Are you being served? How two Camden pubs are rising from the ashes after closure
- Credit: Harry Taylor
It’s not uncommon to hear of pubs closing, with a downbeat follow-up of “how things used to be”. The beating heart of the community stops and falls quiet. The Sir Richard Steele pub, in the Steele’s Village area of Belsize was closed and surrounded by scaffolding as recently as May, as it looked to face an uncertain future.
Campaigners had rallied behind it in 2016 over fears it would be converted into flats. They won the day when a judge ruled the ground floor had to remain as a pub.
It opened its doors on July 28, and new manager Aaron Woodman wants to put the pub at the heart of the community again.
“It’s a fantastic area, and the people really care about the pub,” he said. “At the moment we’ve seen a lot of people who live nearby coming in and wanting to see what we’ve done, and where we’ve put the stained glass window, and whether we’ve kept the original ceiling.”
“We want to be part of the community. We’re not serving fish and chips on our menu, out of respect for Oliver’s next door. We’re offering service staff who work in Belsize, Primrose Hill and Hampstead 15 per cent off their drinks, because we know what it’s like.”
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The 40-year-old has worked in the pub trade for more than 20 years. He appreciates why people have fond feelings for the building.
“It’s a great pub,” he said. “As soon as I walked in here I was blown away. There is pressure on us to do well. There will always be people who come in and won’t like how we’ve changed it, but we’re proud of what we’ve done.”
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Aaron was aware of the battle by campaigners over the pub in Haverstock Hill.
“When I first walked in, I asked my boss: ‘Why would you want to turn these into flats?’ and he said: ‘That’s the point – we’re not!’
“There are now flats upstairs, and the income from that has been used to pay for the work on the pub downstairs.”
The Steeles, as its known, isn’t the only pub to have had new life breathed into it. Some 50 yards away, the Belrose had a “soft launch” last week ahead of a full unveiling later this summer.
Further up the road, the Duke of Hamilton, another pub the community has rallied behind, has new landlords. Ben and Ed Robson, along with Adam Gostyn, have taken it over from Steve Coxshall.
The trio are well known publicans in Hampstead, having all worked in the Horseshoe pub in Heath Street and grown up and gone to school in the area.
When asked why they’ve taken over the running of the pub, Ben said it was a “no brainer”.
“It’s got a great history,” he said. “It’s Hampstead’s oldest pub, and has been there 300 years. We’re looking into its background, and about who the third Duke of Hamilton was.”
They currently run the Clifton pub in Maida Vale, which reopened its doors in 2017. They believe there’s a similarity between the pubs, and what their vision for the New End pub is.
“We want to do a similar thing with the Duke,” says Ed. “When we took the Clifton over, we wanted to make it somewhere where women and children feel comfortable. They’re both in the heart of the areas they serve.
“We want to open the pub up, and do the same there. We want to make sure the food offering’s brilliant and it’s somewhere everyone wants to come.”
They also hark back to the number of pubs that have closed in the village in the last 15 years, but believe their approach makes them different.
“It’s our pub, but if somebody comes in and wants something changed, then we’ll look into it,” he said.
“Pubs that have declined over the years are those that haven’t listened to their customers. There’s no point having a pub that you love, that nobody else wants to come to.”
The “customers-first” approach is also in the minds of Aaron for the Steeles.
“We’re aiming for 100 per cent service,” he said.
“Whether people are coming in for one pint after work, or are spending 10 times that on a meal and a nice bottle of wine, they both deserve the same welcome and treatment.”
Both sets of new owners believe it’s a good time to open a pub in Hampstead, and good food is a key to success.
“People in Hampstead want good value and good quality,” says Ed. “We’re looking to create a menu that people will want to come and try, and come back for.”
The men behind the new Duke of Hamilton have also confirmed they will be keeping the jazz club, which is in the pub’s basement.
“There’s nothing else like it out there and it’s in the pub’s oldest, original part,” said Adam.