back.
Though pubcos tend to assume names suggestive of mug-rolling bonhomie (Punch Taverns) they are cheerless concerns
In December, the pub was sold to Antony Stark. He paid £525,000 for the head lease and £160,000 for the freehold, £690,000 in total. According to a document later submitted to Camden council’s planning department, the agent who brokered the sale was Gavin Sherman. Sherman said the sale to Stark came about after a long period during which the Golden Lion was placed on the market but drew precious few offers. Sherman described a general “lack of interest” from buyers who might want to continue to operate the pub as a pub, hence its sale to Stark, maybe for “alternative uses”. Sherman said he had been responsible for the marketing of the pub’s sale, and that advertisements had been placed online and in print publications announcing its availability for “at least a six-month period”.
This was odd. The pub industry is intimate and gossip sodden – “everybody talks,” said Mary Murphy, a small, soft-spoken woman in her 70s with a brilliant coronet of red hair. If her pub had been up for sale for half a year, she would have expected to hear about it. Likely from the landlord of the Sovereign, or of the World’s End, or of the Dublin Castle, or of the Sheephaven – all of these men regular customers at the Golden Lion. “I’d question the advertising to tell the truth,” Dave Murphy told me. “Was it half-heartedly marketed? Or was it not marketed at all? No one ever contacted us. Nothing was ever put through our door. We never saw anything in the Morning Advertiser.”
I spoke to Kevin Georgel, the CEO of Admiral Taverns, recently, and he told me that, as far as he could discern, the Golden Lion was not advertised for sale at all in 2011. “Sometimes pubs are sold without marketing because we get an unsolicited offer that we believe is compelling enough to accept,” said Georgel, who only became the pubco’s CEO last year. “It’s my understanding the Golden Lion wasn’t marketed, and therefore it was sold by Admiral off the back of an unsolicited offer.” Sherman disputed this, telling me that he marketed the pub for sale “discreetly”, and under Admiral’s instruction. Admiral denied this. Whatever the circumstances of the Golden Lion’s sale in December 2011, the Murphy family were appalled by it; and their unhappiness only deepened in the days afterwards, when Sherman arrived one afternoon in the pub’s saloon. It was the first time the landlords and the estate agent had met.
Sherman, a Londoner in his late 30s, had a narrow face and close-cropped hair. He brought with him in to the pub a second man, also in his late 30s, handsome and with a rugby player’s build. The second man introduced himself as David. The two men asked to inspect the pub. “They looked around, looked in the cellar,” recalled Dave Murphy, who followed them downstairs to the cold room. In among the refrigerated beer barrels he strained to hear, under the hum of a cooling unit, what the two men were discussing. “They seemed to me to be working out: what can we do here?”
Back upstairs at the bar, Murphy asked the men to be straight with him. Was the Golden Lion going to be closed? Murphy remembered being advised by the man who called himself David not to worry. “If you play ball with Antony Stark,” the man said, “he’ll be fair with you.” Only later did it occur to Murphy that the man he was speaking to was Stark himself. “I looked it up on the internet, saw a picture on his website. Oh, it was definitely him,” said Murphy. “I’m the hospitality trade. Good with faces.”
Twelve weeks later, in March 2012, a submission was made to Camden council’s planning department. Stark, through his intermediaries, wanted permission to turn the Golden Lion into flats. The building would be gutted. Across its four floors and in the basement, studios and multi-room apartments would be built, eight in total. “The image of the Golden Lion [on] the building’s facade could be retained,” it was suggested. There would be no pub.
3. How to disappear a pub
1) Identify a site. Not far from the Golden Lion, on Plender Street, there was a pub called the Parr’s Head. It had a history of ownership very much like the Golden Lion’s: Charrington to Punch to Admiral. In May 2011, Admiral Taverns sold the pub to a private individual, Antony Stark.
2) Buy it. As Stark did, paying roughly £500,000.
3) You will by now have set up a limited company with a benign, impersonal name – an obliging layer of distance between developer and development while the pub is managed through its final months. In the case of the Parr’s Head the company was called Essien Properties Ltd, incorporated by Stark in 2010.
4) Hire a planning consultant to fill in forms, sketch out proposals, and write the sort of hustling and entitled cover letters that council planning departments receive every day. In May 2011, a consultant named David Kemp from DK Planning, under instruction from Stark, sent the first part of a planning application to Camden council. Six new flats, please.
5) Shutter. One evening in October 2011, a goodbye party was held at the Parr’s Head. The grandson of the pub’s longest-serving landlord, John Carnaby, who ran it from the 1930s to the 1970s, attended. Stories were told – about Empire day parties and egg-and-spoon races off the front step, the performing elephant from a nearby music hall who in the 1950s made regular stops at the pub to be fed biscuits. There were tears. Then the 150-year-old pub closed for good.
Karaoke night at the Golden Lion.
Karaoke night at the Golden Lion. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
6) Wait for objections from locals. One formal complaint was made about the closure of the Parr’s Head, a neighbour pointing out that it seemed a shame in an area that was undergoing so much change. The letter was level-headed, accurate, and, by itself, completely disregardable. Cuts have diminished council planning departments to the point that, sometimes, only controversial or fiercely contended applications are truly scrutinised. Plans for the conversion of the Parr’s Head were approved by Camden in November 2011.
7) Consider reselling. With planning permission locked in, the value of the property will have risen. Sixteen days after the Parr’s Head conversion was approved, the pub was sold on by Antony Stark to another private developer. Stark received more than twice what he had paid for the building, six months earlier.
Build! Scaffolding went up around the Parr’s Head in early 2012, its doors doubly barred by chipboard and a four-metre-high perimeter fence. Trespassers were warned of prosecution. By 2013, the Parr’s Head, painted cruise-ship white and with its address stencilled in easily-read font above the door, was ready to return to the market as six flats.
9) Sell. In deals brokered by the estate agency McHugh & Co, flat three at the Parr’s Head went for £279,950, flat four for £349,950, flat two for £460,000, flat six for £575,000, and flat five for £630,000. In April 2014, the estate agency tweeted that the final and most expensive flat, flat one, had “#Sold”. It went for £675,000.
10) Do the maths. As a pub, the Parr’s Head was worth roughly £500,000. With approval for it to be de-pubbed, the building was sold on for £1.3m. As six separate flats, it ended up going for a total just shy of £3m.
4. A visit from the bailiffs
Dave Murphy sought to learn what he could about his pub’s new owner. Searching on the Companies House website, he learned that Antony Stark had established a limited company ahead of the purchase of the Golden Lion – this one called Norreys Barn Ltd and Stark its only director and shareholder. There were several other such limited companies, owned and operated by Stark, that appeared to have been set up to buy and oversee pubs around the country. At that point, Murphy said: “I realised we were just another project..
The family’s lease at the pub was to run out in August 2012. It had been renewed without difficulty every decade since the 1970s; Stark now resolved that it would end. The family would not necessarily be turned out the moment their tenancy ended – there were provisions in place under the Landlord and Tenants Act to stop that happening, and incumbents who did not want to leave could pursue a case in court, a bit of hand-forcing that was known in the trade as “holding over”. Still, their position would be more difficult after August. And every day it got more difficult still.
Early in 2012 the family received an invoice in the post for their building insurance. This was a cost traditionally passed down by a pub’s owner to be covered by the landlord. “It had nearly doubled overnight,” said Dave Murphy. (Antony Stark said the cost was arranged on the best available market terms.) When Murphy declined to pay – while he questioned the new figure with Stark’s representatives – bailiffs arrived at the pub. “They were told to take everything,” said Murphy, who kept the requisition list. “The piano, the pool table. Every table, every chair, every glass.” Nothing like this had ever happened under Charrington, or Punch, or Admiral. “At this point we’d been under new ownership for a matter of weeks.” Murphy paid the new building insurance. And he paid the cost of the bailiffs’ visit, too.
The family was charged more for beer. An 11-gallon keg of Carling lager might cost a landlord, on the open market, £85. Most landlords are unable to shop on the open market, however. It is one of the perverse conditions of the business – the majority of them are “tied”, in other words obliged to buy beer through the unchecked middlemanship of whoever owns them. When the Golden Lion was under the ownership of Admiral Taverns, the Murphys were charged £145 for every £85 keg of Carling they bought.
The Golden Lion is a venue for local pool league matches.
The Golden Lion is a venue for pool league matches in the evenings. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
The beer tie was known in the trade as “wet rent”, a measure first intended to keep landlords’ actual rent low – the theory being that the overall cost of their tenancy would be tagged to the amount of drink they sold. In practice, as I was told by more than one industry-watcher, the beer tie had long been a way for pubcos to tease up profits; and after the 2008 crash, pubcos really started working the dial in their favour, charging sums for beer that were way above the rate of inflation. The situation for landlords rarely improved if their pub passed from a pubco to a private owner. Particularly if that owner had plans to make a bid with local authorities for conversion; because such a bid was almost certain to depend on the pub being provably under-loved and under-patronised, unprofitable, unviable. After Antony Stark bought the Golden Lion in 2011, the cost of every £85 keg of Carling the Murphys bought went up to £152.
It is sometimes the case that a pub will disappear and passersby will remark: Well at least it wasn’t one of the good pubs. It was falling apart, the landlord always had a face on, the beer was too expensive. But a well-plotted redevelopment does not always begin with filled-in forms, or with cover letters to the council. In November 2012, a package was delivered to the Murphys at the pub. It contained a thick, shiny ringbinder.
“We act for your landlord Norreys Barn Ltd,” read a cover letter from the solicitor Kimbells Freeth. “We enclose by way of service upon you an interim schedule of dilapidation and wants of repair [...] Kindly note the failure to address the disrepairs itemised in the enclosed schedule [...] may result in the issue and service of proceedings.” The ringbinder contained a long list of compulsory building work the Murphys must undertake.
They did not dispute that the upkeep of the pub was their responsibility. Dave Murphy agreed that, in many ways, the Lion was “dated”. He wondered, though, whether all of the requests were necessary. (The 34-point improvement plan included a demand to “make good all stucco and quoins”.) In total, the repairs would cost the family between £40,000 and £50,000. This sum of money, it was pointed out in a letter written to the council by Stark’s own planning team, “would completely wipe [the Murphy’s] profit out and place the business deep into debt”.
As Dave Murphy leafed through the pages of repairs he noticed that he owed an extra £2,000, too, for the work that went into compiling the shiny ring binder.
5. Into battle
Dale Ingram once let a pub die on her watch and never forgot it.
“Beautiful polished sapele panelling. Brecon-tiled fireplaces with timber overmantels. A lovely bar counter with decorative bar-back – oh, it was gorgeous!” That pub, in Wandsworth, south London, was called the Little House. In 2010, the Little House was bought by a property development firm and an application to convert it was filed with the local council. Ingram lived nearby at the time. A blonde and bronze-skinned woman in her early 50s, often to be found in bright clothes and smoking or at least thinking about smoking a cigarette, she had worked in telecommunications for years before retraining to be a conservationist. Fearful of what might become of the Little House’s 1930s interior under its new ownership, she tried to get the pub listed by English Heritage.
Dale Ingram, an expert at saving pubs.
Dale Ingram, an expert at saving pubs Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
“It was my first campaign,” recalled Ingram, who by then had decided to make the protection of endangered pubs her particular interest as a conservationist. “I was green in judgment.”
If English Heritage – a charity with the power to grant legal protections to buildings it deems special – could not insist that the Little House continued to be used as a pub, it could at least stop major alterations. Ingram wrote to English Heritage’s officers acclaiming the pub (those tiled fireplaces, the timber overmantels!), and in doing so accidentally accelerated its end. English Heritage wrote to the Little House’s new owners, a property development firm called Languard Investments, asking for permission to visit and assess the interior. Languard, at least as Ingram told the story, promptly “brought along skips”. Languard declined to comment.
Today, the Little House is a block of flats. “To take a pick axe to something so beautiful,” said Ingram, “I hated those developers for doing that.”
When Languard went on to pursue the conversion of another south London pub, buying up one called the Castle on Battersea High Street, Ingram again sought to oppose it. The Castle was unlovely, she recalled, “a 1960s brick shed”. But when Languard announced a plan to knock the pub down, locals were appalled. Ugly or not, they made good use of the Castle – and this is where, Ingram said, the notion of a pub’s value must be divided. “What is its architectural merit? And what is its social value?” The Castle was ugly, but it was loved; and when nearby residents were canvassed for their support, around 1,000 wrote to Wandsworth council to oppose the demolition.
The Castle was knocked down anyway. Neighbours captured the scene with their phones as the pub was hammered at by demolition workers in high-vis jackets, then dragged apart by a digger. Ingram’s campaign was not wasted, however. In the face of around 1,000 written complaints, the building’s owners had been obliged to agree a new condition – that the ground floor of whatever they put up in place of the Castle must remain a pub.
If Ingram’s involvement in the Little House was amateurish, in the Castle it was emotional. (“I said to myself, ‘They’re not getting two!’”) Since then her work on behalf of pubs has been professional, paid, more dispassionate. She has had wins, probably more losses. The Fellowship Inn in Bellingham, south-east London, was saved, as were three neighbouring pubs in west London, targeted for closure and development in 2012, all three kept open and unaltered. The fates of the Rutland Arms in Baslow, Derbyshire and the Porcupine in Mottingham, south-east London remain undecided after long campaigns. Ingram also worked to protect the Prince of Wales in Tooting, south London, which is now a Tesco. Often, she said, it was too late by the time she received a call. Asked if there were ever cases in which she thought a pub should be allowed to close, she replied: “Absolutely.”
The Victorians who threw up such numbers of pubs that survive into the 21st century knew nothing of supermarket cider or the ability to purchase two-dozen Skol for a tenner at Bargain Booze. They did not have 60 episodes of QI or many evenings’ worth of Fast & Furious movies on Netflix. The phrase “a healthy lifestyle” has come to be understood by society, if not as a rule, then at least a decent ambition. And Britain has become home to religious communities that discourage, if not actively forbid, alcohol. The country does not depend on pubs as it did. Arguably, we do not need so many. Even Dave Murphy, scrabbling to save the Golden Lion, could see that. “When we moved here in the 70s, I don’t know ... the pub trade was different. Every night was a party night.”
“It happens. It does happen,” Murphy continued. “Pubs see out their time.” He could not accept, however, that his own pub had reached its end. “I admit it, myself,” he said. “We weren’t ever making, sort of, millions. We weren’t always making a lot of money, honestly. But the business wasn’t in trouble. We were making a living.”
Early one Saturday evening – threatening a party night – Murphy came in through the doors of the Golden Lion just as the whirring of the jukebox was giving way to the hi-hat of a Patti LaBelle track. About two dozen customers were in, most gathered in a group around two pushed-together tables. At the bar, a woman in a fur coat ordered her lager in a “mummy glass” – half. When it was decided by the group around the table they wanted to toast the emerging evening with Jägermeisters, they were handed eight stubby glasses and the bottle, and told to sort it themselves. On the TVs, a match ended and was switched for an episode of The Voice. The landlord of the Sovereign came in and took up his customary seat across the room from the dartboard. Mary, resplendent in a shiny crepe shirt, came down from upstairs.
More customers arrived, including a trio of young white men under fiercely clipped wedges of hair; a smart Asian couple, congratulated several times on an engagement; a dad in a bomber jacket, carrying his seven-year-old daughter; a cyclist who parked his bike underneath the dartboard. Soon, the woman in furs was showing the seven-year-old how to apply eyeliner. When chat in the saloon turned to a regular customer who had died, the little girl asked a question and was told: “People do, darling, it’s the only thing guaranteed.” Emeli Sandé succeeded Patti LaBelle, then Elvis played. A suntanned pair in their 60s arrived and ordered two individual JP Chenets from the wine shelf. Someone asked: “You here for the duration?” The Golden Lion, then, did not seem a pub that would be ready to close its doors at midnight, let alone shutter for good.
When Murphy first met Ingram it was at a table beside the fireplace. By now, Antony Stark had gathered around him a formidable cladding of specialists and consultants, and his bid to convert the Lion into flats was gathering pace. Hoping for some support himself, Murphy invited a member of the local Camra branch to the pub, and they brought along Ingram. While Murphy explained what was happening at his pub, Ingram listened carefully – applying the three-part test she used to determine whether she would take up a pub’s case or not.
Regulars at the Golden Lion.
Customers at the bar in the Golden Lion. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
First: did the resistance effort look to have staying power? “Because some people get outraged,” Ingram explained, “but that only gives them the courage and energy to start a campaign.” Second: in terms of its architectural or social value, would the Golden Lion qualify for protection? In other words, was it a Little House, worth defending for its looks, or a Castle, precious for its soul? Her third check, applied without apology, was whether Dave Murphy was going to be able to pay her. She would be no sort of pragmatist, as she believed a conservationist must be, if she worked for free.
Ingram judged that Murphy had the stomach for a fight and “wasn’t going to give up and fold his tent after six months”. Would the Lion qualify for special protection on the basis of its architecture alone? Probably not. But noting instead its “street presence”, and hearing the stories of regulars at the bar, Ingram let herself be convinced it had a more intangible worth. Finally she told Murphy, “if I’m going to act for you, you need to instruct me – that is, pay me.” Murphy didn’t balk. They shook hands. Now what, he asked.
Though her numbers were not official, Ingram had roughed out some figures about the number of endangered pubs that inspired a campaign of resistance. “If you’re a developer, and you develop pubs, and you’ve bought six pubs to develop,” Ingram said, “then one of those is going to blow up in your face. It’s like Russian roulette.”
She told Murphy they must do what they could to make the Golden Lion a live bullet.
6. What makes a pub worth saving?
In recent times it has become a commonplace to walk by a boarded-up building, or a cactus of scaffolding, or a hummingly new supermarket, and feel something like grief: for the pub that used to be there.
It is possible to feel deprived of a vanished pub even if it was one you never made use of, just as a church can be reassuring to the irreligious – for being redoubtable, bracingly old, with doors more often open than not. Pubs are potent and strange like that. You can take against one on instinct, even when it meets every idiosyncratic item on your wants list, then fall, hard, for a *. You can step inside an unfamiliar pub and know immediately, in the belly, that you have made an error. And you can step into another and think: second home. The discovery of a new pub, its signboard thrust out at the intersection of roads and announcing it the Colourful Animal, the Royal’s Body Part, the Two or Three Somethings, can be absolutely elating in a way that is beyond the powers of a Tesco Express. The pubgoer who has ever tried visiting a Real Irish Pub in Gothenburg, or an Old English Tavern in departures at Nashville airport, will agree the format resists export.
An antique till at the Golden Lion.
An antique till at the Golden Lion. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
But what is that format? If you feel a quiet elation on entering a pub, knowing it to be right – or right for you – it is because a thousand tiny prejudices are being met. Tearaway rack of Scampi Fries, or a big jar of flavour-shocked cashews? These things matter. Real ale? Branded glasses? Football? Racing? A quiz? Fizz out of bottles, or the gun? Inviting dad-jokes on a blackboard outside, or a members-only vibe – a sense that to put a pound on the pool table, at least without an understanding of native convention on the matter, would be to chance an outrage? Blessed anonymity, or a vocal welcome?
A pub is oddly difficult to describe. Neither Dave nor Mary Murphy, when asked, could define one to their satisfaction. Greg Mulholland, MP for Leeds North West, who has chaired a parliamentary Save the Pub Group since 2009, told me that a large part of his working day went trying to fix in precise, lawmakers’ language exactly what pubs are and what they mean to people. (“Slow-going,” said Mulholland of the effort.) Dale Ingram, asked what made a pub a pub, requested extra time and later emailed me a definition that ran to 600 words.
Try describing a pub for yourself, without resorting to cultural shortcuts – Marlowe, Moll Flanders, Peggy Mitchell, Withnail, Shaun of the Dead – and likely you will wind up describing what it isn’t. A pub is not a bar. It is not a restaurant. It is not a social club. It is not a shop. It is not a bench in a park. It is not a surgery or psychiatrists’ office. It is not a gig venue, a football stadium, a fighting pit, a staff room, a piano room. It is not the house you grew up in, nor the atrocious digs you moved to in your 20s. It is not your present-day living room. It is not a bus shelter. And in some way it is all those things. It is a pub.
In the terminology used by British planning departments, a pub is an “A4”. Should a developer have ideas about an A4’s cleverer use as flats, much of their time and treasure is spent trying to wrest it from this curt classification. In December 2012, Camden council received a formal bid from Stark’s planning team to convert the Golden Lion from an A4 into a “dwelling house”, or C3.
A year in preparation, this was an awesome submission, full of photographs, schematic diagrams, cutaways, an architect’s mapping of the Lion as it was and how it could be. Included, as well, were reports relating to energy use, light, waste management, and proposed works to the roof and basement, as well as copies of annual accounts, sworn affidavits from interested parties, an assertive letter from Stark’s lawyers, and a selection of unflattering comments relating to the Golden Lion that had been made on the internet, including one from an anonymous contributor who had visited the pub four years earlier and found its pool table small. Attached too was a “supplemental report” on the Murphys’ performance as landlords. Some delicate disparagement was done, here, on their business acumen. “Even with the best will in the world, [their] accounts present a depressing picture,” the report read. As for the pub itself, in the opinion of the Stark camp it was “unlawful, inflexible, inaccessible, unsafe, insecure, inconvenient, and generally unsustainable”.
It is a condition of development bids that documents submitted to councils may be uploaded to the internet for common scrutiny. It isn’t clear how much the public knows of this opportunity to read along as efforts are made to reshape the neighbourhoods around them. Dale Ingram lamented how little the communities she had worked with knew of their rights when it came to planning.
As documents relating to the Golden Lion were uploaded to Camden council’s website, Dave Murphy read every one. He was fascinated to see frequent mention of Gavin Sherman, the estate agent from Paramount Properties who had first brokered the sale of the Golden Lion to Antony Stark.
Sherman (as Murphy read in the documents) was “the agent acting on behalf of Paramount” in the sale of the pub. That made sense. What was more confusing to Murphy was that, in other documents, Sherman was also described as the “representative of the client Antony Stark” in Stark’s application to convert the Golden Lion into flats. What was going on? The report on the Murphy family’s accounts at the pub – the one that was deeply critical of their profit-making – was authored by Gavin Sherman himself. Why had an estate agent written that?
Perplexed, Murphy could only conclude that, at the rough time of the Golden Lion’s sale, Sherman had switched careers: from property agent to property developer, joining forces with Stark. (Sherman denied this, describing himself only as an adviser to Stark at the time. Paramount Properties, Sherman’s former employer, declined to comment on the sale of the Golden Lion, other than to say its pub sales division had now closed.)
Murphy discussed the matter with Dale Ingram, and the pair had their first disagreement. If the landlord was upset at Sherman’s apparent double role in the upheaval at the Lion, Ingram was more sanguine. She agreed with Murphy that it looked odd; but she was used to incredible behaviour in the field.
Karaoke night at the Golden Lion.
Karaoke night at the Golden Lion, which takes place every Tuesday and is usually the busiest night of the week. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Ingram advised Dave Murphy to focus on their fledgling campaign, which had already suffered a blow. English Heritage had refused to list the pub for protection, apparently accepting Stark’s view of the flawed architectural character of the building. Ingram felt they should switch tactics, go small, personal. With her encouragement, Murphy set up a petition seeking local support that was signed by entire families – five Weirs, nine Grimwoods, innumerable Murphys – finally gathering 1,000 signatures, according to a later council evaluation.
Ingram nominated the pub for asset of community value, or ACV, status. This was a relatively new form of protection, introduced by the coalition government under the Localism Act 2011, intended to slow the number of pub closures around the country by limiting the ways a nominated building could be altered. Murphy and Ingram contacted the MP, Greg Mulholland, who sent a letter of support. When a pub enthusiast called Will Blair was selected to be the new Conservative candidate for the area, Ingram telephoned immediately. Blair recalled that it was his first day in a constituency office when Ingram called; he turned to a colleague afterwards and said, thrilled, “I think I’ve just been lobbied.” Blair promised his support.
Journalists from the Camden New Journal were invited to the Golden Lion to hear the Murphys’ story. The paper also approached Stark for comment and in its subsequent news story quoted a complaint from Stark’s camp that the function room at the Golden Lion had at one point been sublet to a clothes retailer, an action that would technically have invalidated the Murphys’ lease. Dave Murphy responded (then and later) that he had only lent the room to a friend who was storing clothes ahead of a jumble sale. Sworn affidavits on the matter were made on both sides.
In a mass of further submissions made to the council, the Murphy camp and the Stark camp continued sparring. The jukebox at the Golden Lion, it was said, had once been praised by Suggs from Madness - could the council countenance the loss of it? Royal College Street was often busy with traffic, Stark’s side pointed out, and given this “potentially hostile and dangerous environment” should the pub really be there at all? There was “cultural value”, the pro-Lion camp insisted, in the building having once appeared in an episode of One Foot In The Grave. If there was cultural value in its use on TV, retorted the Stark camp, then half the buildings in London would be untouchable. A member of the pub’s darts team confided to the council that the Lion was “the only place he could express himself in darts”. Stark’s representatives drew up a list of nearby establishments with dartboards, noting walking times to each.
A member of the darts team confided that the Lion was 'the only place he could express himself in darts'
Dave Murphy had left pre-printed council forms on the Golden Lion’s bar, so that regulars could set down their feelings about the pub and its possible closure. According to the comments on forms that were forwarded to the council, the Lion was “a social hub … An anchor … A backbone … Old-style … An all-round pub… A classic pub.” One customer wrote: “I want to drink a beer with my son in this old-fashioned pub when he is in his 20s. He is just four now.” Another wrote, simply: “I wish you would refuse.”
On 12 March 2013, Camden council refused the application to redevelop the Golden Lion. “The public house is considered to serve the needs of the local community,” planners wrote. Inside the Stark camp, the response was prompt. In emails to his team, Antony Stark said he intended them to pursue a two-pronged strategy. First, an appeal against the council’s decision. This would mean, under planning law, that the fate of the Golden Lion would be referred to the national Planning Inspectorate. Second, Stark wanted his team to submit a new application to Camden council, one that laid out different conversion plans for the pub.
In the new, revised scheme – call it Plan B – the building would still be heavily altered, its second, third and fourth storeys turned into new flats; but some form of pub would be retained at ground level. Stark’s chief planner, David Kemp, was uncertain about this. Could the Stark camp plausibly argue, in its appeal to the national Planning Inspectorate, that the pub was unviable, while at the same time submitting plans to the council that kept a pub on site? Kemp warned there would be suspicion about the authenticity of these representations. In early April, Kemp repeated his objections in an email to Stark. By May, Stark had a new chief planner.
She was called Carolyn Apcar. On 18 July 2013, under Stark’s instruction, Apcar lodged an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate, contesting Camden council’s decision to reject the Golden Lion redevelopment. And then, in a letter dated one day later, 19 July, Apcar sent on to Camden council the new Plan B, those sanitised conversion plans that would retain some form of ground-floor pub should the redevelopment be approved. In other words, on one summer day in 2013, those who owned this piece of land in north London could insist its long-standing pub must go, and 24 hours later suggest that it should remain. And in the world of modern planning, Greg Mulholland told me, this was not so much laugh-out-loud contradiction as everyday stuff. “Cynical,” Mulholland called it. (The planner David Kemp, asked for comment, denied that he departed the Golden Lion project over any such disagreements about the second bid’s authenticity.)
The battle over the Golden Lion was spreading on to multiple fronts. As well as doing what they could to resist the Stark camp’s appeal – it would be heard by the Planning Inspectorate in winter 2013 – Murphy and Ingram were busy offering objections to the council about Plan B. At the same time, the Murphy family and Antony Stark were heading towards a confrontation in court, where a judge would have to decide whether the family could continue “holding over” at the pub now that their lease had ended.
John Murphy always said of his wife: she’ll keep going behind that bar until she drops. Now the Murphys had to seriously consider what Mary would do if they were turned out. Could she work at another pub?
The Murphys’ second premises in Highgate, the Duke’s Head, had been leased to a pair of young entrepreneurs who had found success there selling microbrews to a twenty- and thirtysomething crowd. Mary would not fit. There were no longer that many pubs around where she would. The pubscape around the Golden Lion had changed dramatically. The Black Horse and the Falcon, two longstanding neighbours along Royal College Street, were now flats. The Crown & Goose, just beyond a place called the Beatrice on Camden High Street, was scheduled for demolition. The Parr’s Head had gone. The Neptune had new flats on its upper storeys, the ground-floor pub behind chipboard. The Black Cap was said to be under threat. The Gloucester was already a hole in the ground. The Sovereign, run for so long by a regular drinker in the Golden Lion, a landlord named Denny Murphy (no relation), had been sold to a private development firm and remodelled. At street level the Sovereign was now a gastrobar called the White Moustache. Flats above.
Denny Murphy came in to the Golden Lion more and more often now. His tenancy at the Sovereign had ended, and he sat at his customary table near the dartboard. When he stood up to go to the toilet a barmaid topped up his pint without being asked. Denny was welcome at the Golden Lion as often as he wanted to come in. Still, for all their affection, he offered the Murphys an unnerving glimpse as to what might become of a publican without their pub. “Suddenly you look around,” said Mary Murphy. “And you think, ‘But all my things are here.’”
One day in December 2013, Ingram telephoned Dave Murphy and asked him if he was sitting down. This had become a game of theirs, something to keep up spirits. If there was some small piece of good news to pass on, Ingram made a bigger deal of it by saying, “Are you sitting down?” Today she had the opportunity to say it twice. In the morning the national Planning Inspectorate had rejected Stark’s appeal on Plan A. That afternoon, by coincidence, the Golden Lion was made an asset of community value. Though this was not as solid a safeguard as a listing by English Heritage, it was something; it would mean the building’s owner could not react to his repeated disappointments by knocking the building down.
A shock-bulldozering actually happened in April this year, three miles from the Golden Lion. On a quiet road in north-west London, a pub called the Carlton Tavern was smashed to pieces by its owners. At the Carlton, there was a special hurry. English Heritage had suggested it intended to award the pretty 1930s pub a protective listing. So on a clear spring morning, two red bulldozers ripped into the structure, punching through the burgundy tile work with such haste that only a few slim plastic barriers were set up to keep disbelieving locals away. Ingram learned about the surprise demolition and telephoned English Heritage. An officer was sent in a taxi – too late.
As two red bulldozers ripped into the structure, an English Heritage officer was sent in a taxi – too late
By the time the bulldozers had withdrawn, the Carlton was half gone – cola bottles, lampshades, pieces of furniture and carpet, an old oven, even the brass licensees’ plaque visible among the rubble. At the time of writing it remains a wreck, girders protruding, chimney stacks exposed, the building open to the sky as if a passing giant has stooped to take a bite before lumbering on.
“That’s developers these days,” said Dave Murphy, when he heard. “Chesting it.”
The Stark camp had no intention of demolishing the Golden Lion; at least not at that point. All their efforts went in to getting approval for Plan B, with its new flats upstairs, and something open to the public downstairs; perhaps a pub, perhaps not. In this period it was never entirely clear what the Stark camp intended for the ground floor. Camden council was bombarded with plans, some that would add roller shutters to the building. As Will Blair, the parliamentary candidate who had kept up a continuing interest in the campaign, noted, this would suggest an intention to make the ground floor not a pub but a shop, maybe a bookmaker. There were discussions among Stark’s team, around this time, about the possibility of transforming the ground floor into an estate agent’s office. Would they need to include space for a staff room, a print station? Carolyn Apcar emailed Stark to voice concerns that aspects of the plan did not seem believable. Stark asked whether this mattered.
By the summer of 2014, Camden still had not come to a decision on Plan B, so Stark’s camp appealed that – the lack of a decision. The council responded tersely. Exactly as it stood (Camden’s chief planner wrote) the Golden Lion was too valuable a local asset to be fiddled with. And so Plan B was refused. Stark decided to launch another appeal with the national Planning Inspectorate. Gearing up for it, he hired a public relations firm, who set about knocking on doors in the neighbourhood.
The residents of Royal College Street already had a pub. Many of them seemed to like it. Now a PR firm was hurrying up and down positing an altered future. Wouldn’t it be cool, it suggested, if that pub was still there – only with improved toilets, a food-service kitchen, and slick flats on the upper floors? One local businessman who agreed to sit down and take a meeting with Stark’s PR agents told me he came away feeling confused, unsure about what the pub was being changed into, or why it should change at all.
In the world of pub redevelopment there is a tradition, Ingram explained, of what she called “Trojan horse” applications. Developers can respond to the refusal of their all-in bids to convert by proposing a more palatable half-and-half scheme. (A pub retained, for instance, on the ground floor.) Once they have secured approval, they can then bed in, trust their deep financial reserves, and play a longer attritional game. They might throw up hoardings and scaffolding and leave the project to simmer for a year or more. What tended to happen was that objectors, walking past a derelict ruin or a rubbish-strewn construction site week after week, would become more amenable to the notion of something – anything – being built. Ingram said: “Landlords or community groups say to themselves: ‘Well, I did want to win. But now I just need it to be over.’” So flats.
In September 2014, the Murphy and Stark camps regathered before the Planning Inspectorate for the new appeal. Ingram joked that it was “like a reunion”. With her to make the case for the Golden Lion were Dave Murphy, two representatives from Camden council (by now firmly on the side of the Lion), and a mixed gang of supporters including local councillors Roger Robinson and Tom Copley, the Tory candidate Will Blair, and the pub’s best pool player, Shaun Pollard. As they took their seats in the hearing room, Ingram looked around the pro-Lion team she had gathered. Robinson was a teetotaller, someone who liked pubs as much in principle as in practice. Blair, for all his enthusiasm, was new to politics, unelected, without influence. Pollard had spearheaded the pub’s 2010 league championship. Still, this was not a crack squad.
Representing Stark were the planner Carolyn Apcar, alongside a QC, a solicitor, an architect, a PR man, and at least two hired consultants. How much, wondered Ingram – a few thousand pounds a head? The QC, she noted, “wouldn’t have been on a penny less than 10 grand”.
It was a long and tense hearing. Customers and supporters of the pub stood up in the public seats to make speeches. There was a long stretch of involved and draining debate about various intricacies of the Stark camp’s plans, including their notion to install roller shutters along the front of the Golden Lion. This, Ingram insisted, was an indicator of the risk to the pub’s future under Stark. After a few months or years, she guessed, the ground floor would be turned into something like a betting shop. “What are these roller shutters for?” she demanded of the opposition camp. “Nobody’s given a satisfactory answer!”
Turning to the planning inspector, Ingram said, “This is a Trojan Horse.” It was the most exciting moment of the day. “Is the appellant truly intending to keep the pub in use? I think the answer is clear.”
Stark and Gavin Sherman were present at the hearing, sitting in the public seats. (Stark told me “there was nothing ‘Trojan horse’ or misleading” about any of his planning applications.) The developer sat in the front row, wearing an open-necked and brightly coloured shirt. His muttered commentary on the proceedings, to Sherman, sitting beside him, infuriated others in the public area. Stark did not speak publicly that day, though occasionally he approached his lawyer and his planner to whisper instructions. Otherwise he sat with his arms folded, his legs stretched out, squeezing a bottle of mineral water, or typing on his phone.
Only the day before the hearing, Stark had exchanged emails with another consultant, this one a specialist in toxicity. There might be a more novel way of getting the Murphy family to leave the Golden Lion. An asbestos survey at the pub, the consultant had informed Stark over email, was a reliable way to insist sitting tenants move out. Stark was even recommended a specific surveyor, reasonably priced, who could be depended on to submit the sort of findings required.
The Golden Lion’s fate is decided
That asbestos survey never took place. On 2 October 2014, the Planning Inspectorate rejected the Stark camp’s appeal – a final no – and suddenly, unexpectedly, Dave Murphy was made aware that Antony Stark might sell him the pub. At first the landlord found this hard to believe. He could not shake the feeling that the whole thing was some sort of last-minute feint, meant to absorb what was left of his fighting fund, or his resolve. But negotiations began, and they continued through Christmas into 2015. In their dealings with each other, through intermediaries and solicitors, Murphy and Stark were irritable, defensive, not always logical, making the tired swipes of boxers late in a fight.
Even while they were deep in negotiations, Murphy said he was offered £100,000 by Stark to pack up and go. There was an abrupt demand, in the middle of the talks, for some of the earnings from the pub’s Dream Machine to be shared. It amounted to a few hundred in coins, Murphy guessed. Was Stark joking? If the deal fell through, the landlord and the developer would still have to go to court over the disputed tenancy. “It was very tense, very difficult,” Murphy said.
Stark had bought the Golden Lion at the end of 2011 for £690,000. Now, at the end of 2014, he would sell for twice that. By this time, Murphy had become a father; his girlfriend, Jen, had given birth to a daughter, Evie. Trying to decide whether to pay such sums for the pub, Murphy worried he was gambling with his daughter’s future. At the same time he imagined himself, one day, passing the building on to her. He agreed to pay Stark £1.4m for the Golden Lion.
The deal was completed on 25 February 2015. When Murphy called Dale Ingram, she was inside another pub, the Duke of Wellington in Spitalfields, east London, starting up a new campaign. When her phone rang she had to duck inside the ladies’ to hear what he was saying. Murphy repeated himself. “Dale,” he said, “are you sitting down?”
Ingram was lastingly delighted by the success of the Golden Lion campaign, and moved to tears that day in the Duke of Wellington’s loo. Dave Murphy, however, remained flintier in the aftermath: never able to fully unload himself of three years’ worth of layered fury. When in the spring he threw a party, to thank people for their support in the campaign, his was by far the sternest face in the saloon. He had his pub. His mother had her home. His daughter had her future. But it had all cost Murphy twice as much as it might have done – had Admiral Taverns ever answered his emails about making a bid for the pub, back in 2011, or had he ever known of Gavin Sherman’s “discreet” marketing of the pub that year, or had he ever been invited into the sale process at all. “Bittersweet,” Murphy described the feeling, drinking at the bar as the party got under way. It seemed unlikely that the Golden Lion would ever be worth the £1.3m he had just paid for it; not unless he chopped up the building and turned it into flats.
The Golden Lion pub in Camden
A darts player chalks up their score at the Golden Lion. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
The party lasted for many hours. Three teenagers, pale and clutching electric guitars, played All My Loving on a little stage by the mantelpiece. Customers queued three-deep at the bar, a little boy walking through at belly height. John Murphy, who had been unwell for some time, made an appearance and sat among a group of friends. He said, softly: “Fair play to David, he’s a good lad, he soon a put a stop to those guys.” Ingram sat outside, drinking pints with Will Blair.
Over the next hour, Ingram and Blair were joined on their bench by a shifting cast of north London irregulars, including a stand-up comic in a tight V-neck, an addled street-wanderer asking the way to the nearest phone box, a taxi full of football fans who had just left a match at Wembley, and a shaven-headed man wearing a bright red leotard who introduced himself as “Michelle, if I still had my wig on”. Michelle had earlier in the day been at a protest outside the Black Cap, a gay pub on Camden High Street that had closed suddenly and was not expected to reopen. Will Blair had also been at the protest. “A closure out of spite,” he thought, “because the owners couldn’t get the redevelopment through that they wanted.”
Nine months had passed since the final Golden Lion hearing and Will Blair could not shake his irritation about it. The young politician had already given an unsparing account of Stark’s behaviour in the public gallery that day, via his political blog: “Rolling his eyes and making sarcastic comments every time a member of the public stood up to voice their concerns.” Now, on the outdoor bench, he railed once more at Stark. “Sneering. Muttering. His whole body language suggested: ‘This is ridiculous, who are these people?’ I thought, ‘But who are you?’”
It was a question worth asking. Cities have always been fluid and malleable, frustratingly or impressively determined by those who own scraps of them; and if a Victorian landowner named Hetherington might knock down and rebuild the Golden Lion at the end of the 19th century, then another named Stark might very well try to close and whitewash it today. Even so, Blair’s question might usefully be posed, along the way. Who are you to initiate these changes?
The CEO of Admiral Taverns, Kevin Georgel, told me that, from this year, his pubco would seek to have “a better understanding of the background of the people we’re selling our pubs to”. Georgel said this was prompted, in part, by “a very rigorous” internal investigation he had launched into the sale of the Golden Lion to Stark in 2011. Though Georgel had come to be satisfied that there was nothing unlawful in that transaction, he said: “We seriously regret the grief that David and his family have been through.”
Stark did not respond to invitations to be interviewed for this article. Later, however, he offered written comment over email. “The unfortunate reality is that not enough people within local communities are drinking in their local pubs any more,” he said. He pointed out that, during the financial year in which he bought the Golden Lion, the pub made a loss of £617; and that a year later the pub made a profit of just £55. Stark wrote that any suggestion that he had made an effort to drive the Golden Lion under, in order to increase the likelihood of his turning the pub into flats, was “demonstrably untrue. The business was loss making.” It was already under, was the suggestion, when he bought it.
Regulars at the Golden Lion.
Tuesday night at the Golden Lion. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Greg Mulholland, chair of the parliamentary Save the Pub group, told me that to consider bottom lines alone, in the matter of pubs, was misguided. “It’s very mistaken to think that, if someone is making a basic living running a pub, and is happy, and is providing a community service, that that isn’t useful. Don’t forget: a pub will be employing people, paying tax, contributing to the economy. They are useful. Not every business has to be enormously profitable to be that.” In the summer the MP spoke to me of potential legislation that would insist that a pub, should it ever be made available for sale, be available first as a going concern. Dibs, Mulholland meant, to the buyer who wanted to keep serving beer. Even if that meant turning an annual profit of £55.
At his pub, now his pub, Dave Murphy was free of the beer tie. He could pay the £85 his kegs of Carling were worth. He was busy: a wake was due to take place in the saloon midweek, and he was taking calls on his mobile to arrange the transfer to the Golden Lion of a quiz that had once been staged at the Black Cap. Murphy was sympathetic to the plight of other troubled pubs in the area, always sad to hear of closures. At the same time, he now had a frightening mortgage to meet and was keen to the potential for refugee punters.
There were many. The Victoria in Mornington Crescent had vanished behind scaffolding. The Crown & Goose in Camden was pulled down. A pub up the Holloway Road, also called the Lion – this one a boisterous Irish boozer on the Archway roundabout – had been bought by a limited company called Lion Archway Ltd; joint directors, Antony Stark and Gavin Sherman. They had taken on the pub earlier in 2014 and in November they sold it, to a company with designs on it becoming a coffee shop. Hoardings went up. Nearby, a pub called the Good Intent also closed, pulled down to make way for flats. The windows of the Dartmouth Arms in Dartmouth Park were chipboarded and blackened. The Richard Steele in Belsize Park and the Lord Stanley in Camden Square were said to be under threat. Nobody knew which pub would be next.
One day, Dave Murphy was at work when he received a phone call from an unknown number. It was an estate agent, acting on a rumour going around the local property market. Apparently there was someone new on the scene, paying large sums of money for available pubs – and the name they’d heard was Dave Murphy’s. On the phone that day the estate agent told Murphy, listen, keep it quiet. But there’s another place in the area that’s available, the Beatrice on Camden High Street. Only be discreet if you go and look around, because the landlords there don’t know it’s up for sale yet.
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This piece was amended on 13 October to correct an error. In the original text, Tom Copley was incorrectly referred to as Will Copley.
"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung