Life after last orders

As increasing numbers of defunct pubs are being turned into contemporary homes, Graham Norwood discovers that there's life in the old boozer yet
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From the outside of the house you couldn't tell its history. But once inside, the optics and the bar gave it away. "I was probably the only person in Holland Park to be tee-total but spending most of my time in a pub," says Jeremy Brown.

In the 1980s, Brown bought a street-corner pub that had been closed and left derelict near Portland Road, at the heart of one of London's most salubrious neighbourhoods. He didn't know it then, but by converting it into a home, he was spearheading a trend.

"It took a year of my life but it was worth it - it was the best property I'd ever had," says Brown, who, two decades on, is still a property developer in the same area.

Pub closures were relatively rare in those days, but now an average of six a week call last orders for the final time, according to the Campaign for Real Ale - and many of them become houses and flats.

Tom Tangney, of estate agent Knight Frank, says: "They make ideal homes. First, they will have ground floors that were large enough to accommodate 20, 30 or 40 people for an evening. Secondly, they have large cellars with good head height. Thirdly, they have substantial living space on the first floor and above, which would have been the living quarters for the family running the pub."

The 17th-century Four Elms pub at Smithwood Common, in Surrey, for example, has an open-plan ground floor that used to be the main bar, a large utility room that was the old beer cellar, as well as two downstairs cloakrooms - the former loos. Like many converted country pubs, it has plenty of parking and large grounds (£725,000 from Hamptons International, 01483 502222). Some former pubs have quite a history. Guy Fawkes House, at Dunchurch, in Warwickshire, used to be the Lion Inn, where the Gunpowder Plot conspirators gathered on 5 November, 1605, to await news of Westminster's destruction and to plan the kidnap of Princess Elizabeth from nearby Coombe Abbey. It all came to nothing, of course. The pub - now a six-bedroom home - can be yours for £795,000 (Savills, 01295 228000).

A West Country developer has taken the trend a step further, converting an entire brewery building at Holcombe, near Bath, into three contemporary houses, one of which is still available for £545,000 (Savills, 01225 474550).

The best pub conversions retain unique period features inside. "Walnut, oak and brass were the order of the day in most pubs, and the best developers make a feature of these, providing the pub wasn't gutted by some unthinking brewery in a refurbishment in the 1970s," says Tangney.

The grade II* listed, 14th-century Three Mariners, in Scarborough - formerly the Blockmaker's Arms - is now a home. But it still includes the bar and settles installed when it was refurbished in the 1700s, plus large areas of wood panelling, the snug's cast-iron fireplace and inglenook, and cupboards where optics and spirits were stored (£395,000, Carter Jonas, 01904 558200).

Purse Caundle House, in Dorset, was the Monkey House until it was converted in 1970, but it retains the beams, panels and leaded windows that shout "pub" to passers-by. (£450,000, Knight Frank, 01935 812236).

With six closures a week there is no shortage of pubs for sale and ripe for residential conversion. But even in these days of severe housing shortages, planning permission to convert is not a dead cert.

"If it's the only pub in a village, for example, a local authority will probably refuse permission for it to be converted, even though it may not be financially viable," says John Graham, of AW Gore, a Sussex-based agency specialising in the sale, letting and valuation of pubs across the UK.

The owners of a pub in Wiltshire last year sought consent to convert it into a house but this was rejected on appeal. The planning inspector said the business had been deliberately run down to make it economically unviable, but that a better-disposed management could make it a success. It remains open as a pub.

In Cambridgeshire a brewery failed to turn a village pub into a house when a planning inspector said the scheme "would amount to a serious loss to the social life of this village". But Graham says sharp developers look for locations where there are several pubs - which normally means at least one is doing badly and may be happy to sell up.

"If you can get permission, there are rich pickings. I've known pubs with gardens and parking areas be turned into five or six residential units," he says. He predicts that more pubs, especially in Victorian areas of big cities, may be on sale shortly. "Drive through somewhere like Nottingham. It may have a binge-drinking image in its city centre, where there are trendy bars aimed at younger people, but on the outskirts there's a bog-standard boozer every 150 yards. It's difficult to imagine many of them making a profit. Some will be for sale soon enough," he says.

Developers, of course, will drink to that.