There is an excellent article in today’s Sunday Express by the beer writer Pete Brown talking about the colourful history of The George Inn in Southwark, South London. He paints a great picture and as I read it I was reminded of the New Inn here in Gloucester.
Of course, Gloucester’s more rural location means that it didn’t have the same calibre of notable worthies as its regulars in centuries past, but basically it is a very similar style of inn with the same wonderful history woven into its fabric.
Sadly, in the case of the New Inn, this wonderful rich history is not well presented. As one of the most interesting, impressive and historic buildings in a historic city it should positively sing out as a magnet to locals and tourists alike, but it doesn’t; why not? Well, at least part of the answer to that is revealed in the news of yet another departing landlord after a stay of only a few months.
The history of the New Inn is well recorded – not least by me in all three of the books that I have written on Gloucester (The Story of Gloucester, The Story of Gloucester’s Pubs and Gloucester Then & Now). It was one of the ‘Great Inns of the Abbey’, built by St Peter’s Abbey, now Gloucester Cathedral, between 1430 and 1450 on the site of an older inn, hence the now somewhat inapt name.
It is known as a ‘Pilgrim’s Inn’, as allegedly it was built to accommodate the pilgrims who flocked to Edward II’s tomb in the Abbey following his gruesome murder in Berkeley Castle. Whether this is true, or whether it was simply part of the wider move from monastic guest houses to inns, it is nonetheless a very fine inn. Reminders of its monastic past can still be seen: there is a sadly mutilated carving of an angel on the angle post at the corner of New Inn Lane and a fine spandrel on the entrance into the courtyard bearing the sacred monogram IHC.
The New Inn is described as the finest example of a medieval galleried inn to be found in Britain today; it consists of oak timber framed buildings with two tiers of galleries enclosing two courtyards. This is very reminiscent of Pete Brown’s description of The George, where he describes its benefits as a theatre venue:
“The George was famous by the time William Shakespeare came to live in Southwark in the 1590s. Before the first permanent theatres were built plays were performed in inn yards like the George’s.
“It provided the perfect setting: you had a courtyard flanked on three sides by two tiers of balconies or “galleries”. These faced a narrow entrance where a temporary stage could be erected and admission charged.”
And indeed, like The George, The New Inn was a popular venue for strolling minstrels and for plays by travelling companies. One of these companies was closely associated with Shakespeare, so inevitably it is speculated that the bard himself played there. The George, also like the New Inn, was later a coaching inn:
“It was one of eight great coaching inns down the east side of Borough High Street, magnificent places built around interlocking courtyards full of stables, warehouses, wagon sheds, bedrooms, bars, restaurants and meeting rooms.”
The new inn was an important venue on the Gloucester to London stagecoach route. The rooms were in the form of dormitories providing accommodation for up to 200 people. Even before the stagecoaches arrived in the eighteenth century it would have been full of people and their horses, which would, of course, all have been stabled around the courtyard. The building that now houses the restaurant was a stable block.
A better writer than me could have a field day invoking the noise and bustle and, no doubt, pungent aroma of the inn in those times. There would probably have been a number of bars, full of people of all social classes, drinking, shouting, singing and telling tall tales of their travels.
In more recent times, the New Inn was bought by Bernie Inns in 1954 and at that time it had thirteen separate bars, all with their own purpose and feel, from the Steak and Duck Bar to the Stirrup Bar, The Wine Press Bar to the Scotch Bar.
In more recent times still, the New Inn has been through a number of changes of hands, during which time it has been the victim of both neglect and corporate vandalism. It is now owned by the Chapman Group and for a while it wasn’t too bad: it was the Gloucester CAMRA’s City Pub of the Year from 2002-2004, but it went sadly downhill again when that tenant moved on.
Since then there have been a succession of landlords. Mark and Samantha Cooke were there until recently. They stayed for a little over two years and I liked Mark a lot. He was a larger than life character always willing to try something new to pull in the punters. But with a restaurant, a hotel and a bar to run it is a lot of work and it was difficult to keep it all going.
The most recent tenants, Steve and Michelle stayed for only around 6 months. I confess that I didn’t warm to Steve in the same way and he seemed to upset a lot of people in his short time there. I suspect there will be few tears shed with his passing.
The New Inn needs someone to stay for the long haul: someone who can appreciate the splendour of the place and who has the freedom and vision to make a difference. I don’t know if the quick turnover of staff is a deliberate policy with Chapman, or whether it is bad luck or bad management, but it seems to bedevil all of their Gloucester pubs (the others being the Dick Whittington, currently on good form, and the Station).
For a long time now the New Inn has tended toward the cheap and cheerful approach to get people in, but it cries out for something better. I don’t mean posh – perish the thought! – but it needs something to restore it to the glory it deserves.
Sensitive renovation of a Grade I listed property is not easy or cheap, but it can be done. For inspiration on how to restore the fabric of a building look no further than the Robert Raikes’ House in Southgate Street, but that cost Samuel Smiths a reported £4.5 million. For inspiration on how to restore a pubs ambience look no further than the Pelican, turned around by Wye Valley Brewery and the landlord Michael Hall from a rundown trouble pub to one of the best ‘hidden secrets’ in Gloucester.
What is needed is deep pockets and a broad vision. From past experience I would say that Chapman aren’t up to the job, and the New Inn deserves better.