For the Kings Arms in York, frequent flooding comes with the territory. Joe Lutrario discovers how the riverside pub copes when the waters rise
The events of the last few months have been a stark warning of how vulnerable pubs near rivers and other flood-prone areas can be. For the
licensees and pubcos operating in the regions most recently affected by the severe weather, who watched thousands of pounds worth of trade drain away, the question now is whether it could happen again and how to prepare if it does.
One pub in York floods so often that owner Samuel Smith has put a set of measures in place to minimise the damage and get its doors open again as quickly as possible.
The Kings Arms is located on Kings Staith, just past the city centre and right on the bank of the river Ouse. The building was originally a counting house and was converted to a pub by the Tadcaster-based brewer in 1898. The wet-led business is now one of Samuel Smith's flagship outlets and one of the busiest pubs in York, particularly in the summer.
The city is especially susceptible to flooding because it sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Ouse and the Foss. The floods of winter 2000, which were the worst for 350 years, caused a great deal of damage to the historic centre and some land in the city is too prone to flooding to be developed.
"We've flooded nine times since I've been here, and I've only been here for nine months," says manager Andrew Henstock. "It's quite a light-hearted event. You can't get despondent with the situation - we know it will get back to normal soon."
This January was the first time the Kings Arms had flooded in 14 months, but the pub usually floods about four times a year. "It has been a particularly wet year here," says Henstock. "We're used to it now, though. We can have the pub ready for a flood within half an hour and can be back up and running about four hours after the waters have subsided, depending on the severity of flood."
Like a military operation
The process of preparing the pub for the coming tide of water sounds like a military operation. "It starts with a flood warning. The Queens Staith just down the river will flood first, and after that it could take up to 48 hours for us to be affected - it's quite a slow process," Henstock explains.
Then it's all hands on deck. Because of
the pub's design, it can stay open for as long
as possible. Customers are moved into the room at the back while a flood gate is placed over the front door into rubber grooves. The water starts to rise around the front of the pub, but the walls are so thick that the water will not come in until it reaches the level of
the wooden windows.
"It's very dramatic. If you look out of the window you can't see the Kings Staith (the cobbled quay outside the pub) so it looks a bit dangerous at that point," says Henstock. "Once the water starts getting near the back door it's time to get the customers out. In the old days the regulars were allowed to stay - we've got pictures on the wall of people standing on upturned crates, still chugging away. That wouldn't be allowed now though, because the river water could be contaminated."
With the customers safe, Henstock and his staff start taking the pub to bits. Everything is designed to be dismantled quickly and stored upstairs - the cushions on the stone seats, the stainless-steel shelving for storing the glasses, even the wooden exterior and interior doors. There are two levels of flood: 3.4m above normal river level requires clearing everything from floor to bar height, and 4.5m means removing everything right up to the ceiling.
"The beer's all upstairs. We only have keg beer because cask would go off if we were shut for a while. All the electrics are upstairs and the plugs are high up on the downstairs walls. It's all been very well thought-out - there's
absolutely no wastage, we don't even have flood insurance."
The measures were put in place by the independent brewer after a particularly bad flood in 1982. "The pub is extremely well designed. The measures the brewery have put in place must save us tens of thousands a year."
"Once that's done it's just a case of waiting for the water to go down, which can take anything from a few hours to about a week. The longest I've been stuck here was for nine days in January. It is possible to get out in fishing waders but I stay put for security. I've got a room full of beer, a catering kitchen and Sky - it's not all bad."
By now, Henstock's team has got the clean-up operation well mastered. Once the waters have retreated the pub is scrubbed out and hosed down, then disinfected with a special cleaning product. After that it's just a case of putting things back and opening the door.
The pub floods so frequently that the san-itation certificate, which is usually handed
out by specialist contractors, is obtained directly through Samuel Smith. The longest the pub has been shut for recently is two weeks. That was in 2000 when, according to the chart on the wall, it was flooded almost to the cei-
ling - nearly six feet under water.
Henstock says that because the Kings Arms is at a lower level than other pubs in the area it is far more susceptible to flooding, which has given it a useful angle to exploit for publicity.
"We're always very busy when we re-open after a flood. People just want to come round and have a look," he says, recalling one occasion when a couple canoed through one door and out the other. "We're the pub that floods and we're well known for it. It obviously affects our trade badly when we're shut but we do get a lot of publicity from it."
Despite Henstock's ability to spin such a negative experience into a positive, clearly he's grateful at being able to limit the amount of damage that is caused.
Henstock says: "The advice I'd give to other licensees is that if your pub floods regularly, make changes to minimise the damage, but most importantly get a procedure in place so you and your staff know what you're doing when it happens. It's much better if you know in advance - we always keep up-to-date with flood warnings by staying in touch with the Environment Agency."
Some pubcos are looking to emulate the Kings Arms by making their pubs more resistant to flooding. Brewer and operator Wadworth is considering putting measures in place.
A spokesman for the Wiltshire-based pubco said: "It's certainly something we're thinking about. It all depends on the insurance which we're still waiting for in most cases. Wadworth has responsibility for the buildings and it may be worth making a few changes here and there if there's work being carried out anyway.
Although it has been a freak year in terms of the weather I think it's a case of "once bitten, twice shy" - we want to be ready."
"It's very frustrating having pubs closed at the moment because the weather's good now - they'd be doing a great trade. We'd probably think twice before replacing a carpet that has been ruined by waters at a flood-prone pub."