The Chesham Arms is an unusual pub. On London streets like Hackney’s Mehetabel Road, you expect pubs to be on the corners. The pubs were built first, marking out the street, and then the houses were filled in between. That way, the developers could pay their labourers on the street, then take their wages back off them in the pub at the end.
The Chesham is mid-terrace. This seems strange when you approach it from the end of sleepy Mehetabel Road. But once you’re in front of it, you realise it’s been placed exactly so that if you’re walking down Isabella Road, which forms a ‘T’ with Mehetabel, the pub is right in front of you. The developers weren’t stupid.
Property developers are less keen to build pubs as part of their plans these days, but still display the same shrewd cynicism.
The Chesham Arms closed three years ago. The owner decided to ‘develop’ (we really must challenge these people over the true meaning of that word) the site into flats. The local community objected to this, and succeeded in getting an ACV (asset of community value ruling) for the pub. The legal battle became protracted, so the owner simply went ahead with the conversion into flats, even moving the first tenants in.
As any publican who has applied for planning permission for an extension or smoking area knows, local councils can be difficult to get onside, whoever you are. A growing number of developers, particularly in London, are becoming frustrated with process and simply decide to go ahead with their plans. “We’re going to win anyway,” goes the thinking, “and we haven’t got time to wait around for the formalities”.
But they’re discovering hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.
The Chesham’s landlord was ordered to move his tenants out. Change of use was then swiftly prevented by an Article 4 direction in February this year, with Hackney Council recognising “the importance and significance of public houses as social and community facilities, to meet the needs of local communities throughout the borough”. There was nowhere left to go other than leave the Chesham empty, or reopen it as a pub.
On the sultry June evening when I walk up to the bar and order a pint of Pressure Drop’s Pale Fire, brewed just a few hundred yards away, the Chesham is reopening after exactly 1,000 days closed.
There’s an understandable air of jubilation. A PR person with a clipboard ticks off invited guests, and some mightily good pork pies do the rounds.
But we’re not the first to sample the delights of the reopened pub — there was a soft launch, for neighbours and campaigners only, five days ago.
“The neighbours were fully involved in the refurbishment,” says publican Andy Bird. “We used elements from the old pub and got opinions from locals. They were out here helping clear the garden and even brought us food while we worked.”
Sitting in the garden with our drinks, Andy and his business partners don’t want to talk to me about the campaign to save the Chesham. They want to show me the photos of its transformation, almost fighting each other to do so. They want to tell me about the trip to Derby to salvage the stunning bar from another doomed pub, and to ask my opinion on the perfectly chosen range of locally brewed beers, and the perfection of the newly laid grass beneath our feet.
As they tell me about their astonishing (and astonishingly fast) restoration, I realise the story of the Chesham Arms holds some important lessons for a beleaguered, struggling pub industry.
Firstly, ACVs really work. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee the future of the pub, but the campaigners here insist the whole struggle hinged on it.
Secondly, real communities want real pubs — perhaps not just any pub, but definitely a pub that is put together with love. They will fight for these pubs, and welcome them.
And thirdly, the pub really does still have a role. It’s not irrelevant. It still matters.
Councils, which can often be so frustrating to deal with, are really starting to recognise this.
After the campaigns, the protests, the petitions and the legal battles, after all the anger, this is what it’s all about — a great pint in great surroundings surrounded by great people. This is what it was all for, an idea that still survives and always will.