New Life Required for New Inn

Old Drawing of New innThere 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.

John Britton New Inn

New Inn Courtyard from John Britton’s “Picturesque Antiquities of the English Cities’ 1836

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.

New Inn early 20th Century

New Inn courtyard from a 1912 postcard, with stagecoach in rear courtyard

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.

New Inn Stirrup Bar

Drawing of the Stirrup Bar from a sadly undated leaflet, presumably from the Berni Inn days

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.

New Inn Now

New Inn courtyard taken on a sunny day in 2011 – still impressive, but in need of some TLC (picture by Ken Jacques)

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.


About Darrel Kirby

I am what I am.
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12 Responses to New Life Required for New Inn

  1. Excellent historical tour my friend 🙂

  2. janh1 says:

    I echo the first comment. Really excellent blog + illustrations, D! I’ve always thought the New Inn was sadly unappreciated. It was at its best in the 70’s when it was all in use. Wouldn’t it be FAB if an investor could be found and Shakespeare could be staged there again? That’s the kind of stuff Gloucester needs to get it back on the map.

    The Fleece is a similarly ancient, fascinating and completely overlooked important piece of Gloucester history. Not sure what’s going on there but to have a building like that closed and unused is sad indeed.

    When *are* you going to get on the council, D? You’ll look ever so impressive with that ‘tache 🙂

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Thanks Jan. they did put a Shakespeare play on there a while back – Taming of the Shrew. Last summer I believe, unfortunately I couldn’t make it an don’t know how it went.
      You are right about the Fleece – it is currently under council ownership having been bought from SWRDA and is undergoing much needed restoration with the hope of finding a buyer in 2015 I think.
      Don’t mention the council to Mrs K – I have, and have never had, any interest in becoming a councillor, but she has threatened me with dire retribution if I do!

  3. Cockney come Kiwi now in Gloucester says:

    Hi Darrel. I’m new to Gloucester and your blog and although a long-term beer and pub lover have, as yet, only had a chance to get my first taste (pardon the pun) of a limited number of the local hostelries. Amongst them is The New Inn which as luck would have it I popped into for a quick pint last night on my way home from the fireworks display at the docks. I’m not sure how illustrative a pint at 8.30pm on a Saturday evening and departure just after 9pm (ok, ok I’m getting old but in my defence it was cold and very wet!) is of how things are generally but have to say I was impressed with the immediately evident history and congenial atmosphere of the place. An off the cuff comment (amusing and complimentary I should add) I made about the first person brave enough to attempt a karaoke song so early in the evening prompted a very friendly lady to respond introducing herself to my partner and the couple we were with as “the new owner” and she seemed very nice. She was, as she admitted, still “settling in” and whilst trying to keep an eye on a couple of blokes in the courtyard in their mid 20’s who had obviously already had enough as their neanderthal chat up lines to any female walking by attested, also by her own admission had her work cut out monitoring the 18th birthday party that was also going on in one of the other parts of the pub. First impressions count and I was impressed. I will definitely be returning and will be ordering a pint of the draught Butcombe Bitter I espied next time but which unfortunately I didn’t get to sample last night as a pint of generic lager was foisted upon me before I was able to express a preference for something more to my taste!

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Hi, good to here from you – hope you enjoy Gloucester, there are many fine pubs to be enjoyed. Really pleased to hear that you had a good experience at the New Inn, I haven’t had a chance to meet the new owners yet, but your experience certainly sounds promising.

  4. sharellewodehouse says:

    ooooh!!! If only we had the “deep pockets” for this! We have converted it for years! (We ended up with a more affordable one that also has a deep and colourful history but not in that league) What you say is so true. I have only been in there a couple of times over the years and it just feels wrong. What you experience does not suit the building and it’s history at all. I find it depressing to do that to such a glorious building with such a rich past. Atmosphere and a genuine love and respect for this building and its history are essential for this me thinks. I sincerely wish the New Inn the understanding carers it deserves, who “get” what it is about.

    • sharellewodehouse says:

      oops I did not read the one that says it now has new owners. Will definitely give it another try.

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Hi Sharelle, you have done great things with the Brunswick, but as you say the New Inn would be a much bigger and more expensive proposition! Here’s hoping the new managers are good and Chapman gives them a chance!

  5. Pingback: The Fleece Hotel: A new Life for an Ancient Inn | Darrel Kirby's Blog

  6. Philip Tory says:

    Hello Darrel, New Inn, Gloucester – nice article, thank you.
    Our church (Brunswick Baptist Church, Gloucester) had its beginnings in the New Inn, 200 years ago this year. I wondered if we could have your permission to include a couple of the old pictures on our church web site? I don’t know the copyright rules on old pictures – can you advise me please?

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Glad you enjoyed the blog Philip. The pictures I used here are old – they are either old postcards/ brochers or illustrations widely reproduced in the public domain, therefore I have assumed they are free from copyright. I have used them in my books and haven’t run into trouble yet! On that basis feel free to use them. If you want better quality than you can take from the web give me a contact detail and I can send JPGs.

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