The smoking area takes over the whole pavement. Inside everyone shouts and screams along to the karaoke, clinging to each other on the dancefloor. Every inch of the bar at the Lillie Langtry pub in Kilburn, north London, is crowded with fresh drinks as the last-orders bell rings, for the final time, around 11pm.
“There is nothing,” said Dr Samuel Johnson in 1776, long before the arrival of karaoke machines, “by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” Unlike being a guest at someone’s house, thought Johnson, at the pub “there is a general freedom from anxiety … the more noise you make, the more trouble you give, the more good things you call for, the welcomer you are.” The loud, friendly scene at the closing night of the Lillie Langtry – in which strangers hug, sing, shout, chat, buy each other drinks and smoke each other’s cigarettes – suggests his argument still holds.
The Lillie Langtry, which closed its doors in September, was one of around 19 pubs lost in England and Wales every week this year. Many have been fixtures of their communities for decades, even hundreds of years, and their last landlords have faced an unprecedentedly harsh business climate, dealing variously with gentrification and “regeneration”, a pandemic, rising food and energy costs, and aggressive behaviour from commercial landlords and energy companies.
From an exquisitely tiled 19th-century Birmingham pub to a thriving curry place in Hampshire to this “rough old boozer” in Kilburn, these are the stories of five shuttered pubs and the struggles their last landlords went through to keep them open.
The decline of the great British pub has produced a lot of mournful, almost nationalistic, reflection over the years. “When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves,” lamented Hilaire Belloc in 1943, “for you will have lost the last of England.” Yet, despite the relentless closures of recent decades, the tradition of the pub has proved remarkably elastic and durable, happily absorbing any number of cultures and identities that fall outside the traditional picture of Englishness Belloc eulogised in the 40s. In an overall grim environment, this endless adaptability, driven by enterprising and creative landlords like the ones profiled here, means there’s hope for the pub yet.
Alex and Shekhar Naiwal (above), the White Horse Inn, Droxford, Hampshire. Reason for closure: rising costs, dispute with brewery
It’s a busy Thursday evening at the White Horse, its last under the stewardship of Alex and Shekhar Naiwal. “We’re like a big, happy family,” Alex says of her customers. “That’s why it’s a bit heartbreaking for them, as well as for us, to leave this behind.” On Sunday, they’ll have to close their doors because of a dispute with their landlord over rising prices.
Alex and Shekhar met in 2007, working on the same floor at the House of Fraser department store in London. After years working for large businesses, and some time living in both Romania, where Alex is from, and India, where Shekhar was born, they wanted to try their hand at running their own place in the UK. In 2014 the chance came up to take over the White Horse, a Grade II-listed village pub near a good school for their two-year-old. “It needed some TLC,” Alex remembers. “It was really run-down, quite depressing at the start.” They restored the interior, put in comfier seats, put more things on the walls. “The big challenge for me,” Shekhar says, “was to keep it as a country pub. Not make it too modern for people, but just to bring in a bit more comfort.”
Before Alex and Shekhar took over, the largely Indian team in the kitchen had been cooking standard British pub food – gammon steaks, fish and chips – and working a punishing schedule. Shekhar gave the chefs more time off and redesigned the menu around a selection of home-cooked Indian curries instead. “People started to see the changes,” he says. “Word got around locally that we do good food, and it paid off.”
On the night I visit, it is fully booked, with a stream of takeaway customers dropping in for a pint while they pick up their food. Alex and Shekhar rush around with plates of curry, talking to customers, energetically pouring pints and mixing drinks. “No one else will ever be able to do what they’ve done with this place,” says Helen Landy, a Droxford local. “It’s more than a pub, it’s a community they’ve made here.” The pair have become an indispensable part of village life. “My friend moved to this village six months ago because of this pub,” says another local, Paul William. “I’m not joking!”
Like all pubs, the White Horse suffered during Covid. But it is the recent price rises in basic items, caused by the war in Ukraine, that has made running the pub untenable. “Oil, potatoes, tomatoes, chicken, it all just jumped,” Shekhar says. “The box of chicken I buy used to be about 28 quid – suddenly it was £54.” It’s impossible to pass these rises on. “You can’t just suddenly increase a £12 or £13 curry to £25. People are struggling as well.”
Like many pubs, the White Horse is owned by a brewery company, in this case one that owns more than 1,600 pubs around the UK. In the brewery company system, operators such as Alex and Shekhar don’t simply pay rent to operate a business in the building; they also have to buy beer from the company at fluctuating prices set by them, above market rate – this is known as a tied tenancy. This year, when Shekhar asked for a reduction in fees to help cushion the blow of the price rises, he says the company refused and suggested cutting costs by replacing an experienced chef with an apprentice. Shekhar disagreed: “I know how to run a business.” The kitchen team had been with him from the start and the quality of the food was the pub’s unique selling point. (The hot konkani, with tender prawns in a sauce of garlic, mustard seed, curry leaf and kokum, supports his argument.) “This is down to what’s happened to the country, not because we are doing something wrong.”
Shekhar was offered a free-of-tie deal, but the terms didn’t appeal; both parties decided not to renew their contract and a new tenant has taken over. For the Naiwals it means moving out of their home and taking their child, now 10, out of the local school. They’re planning to open a restaurant nearby, but are leaving the pub business. “It’s been very hard, very sad, but maybe it’s just a time for change,” Shekhar says.
Nick Abraham (above), the Royal George, Skelton, Yorkshire.Reason for closure: Covid, heating bills, staffing costs
On the morning of 8 September, a friend called Nick Abraham to let him know he’d seen a group of men breaking into his pub. “I felt sick,” he remembers. The men told him they were there on behalf of E.ON and had been sent to remove his gas meter, effectively stopping the supply, because of an unpaid bill. Abraham tried to explain he had an agreement with E.ON to pay the outstanding balance of £122 the next day, but it was no use. He realised he wouldn’t be able to open up at 5pm without gas. “I was in a right state,” Abraham says.
The Royal George was the first pub Abraham had ever run. He took it over 11 years ago, after spotting it while driving through Skelton. It was boarded up at the time. “I just looked at it and thought, ‘That would be a lovely little pub.’” He approached the brewery; initially they were sceptical, as many had failed to make the pub work before and it had been closed for three years. But after long negotiations, they agreed to let him try.
“I just wanted to bring the community back together, which we’ve done,” he says. The first years were a great success, with many in the village becoming regulars. Abraham even put on music nights, often performing himself: “Elvis is my favourite, but I’ve also got a Freddie Mercury outfit.” Every night would sell out. “We turned all the chairs to face the stage and had big show curtains bought from another derelict pub. People really liked it.”
Abraham spent years building up the business, expanding to run a second pub in the village six years ago. Soon he moved the music nights there and made the Royal George a place for food. “It was a cosy country pub, very homely.” He lived above the pub with his family: as well as a business, “it was also our home”.
Then Covid arrived. “We were closed for over a year,” he says. Their second pub had an outside area, so could trade in a limited way when pandemic restrictions were relaxed, but the Royal George, known for its food and lacking outside space, had to remain closed. Government grants had helped, but “we weren’t open, so the grants didn’t last long”. When it finally reopened, “it was very, very quiet”. Staff costs were rising and so was the rent. Then this year, after the war in Ukraine began, gas prices rose, too. Government support, though appreciated, just wasn’t enough.
At the start of September “we got a letter from E.ON to say we owed £830 for gas” and threatening disconnection. Abraham managed to negotiate to pay the majority of the bill straight away, leaving the rest until 9 September, because he had other bills to cover in the meantime. The person on the phone told him that would be fine.
The arrival of the bailiffs was a “rude awakening”. They wouldn’t listen to Abraham’s explanation and demanded an on-the-spot payment of more than £700 to halt their work; when Abraham refused, they cut out the meter. To their credit, E.ON acknowledged their mistake on the phone to Abraham later, sending round a technician to reconnect the gas, but for him it was too late. “I was in such a state. I rang the building’s landlord and said, ‘I can’t go on like this any more.’” He closed the pub. “It was a gut-wrenching feeling.”
The situation has taken its toll on his relationships and he’s been prescribed antidepressants. E.ON’s profits, meanwhile, have surged – it made more than £3.4bn in the first six months of 2022 alone.
Abraham, who has experience in construction, is now working to build a kitchen extension at his other pub, the Duke William, so staff who worked at the Royal George can continue their jobs there. “We just want to get stronger if we can,” he says, “and get through this.”
Luke Fowler (on right) and Paul Canton, the Junction, London. Reason for closure: redevelopment
“To be honest,” Luke Fowler says, “we just wanted a place to sell some pints and play some jazz.” In 2015 Fowler and his business partner Paul Canton, both musicians, were planning to open a jazz venue in south London. Fowler, with years of experience working in and managing pubs, convinced Canton that a pub would be more viable than a club, and when a former Bolivian restaurant became free in Loughborough Junction, in Brixton, they decided to invest some money in renovating it and give it a try as a jazz pub.
“The decor was really strange,” Canton says of the large corner site that would become the Junction. “Some of it was Hawaiian, other parts looked like the inside of the Titanic and the rest was the remains of the Bolivian restaurant. It was so bad it almost looked good.” They set about renovating it, opening up the spaces and stripping the walls back to the original brickwork. “People really responded to it,” Canton says. “You could see that it was old, beat up, but well looked after.”
“We invited a bunch of musicians,” Fowler remembers, “and it kind of took off.” They established a good food menu, found some decent staff and became a rare space for jazz musicians to perform and jam together in front of a friendly audience. Much of the profit went on paying the musicians. “It was amazing when it was at its best,” Canton says. “The person on the next table would just happen to be one of London’s best trumpet players, and they’d get up and rip the hell out of it. It was amazing.” He laughs. “Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Sometimes the worst trumpet player in London would get up and play.”
By 2020 it seemed as if the Junction was hitting its stride. In retrospect, the impact of the pandemic was “probably terminal”, Fowler says. It put them into rent arrears with their landlord and made the relationship difficult. “We were of the view that the landlord didn’t give us a place from which to trade,” he says. “And the landlord was of the view that we didn’t pay the rent, obviously.” The uncertainty left both parties unsure of where the fault lay. “It’s like, who’s to blame?” Fowler remembers.
Brixton has changed a lot in recent decades. The estate agents Savills estimates that the price of a home in Brixton has risen by 76% in the last five years alone. Loughborough Junction is close to central London, making it a highly profitable area for housing. The Junction was both part of and, ultimately, defeated by this rapid gentrification, Fowler believes. “We’re two white guys playing jazz,” he says. “I would probably say that we’re part of the gentrification.”
Under planning laws, if the landlord of a property can prove that a pre-existing hospitality business is not viable there, then it can instead be converted into flats. The Junction’s landlord, a company registered in the Isle of Man called Manlon Properties Ltd, is linked to Asif Aziz, whom Private Eye calls a “publicity-shy property magnate”. The magazine has reportedon the pattern of companies linked to Aziz buying pubs in gentrifying areas of London and converting them into luxury flats at a profit. In 2020 an article in the Times asked if Aziz was “the meanest landlord in Britain”, because of how his tenants had been treated during the pandemic.
When the contract for the premises came up for negotiation in August, Manlon Properties asked for terms Fowler and Canton thought were simply unrealistic, given the projected rising costs of energy and staffing, and the rent arrears that had built up during the pandemic. “They were closing it because they wanted to develop it,” Canton says. “There was no other reason.”
While the pandemic might have sealed the fate of the Junction, it also, paradoxically, led to some of its best times as a pub. When it reopened after lockdown, “everyone was pretty desperate to get into a live music environment,” Fowler says, “and it just started kicking off. We got some really big guys in the jazz community coming down.”
Do moments like that make running a pub worth it? “It’s an emotional rollercoaster,” Fowler says. “I would say a good 70% of the time you hate the place.” Problems constantly arise: managers can’t find good staff, the bills are going up, rent has to be negotiated. “But then there’s maybe about 20 to 30% of the time where you’re like, yeah, this is heavy. Everyone’s having a good time.” This is how it felt at the closing party. “We drank the bar dry,” he says. “It was wicked.”
Michelle Ball (below), the Lillie Langtry, London. Reason for closure: regeneration
“It’s the roughest pub in Kilburn,” says Michelle Ball, a former landlady of the Lillie Langtry, as she pulls a pint. Tonight is the closing party for the pub, which has sat at the base of Emminster tower block in north London since 1969, and is due to be torn down this year as part of a regeneration programme.
“The Lillie’s always had a bit of a reputation,” Ball says. “It’s an old-school, wet-led boozer.” It’s 7pm and Ball, like many of the regulars I speak to, says she’s planning to leave the party around 10pm, “before the fighting starts”. Yet these conversations also reveal a softer side to what some regulars call, with pride, “the naughtiest pub in London”.
“I can’t speak for everyone,” says Mary O’Brien, who has been coming here since the 70s. “But as an old age pensioner who lives alone and gets very lonely, this place is like a sanctuary.” Other activities arranged for people her age don’t interest her and leave her feeling isolated. “But the minute you walk in this door, they say, ‘Hello, have a Guinness, Mary’ and then you feel like a member of the human race again.”
O’Brien testifies to the role the pub has played in the community over the decades. At one time known as County Kilburn, the London neighbourhood saw a huge number of Irish workers settle there in the mid-20th century. Many of the older regulars, like O’Brien, remember a time when signs in the windows of rental properties saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were common throughout London. The pub has long provided a place to gather: “We’ve had christenings, weddings, funerals here – the lot,” O’Brien says. As we speak, a man comes up to hug her. “Thirty years in this pub,” he says. “You’ve watched me grow up here.”
The pub has cycled through a few different landlords and landladies in the last few years. The landlady since March, Margaret Percy, has done a good job, but O’Brien remembers the era when Ball was the landlady, three years ago, as the best time for the pub. One day, in the lead-up to Christmas, Ball knocked on O’Brien’s door and asked her what she was doing on the 25th. “I said, ‘I’ve got nobody, so I’m not doing anything.’” Ball invited her, and 30 other older people from the area, to Christmas lunch in the pub. “Michelle’s mum did the turkeys,” O’Brien remembers, “I did the potatoes, everybody did something. We all chipped in and moved the furniture. Michelle paid for everything, including wine. How many landladies do that?”
The party gets bigger and, as 10 o’clock rolls around, none of the promised fighting breaks out; most of those who said they would leave by now, including Ball, are still enjoying themselves. The karaoke set is out and the dancefloor is crowded with people of all ages, getting low to Tom Cannon’s rendition of Flo Rida’s Low. Cannon, in his 70s and a regular on the Kilburn karaoke circuit, also treats the pub to No Woman, No Cry and Valerie. The crowd goes wild.
“I’ve been in the game a long time,” Ball says later, as she discusses the demise of the pub in the smoking area outside, “and I’ve always wanted to look after that community life. It can be the nicest pub in the nicest area, but ultimately it’s about the people and it’s about community.” That’s why people use the pub, she observes. “They come because they’re at home on their own, or they might have problems at home, and here they can have a nice time, forget their worries for a bit and feel safe. That’s why it’s heartbreaking for this place to go. We’re a working-class community, but everyone looks after each other.”
The Abbey Road Estate regeneration programme, which involves the demolition of both the Emminster and the adjacent Hinstock blocks, does not have a place for the Lillie Langtry. There are other pubs nearby but, in the opinion of many locals, they lack the history and cater to a different crowd. As part of the regeneration plan, roughly a hundred council flats will be replaced with 139 new homes, the majority sold by Camden council to private buyers. A third of the new flats will be a mix of council rent and “affordable” rent – definitions vary but often this is taken to mean that their cost won’t exceed 80% of the normal market rate. This would, in London in 2022, make the flats unaffordable for most.
Many locals campaigned for the pub to be included in the regeneration plan, but did not succeed. “We got petitions up, we had a moan with the MPs, all this kind of stuff,” O’Brien says. “But I think once the council make up their mind, it’s made up. And there’s not a thing you can do about it.” She gestures to new flats across the road: “Millionaires’ stuff, most of it not used – it’s for investment. If you start thinking about communities rather than selfish thoughts of making money, maybe it might be great again,” she says of the area where she’s lived for almost half a century. “But who am I? Just a silly old woman with one foot in the grave and the other on a bar of soap.”
Will Young (above), the Woodman, Birmingham. Reason for closure: Covid, energy prices, HS2 construction
It was a pub in central Birmingham called the Wellington that convinced Will Young he might have a future in hospitality. Unlike the big chain pub he had worked in before, the Wellington “was the kind of place where everything was about the quality of the beer, the quality of the atmosphere, the ambience.” It was the sort of pub where people would come up to shake the barman’s hand at closing time: “They’d say, ‘We’ve had such a great time.’”
Young, who grew up in the city, had finished his master’s and was having trouble finding a graduate job. After a bit of time out, he decided to “give working in pubs a proper go”. His family were sceptical at first – “You’re not just going to work in pubs,” a relative said – but he had a “romantic” idea of the great British pub that he wanted to make a reality.
After working at the Wellington for a while, in 2018 the opportunity came for him to manage a pub on the edge of Digbeth, an ex-industrial area full of trendy bars and restaurants. Canals run nearby and the pub – a beautiful old place called the Woodman, built in 1896 out of red brick and terracotta by James and Lister Lea – was close to three universities, meaning a large pool of potential student customers. The owners wanted to bring in someone with fresh ideas to run it; to help attract a younger crowd while still retaining its identity.
Young spent that summer carefully enacting a plan to tempt in the students when they arrived in September. “We didn’t massively change the pub,” he says, “but what we did was change the atmosphere.” Perhaps in the past “it used to be a pub that you’d walk into and not get the warmest of welcomes”, so he tried to make it feel like a place for everyone, and “a bit more vibrant”. He also introduced a student discount and put a few more craft beers on tap. In 2019 and early 2020, his changes seemed to be paying off: “We were properly hitting our stride, we were an established and successful enough pub.” More and more of the students who lived nearby were becoming regulars.
And then? “I don’t know if you remember,” Young says drily, “but there was a small pandemic a while ago.” Covid brought the same massive challenges to the Woodman that all pubs across the country were facing, but the pub also had its own unique issue, which began in 2020 and will continue for many years yet: High Speed Rail 2. Gradually, the Woodman has become surrounded by a vast building site, for the long-delayed first leg of the HS2 train line, from London Euston to Birmingham Curzon Street.
The construction effectively cut the pub off from the rest of the city, severely reducing footfall and making for a strange atmosphere inside. Hoardings from the site eventually surrounded the pub right up to the pavement, while drilling began underground every day at 7am and didn’t let up until evening. “You’d see pints on the tables shaking,” Young remembers, “like it was the Godzilla movie or Jurassic Park or something.”
Business inevitably suffered. Though the building site managers were very communicative, there was no admission of liability or offer of compensation from HS2 Ltd. “The effect on us was very draining,” Young says. “It felt like an endurance test.” The work kept on being delayed and delayed, adding to the stress. This first phase of HS2, originally meant to complete in 2026, is now set to finish sometime between 2029 and 2033.
The final straw for the Woodman came in August, when Young received a letter from his energy company informing him of the projected rise in the pub’s gas bill from September. He had a meeting with his two partners and they agreed that, with the margins already as tight as they were, they were going to have to close.
They had a big party in late August to drink the stock dry. A number of different bands – graduates from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, who had been with the pub since the start of their degrees – asked if they could come back and play music during the evening. “Really touching and emotional and wonderful last night,” Young says, “but it’s very sad as well.”
The Woodman is now empty and Young fears for the future of the building. Though it is listed, and therefore protected from demolition, other historic pubs in the area have quickly gone to ruin after they closed, including one, the Eagle & Tun, that caught fire in 2020 and was later knocked down. As for Young, he’s taking some time out while he works out what to do next. The last few years “have completely taken it out of me,” he says. “But my guess is I’ll be back in pubs at some point. I really do love them.”