Sir Alec backs campaign to preserve the celebrities' pub from pounds 4m sale

SIR ALEC GUINNESS drank there because the darts players were "safe". David Niven used to pop in for his pre-prandial because there were no autograph hunters.

Tucked away in Chesham Street, in London's Belgravia, the Lowndes Arms has always been a favourite - and discreet - watering hole for the rich and famous.

Those who have propped up its bar include Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, Tom Baker, Pierce Brosnan, Blair (Lionel not Tony), Helen Shapiro, Susannah York and Michael Crawford. It achieved celluloid fame itself in the film The Crying Game.

But property speculators have other ideas. This casual stop-off for the parched celebrity, open for 250 years, is to be sold - as a house.

With a potential pounds 4m price tag, the owner, Inntrepreneur Pub Company, has decided it can make more money from one straight sale than in the fickle trade in ploughman's and pints - a decision condemned by its clientele.

Sir Alec Guinness told The Independent: "I am very sorry to hear that the pub might be closed. I think it is the nicest pub in that part of London."

Completed in 1762 by the co-founder of the Bank of England, Sir William Lowndes, for the brickies that built Belgravia, it has served the area unbroken ever since.

Now Sir William's surviving relatives have lined up with former landlords, the pub's current managers and more than 1,000 pub-goers, to save the bar.

Campaigners point to a covenant drawn up by Sir William that prohibits any use other than as a shop or a licensed victuallers. They accuse the current owners of rushing through planning permission without consultation and of ignoring Sir William's wishes.

One of Sir William's descendants, Simon Lowndes, said they may form a limited company as a campaign group to fight the closure. "What they are doing not only goes against the memory of this great man who did so much for this country but also against the sanctity of the law by seeking to breach this covenant.

"Belgravia is, at the best of times, a very quiet, anonymous place. It's prided for its privacy but Lowndes Arms is a haven for those seeking community.

"If Sir William were alive today he would be terribly disappointed at the thought of a pub that he bequeathed free to the community being metamorphosed into a crude money-making device."

Threats of court action, petitions and protests have cut no ice with the owners, however. David Simpson, spokesman for Inntrepreneur, said: "It is a small pub and not commercially successful. As for this covenant, that has only recently emerged two or three weeks ago. We don't think it has any validity and legal advisers are looking at it but at this stage we are unconvinced it has any legal status."

For Keith Matthews, who makes the 200-yard daily stroll from his home for his pint, it will be the end of a 33-year habit.

He said: "Asking if the pub was open was as foolish as speculating as to whether the sun would rise tomorrow. But now it won't - it makes me very sad."

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