The curse of the British pub refurbishment

The disappearing city

The UK pub is a dying breed, with thousands being shut down or bought out by big chains. For many, refurbishments are a way of staying relevant – but is it ever possible to do up a local and truly keep its spirit?

It’s the end of an era for Norman’s Coach & Horses on Greek Street in Soho. By the end of June, Fuller’s, the brewery that owns the freehold of this crown jewel of old Soho, will step in to run it as a spruced-up managed estate. To quote Alastair Choat, who took over the Coach from “London’s rudest landlord” Norman Balon 12 years ago: “What the fuck?”

The Coach & Horses is more than a pub – it’s a deeply loved London institution. Nearly 12,000 people have signed the petition to stop Fuller’s from taking over. If you’ve been there, with its blond wood and red light, you’ll understand why: the place is full of people talking and sharing stories over drinks, and while it’s busy there’s somehow always a seat. The Coach has a feeling of community that’s rare to find in central London.

I first met Choat last December, when I was researching a hunch I had about Greek Street being the last great, shit street in Soho. I’d fallen in love with the Coach – the beating heart of Greek Street – years before, one night when I wandered in during one of their piano singalongs. The landlord invited me for a pint, where he told me about the moment that he himself was charmed by the venue, just before he took over the leasehold: “We walked in the double doors on Greek Street, through the pub, and out the doors on Romilly Street. I just went, ‘That's the pub we want to buy. That's the one.’” Choat assured me that day he had no plans to change anything at the Coach, which has been there since 1847: “It’s rough around the edges, but I like it as it is.”

I’d asked Choat that question because so many fantastic pubs succumb to the scourge that is “refurbishment”. Last year another Soho landmark, the Pillars of Hercules, was transformed from an old and sticky (but great) pub to a cocktail bar. Sure, there are times when a refurb is needed, and sometimes you need to change the carpets to keep things sanitary. But for a good old boozer, more often than not a refurbishment will rip out the heart of the place.

Fuller’s have said they will be restoring The Coach to its “former glory and retaining all of the features that have made it such a famous pub”. But the glory days of the Coach was Balon telling everyone to fuck off, and one of those fantastic “features” is that Choat (allegedly) lets people smoke inside the Coach on Christmas Eve – it’s one of those weird and wonderful Soho moments you can’t put in a spreadsheet. The appeal of the Coach has little to do with the decor, and everything to do with the spirit that Balon infused into the place over six decades (which Choat has preserved). But soon, the Coach’s sweary smoking days are over.

So what do you do when a Soho institution is dying? As devastating as it’s been, Choat and his daughter Hollie have put up a hell of a fight. And they’ve given their patrons one last Coach & Horses moment that will be talked about for years to come: a special production of “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”, the West End play chronicling Jeffrey Bernard – writer, alcoholic, 4x divorcee – who once got locked in at the Coach overnight after falling asleep in the bogs.

The pub was packed on press night, with Balon in the audience and Stephen Fry at the bar, as Robert Bathurst paced the length of the room as he delivered his one-man show. It was as funny as expected but it was surprisingly bittersweet too, as Bernard spoke so fondly about the Coach, and of Soho. “Soho’s always waiting with open arms and legs,” said Bernard, who was already writing about the “dying Soho” in his Low Life magazine column in the 1970s. But as Bernard concludes: “Life does go on, whatever proof there might be to the contrary.”

Alastair Choat

Alastair Choat

Hollie Choat

Hollie Choat

A favourite pub is a place where nothing changes – it’s a constant in an uncertain world. So to walk up to a beloved boozer and see the doors closed with that word – “refurbishment” – stapled to the wall, is a kick in the teeth. This is what happened at another one of my favourite Soho boozers, the Blue Posts in Chinatown. Run by Michael Cowell and his partner A Yamashita, it was a pocket of realness in a touristy area. The Blue Posts had a worn-down brown feel and a chill atmosphere, and the place was much loved by locals. When I’d give people the address to meet me there (stressing it’s the one on Rupert Street, not the namesake in Berwick Street), more often than not they’d call me from across the street telling me they couldn’t find it – it was a strangely invisible pub. But one day the doors were shut, and when it opened again, in December 2017, it looked completely different.

Years later, I can see that the new Blue Posts, with its dark-painted wood and brass details, is an objectively beautiful pub. But it took me years to be able to actually go and have a drink there again, spinning on my heels the first time and walking straight back out because it just wasn’t the same. Layo Paskin, the new owner of the Blue Posts, is sympathetic: “There are people who walk in and say, ‘Oh, it’s not like it was.’ But slowly, over a few years, they may start to drift back and have a bit more softness about our approach. I understand it, but change isn’t always bad.”

Paskin, who with his sister Zoë also runs the Palomar restaurant a few doors up, was born in London and spent time in Soho growing up – he was familiar with the Blue Posts before taking it over. He describes its former state as a “dilapidated shell”, and his first port of call was to find out what the 1739-born pub was once like: “We worked with the shape of building to recreate it. We put in Georgian windows and used the flooring that was left to re-do the first floor so it’s all original,” says Paskin.

It takes time to make a local – Paskin says they’ve had the same team working in the Blue Posts since reopening: “It’s miles better now than when we opened, and it will be miles better in another year. You have to build your community – people coming in, feeling it, knowing who runs it. It takes a lot of care and patience.”

The Fallen Heroes, a jazz band who have played the Blue Posts on Sundays for over 12 years, is still part of the scenery, says Paskin, who has a 15-year lease on the Blue Posts and views himself as a custodian: “We’re aware that this pub will be around long after we’ve gone. All we’re here to do is make our period of running the pub really good in its own way. That really is the truth.”

There’s a good and a bad way to do a pub refurbishment, and the annual Pub Design Awards from Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) has a category to recognise this. “What we want to see is that people have looked at the building carefully, identified the best features and what’s important about the building, and played to those strengths,” says Andrew Davison, Camra’s Pub Design Awards coordinator. Camra most recently celebrated the Sekforde, a Clerkenwell pub from 1829, and previous refurbishment winners included the Fitzroy Tavern in Fitzrovia, and The Scottish Stores, the former strip pub on Caledonian Road in King’s Cross – all old London pubs restored to original features.

The Camra judges see a lot of exposed brick these days: “An awful lot of refurbishments are very formulaic.” But Davison points out that pubs need to keep evolving – Camra saw more applications in its conversion category this year, as existing buildings (like a slaughterhouse or a pavillion) are converted into pubs. Britain has lost 25 per cent of its pubs in the past 20 years, with one closing every 12 hours. The industry is under extreme pressure, and Davidson says it’s not fair to say you can never change anything.

“People’s idea of what they want from a pub have changed, and a pub is going to evolve to serve its customers,” he says. People nowadays want food and clean toilets, for example, neither of which was standard in pubs back in the day. “What you want is to hang on to the best of the old while allowing things to evolve to meet changing circumstances. If nothing ever changed, I think we’d be losing a lot more pubs.”

A good pub is a community. A refurb really needs to be well thought through because unless it’s brilliant, any change will be bad. But Louise Sutherland, a director at pub refurbishment specialist Fairland Contractors, tells me there’s a lot of renovation activity in London these days, across traditional as well as modern pubs. “There’s a lot of small breweries that want to do a really good refurbishment,” she says. “The bigger breweries are also doing a fair bit.”

Fairland has just finished refurb on the Star of the East in Bethnal Green, and the company also worked on the Marquis of Cornwallis in Bethnal Green, The Victoria in Paddington (owned by Fuller’s, who Sutherland describes as a “sympathetic restorer”), and the Crowne Plaza bar in Blackfriars. The current trends are all about outside seating and living walls, wallpapers with strong patterns, ornate features such as monkey lamps, softer seating (getting more women into pubs is a goal), and stuff that looks good on Instagram. Sutherland acknowledges that being too trendy can make spaces look dated: “But pubs get a lot of wear and tear. When your basics are good you can always do an update.”

Sutherland says a simple do-up isn’t rocket science: paint the walls, get rid of the wires, put up some decent pictures and maybe some bric-a-brac, get the lighting right – and don’t rush it. “But the one thing that absolutely makes a great refurb is a good designer. You can tell a mile off if there’s been a designer or if people have done it themselves,” she says. If not, the risk is that it can look tatty: “More often than not, you need someone to come in and help you. You [want] a designer who’s sympathetic to the pub’s history.”

The saving grace of the new Blue Posts is that it’s been respectfully renovated with a view to bringing back its original features, a fact that also means it’s sufficiently different to not really remind you of the previous one. This isn’t always the case: when the Nellie Dean on Dean Street reopened after a more or less gentle refurb it had the most ridiculously harsh lighting which made it impossible to be there (for the record, this has since improved). The Market Porter by Borough Market is original dark wood in the front where time stands still, but the back has been refurbished and it’s all clean and bright. While I can understand the need to expand the small space, the dark back corner of the Porter was perfect when I and my fellow night shift workers would roll in at 7am for an after-work drink, looking for a place the sun didn’t reach.

There are still a lot of great little boozers around London where nothing has changed for decades, and for me, all this change is a reminder to visit them while they’re still there. The other Blue Posts (the one on Berwick Street) is still going strong, and so are several other Soho favourites like the French House, the Lyric, and the Cross Keys in Covent Garden.

For pubs that are centuries old, what’s original to you will depend on when you first walked in the door. The old Blue Posts that I loved was probably done up some time around the 1970s, so it’s not like it was “original” – and in fairness, the same is true for the Coach & Horses. I understand that a refurb that to me is a dreaded change, may well become the foundation of someone else’s beloved local in the future. But being a custodian of a London mainstay requires being very, very respectful to what came before.

I still miss the old Blue Posts in Chinatown, but I have to admit that the new external window seats are a brilliant addition. I’m going to be spending some time there this summer, as the alley is a great spot to hang out before going for dim sum – and maybe it’s time to move on. I’m still livid about losing the Coach & Horses, but let’s give Norman Balon the last word – as he said when he retired from the Coach in 2006: “Yesterday is dead. Live for today, and look forward to tomorrow.”

‘The Disappearing City’ is a series about the changing urban landscapes of London. Previously: Raves and resistance: The hidden history of King’s Cross.

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