The Castle

A 'warts & all' account of the transformation of a run-down pub in Bradford-On-Avon into a 'proper' Inn (food pub with rooms). Written by Alex Reilley & Pierre Woodford

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Awkward visit

Following the conservation officers visit we make contact with an architect that Amanda has recommended to us. We organise a site visit with him in order that we can talk through our plans. We also use the opportunity to get our builder over to have a look.

We speak to the agent marketing the property about organising a visit. The agent comes back to us advising that it's all set up however we need to be a bit discreet as it's not common knowledge that the pub is being sold! This should be interesting.

So we turn up at 11am before the pub is open with our builder who has brought along a site foreman with him. There's 4 of us walking around, needing to get into every room & trying to be discreet. The architect then turns up to join us & we sense that the cat's now out of the bag. It's all very awkward & uncomfortable.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Listed building consent

We decide it's time to speak with a conservation officer about our proposed works. As always we don't think that anything we are proposing is controversial but we suspect that something sacred might crop up.

We engage our excellent planning consultant, Amanda Frith, who organises a site visit. So one dreary summer morning Dave & I set out in Dave's van complete with new & very large graffiti of a huge cock on the side above the side door. At this stage we were both still, stupidly, of the illusion that Bristol to BOA is, oh about half an hour. So as well as arriving in a van with a huge cock on the side of it we are also very late.

To our pleasant surprise the conservation office, who is waiting patiently outside with Amanda, is quite young & without a beard laced with that mornings cornflakes. I'm sorry if you are or know a conservation officer that is perfectly normal but from personal experience they are usually blokes that seem to have a keen interest in trains & real ale & not much in personal grooming. I now wonder if that's just officers in Bristol (who all look like the chap above), anyway enough of my stereo-typing.

We do a grand tour of the pub pointing out the many positive things we intend to do to the building & muttering under our breath about walls that we want to remove. The officer is very impressed with the amount of restoration we intend to carry out, I even thought at one stage he might hug us. There are however a couple of areas that he foresees potential conflict, a skirting board here, a bit of wall there, but we agree that there are many positives to balance out against the negatives. He states he looks forward to our application & we leave feeling pretty chuffed.

The valuation

As the summer just seems to get more hectic news comes in that the valuation report is with the bank. So what's it worth we all wonder? £450k is the answer (god our guts must be good). In addition to the magic figure you also get a very comprehensive report, that tends to include stacks of info that you already know, like where the pub is, the fact that it trades as a pub, that sort of thing. However there are also some really positive comments in the report & a suggestion that significant value can be added to the property.

So bank, how much are you going to lend us? We get the usual referral to some bloke upstairs who seems to decide on everything & wait.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Goldbrick House

After 2 very, very hard years Goldbrick House, which is a project that Loungers has invested heavily in & is the largest shareholder, finally opens. It's a warren of rooms set over 2 Georgian townhouse's & a Victorian factory that is now home to a café/bar, Champagne/cocktail bar, Restaurant with roof terrace, & private meeting/party rooms. A real monster of a project & a real monster of a spend! We're delighted with it & it hits the ground running, proving, as we hoped, to be the missing link in Bristol's restaurant/bar scene.

I made some good contacts on the build & see design elements that, watered down, could really suit The Castle. We also learnt some very valuable lessons about dealing with a listed Georgian building - did I mention that The Castle is Grade II listed? Well it is, & my vow never to do listed again didn't last long!

It's nearing the end of July & we realise the need to crack on.


That wasn't what was supposed to happen damn it!

It's now June. Valuers have been instructed, the solicitors are busy racking up fees, & we're all distracted big style & the Castle is far from anyone's minds. Banco Lounge, our 5th bar, opens at the end of month & Dave is in full headless chicken mode. I'm up to my eyeballs in our other major investment Goldbrick House, which after 2 years of planning & building is nearing opening. And just to compound matters there is a real sense that England are going to end 40 years of hurt. We seem to split our time between being at work/on a building site, jumping around throwing beer over each other, or laying in a drink/completely knackered induced coma.

It's great...but not great

There's the small matter of money to consider

We decide it's time to speak to the bank. A brief conversation follows with us explaining our great plan & how we enjoy working with NatWest etc, etc, we then cut to the chase. "How much can we borrow as a commercial mortage?", & "What happens if the valuation if short?"

Now as you all know when you buy a house you can borrow all of the property's value & in some cases even more. With a commercial property it's different & with pubs (high risk loans apparently) you'd be lucky to borrow more than 70% of the freeholds value. Therefore on the basis of the Castle being valued at £480k (& that's by no means a certainty) & us being able to borrow 70% as a mortgage that would leave us needing to put down £144k as a deposit (you may recall an earlier entry when I stated we had £140k in the pot). So we could find an extra few grand buy the place & then have no money to do it up with! Not an option.

On the positive side the bank are willing to lend against the development & subsequent rise in freehold. The bank agree to put the valuation out to tender & take it from there. It seems unfiar that such good news only serves to create more problems.

Good news...New problem

A few days after our meeting with Martyn I receive an email. The freeholder is willing to sell...For the right price. "What is the right price", I ask. "Not sure" replies Martyn, he says he'll get back to us. Having discussed it amongst ourselves our gut instinct (for what it's worth) is telling us it going to be around £450k, anymore & we feel that we be overpaying.

Martyn gets back to me, they want £500k & not a penny less. I send him an email back stating that we feel the freehold value is closer to £400k & attempt to hit him with some good reasons why. He's prompt & to the point in his reply & in a nutshell tells us to get real!

We up our offer to £450k & hope that the we can meet somewhere between - we're concerned about going too much over £450k for fear that the bank will value it either at £450k & leave us with a shortfall or maybe value it at less, hey for all we know they might value it at £300k & then we'd be really stuffed!

Marytn comes back to us, they'll sell for £480k. We agree & have a formal offer accepted. We feel a small sense for victory. However, our jubilation at securing our first freehold, is short lived when it suddenly occurs to us that we are going to need to find a lot more dosh. Time to have a serious look at our finances.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Are we reputable?

We get a call from our man, Martyn, at the management company requesting to meet us to check us out. We set up a meeting at Lounge on North Street in Bristol (our first bar), Pierre comes over for the occasion.

Martyn asks us a few questions & satisfies himself that we, sort of, know what we are doing. At the conversation draws to a close I ask him the question we're dying to know the answer to, "Has the landlord got back to him about the freehold?"

"No", he replies, but he thinks it's a possibility & will pester them for an answer.

The freehold

Can we buy the building?

With the leasehold deal agreed we make the obligatory enquiry about whether the landlord is willing to sell the freehold. For us this is a common question with all the leasehold interests we take on. However until now the answer has always been "No, don't be stupid" followed by a clip round the ear for being so cheeky.

The pub is managed by a locally based management company & the freeholders are some investment company based in Guernsey. Our contact at the management firm says that he'll ask the question & he even seems a bit optimistic about the answer being positive. We wait to hear.

Monday, November 06, 2006

We've got our company name

We need to decide on a name for the new company. I feel inspired by a totally random clothing purchase that Pierre had made a couple of weeks earlier in Bristol - we we're in Clifton Acarde when he suddenly darted into a retro clothes shop & emerged wearing a flat cap. He actually wore it for the entire day, including dinner at the Pear Tree!

I register us with Companies House. We were now FLATCAPPERS LTD.

Pierre's in

Middle of next week & Pierre calls - he's in. Suddenly we have a plan. We'll set up a new company comprising of Loungers, Lee & Pierre. Lee's going to raise some money by re-mortgaging his house & Pierre & Nicola are going to sell their London flat, use some of the money from the sale to invest & move over. Pierre's going to run the place - it's going to be his baby.

In the meantime we test the waters with a couple of business parnters on another project we've involved with in Bristol, Goldbrick House. They both show initial interest but they want too much for too little. We decide against it, & agree that we've got enough in the pot, about £140k, & that we'll borrow some dosh from the bank. Fag packet estimates come in at around £240k for the lot, although we could always get the pub up & running first & then tackle the rooms at a later date if money was short.

We discuss concept. We decide that BOA needs a pub that serves decent food, served all day, coupled with a mature drinking environment. We want to appeal to Bradford's residents & we also want to keep it reasonable. We'll have informal food offerings, a damn good homemade burger for instance, & a few 'proper' restaurant style dishes. This is roughly what our bars in Bristol provide, although we see scope to offer a bit more on the food side & to offer more wines & real ales. The general feeling, when we ask around, is that there's no where to go for a good meal without having to spend £30 a head. A 'less is more' approach seems sensible.

With the rooms we see a boutique approach - big beds, opulent furnishings, dirty great big showers. However we've never done rooms before & don't know the first thing about the legislation. Everyone we speak to mutters something about "Above 3 rooms & the legislationon gets more complicated". We've got 4 possibly 5, so complicated it is.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Pierre comes down

The following weekend Pierre arrives with his wife Nicola to check out our find. Like Lee, Pierre is a longstanding friend of Jake & myself from our days back in our home town of Leicester. We met Pierre whilst working at the same Mexican restaurant when we were in our late teens & consequently ended up sharing/destroying a house & in a 9-month period when we ended up with enough stories to fill any normal persons lifetime - we've bored anyone & everyone with them since.

When we all left Leicester a year later Pierre went to London & started working at Conran's famous, & first, restaurant Bibendum where he started as a glorified plate carrier. Eleven years on & Pierre is still at Bibendum where he is now (rather impressively) general manager.

Over the years wine-fuelled conversations have touched upon how great it would be to do a restaurant together & how Pierre should move over the SouthWest, without any plans developing. However of late both subjects seemed to have gathered more momentum & we had a strong ally in Pierre's wife Nicola, who wanted desperately to swap London for a slice of the West country. Two weeks prior to us finding The Castle Pierre & Nicola had been over visiting & we'd enjoyed a great meal at The Pear Tree in Whitley. At dinner I'd (apparently) promised Nicola that we'd find something for Pierre & now here we were just a fortnight later & not that many miles away.

They both saw what we saw, potential. Nicola summed it up best, "I love it, but I hate it" - I think we all got what she meant.

They decided to go away & talk it over, it all seemed very positive.

Offer accepted

We're at the top of the hill, which could be a problem, apparently!

Our offer is accepted & with Pierre due down at the weekend we start to canvas anyone & everyone who knows Bradford for their opinion. I speak with Chris, who until recently lived in BOA. Chris has his own design firm, Blu Inc, who we have worked with for years. He moved to BOA from Bristol & I was very interested in his thoughts as he's a thirty-something who likes to go out. "Bradford's not got a lot", he states, "And boys it needs something". "You'd do well there, the pubs are all doing the same sort of thing & there's no where that decent to eat". It all sounds pretty promising. Chris goes on to tell me that BOA is popular with young families who relocate from Bristol & Bath to "Get a slice of country life with the cow shit", I get the drift. Evidently BOA is popular with commuters who work in Bristol & Bath.

As for the pub we get a mixed bag. There are concerns about the lack of parking (although what pub in BOA has parking), & there are also concerns about it being "At the top of the hill". However this concern is tempered by the fact that a lion share of BOA's residents live at the top of the hill so we're not that concerned.

Northern investor

I call Pierre - he's interested & agrees to come down. Ironically we have some friends, Lee & his wife Sarah, from Lancashire staying at the time . Lee's an old mate that Jake & I met in a bar on the Greek party island of Ios back in 1993. We instantly forged a great friendship in those hazy days of flaming Lamborghini's, melon bombs, & Kandy shots & in the years since we've got together every 6 months or so for a weekend of good food & heavy drinking. Lee's business is manufacturing & he's often given the impression he'd be interested in investing in a restaurant/bar/pub project.

Over the weekend our talk/excitement of taking on a pub with rooms seems to rub off on Lee & he slips it into conversation that, should an opportunity arise, he'd love to get involved - "Just a friendly 10%" he says. Why not - we agree to talk over the coming week.

Friday, November 03, 2006

We decide to offer

We go back over with Jake. He also likes it & we decide that we could do something really nice. We also decide that it would be good to involve other people & not to do it through Loungers. We decide to offer the £35k premium being sought without knowing for sure what we are going to do with the place or who's going to be involved. I get on the blower to a mate ours called Pierre.

Nice pub in Bradford


A regular internet search throws up a rather nice, & cheap, looking pub in Bradford-On-Avon. The rent is reasonable & most importantly there is not brewery tie - brewery's really shaft pubs with a combo of high rent & a tie on anything from all draught to everything wet. If you're reading this & thinking about opening your own place a word of advice - stay away from brewery tied pubs!

I call Dave & we decide to go & have a gander. As a bit of background myself, Dave & a guy called Jake own a neighbourhood cafe/bar company based in Bristol called Loungers. We own 5 cafe/bar's in suburban Bristol - Lounge, Tinto Lounge, Porto Lounge, Deco Lounge, & Banco Lounge & we've been casting an interested eye towards BOA for a while.

I contact the agent & one Saturday morning myself & Dave jump in his van & drive over to have a look. The outside looked lovely from the (very small) photo on the particulars & oddly there are no internal shots. We conclude before we get there that the lack of internal shots & the cheap premium being sought are probably linked.

On entering our suspicions are confirmed; to say it was a bit untidy & a bit tired. Despite the poor internal repair we like it - it's got a nice aspect & a cosy feel. We wander round checking out the bogs, the 'office' & the very scary kitchen whilst chatting with the landlord.

Upstairs there are letting bedrooms & a managers flat, again in need of some TLC, but all of the rooms have good proportions to them.

On enquiring about a large rectangular hole in the ceiling of one the rooms it becomes apparent that there is another room on the second floor. This used to be accessed via a spiral staircase, which we are informed was stolen. Interesting!

We drive back to Bristol & chat about it - there's a lot of potential & consequently a lot of work. We speculate about how much stone masons costs, whether the lack of parking is going to be a problem, & whether with everything else we've got going on (we're currently working on a another café/bar in Bristol as well as a major restaurant/bar project in Bristol)we got the stomach for what is going to be a big job.

We decide that Jake should see it & I give him a call.

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