Magazine article The Spectator

Pubs and the Soul of a City

Magazine article The Spectator

Pubs and the Soul of a City

Article excerpt

The fight to save the Gladstone Arms is the fight to save London

Lant Street would be easy to miss, if you weren't looking for it. Charles Dickens lodged on Lant Street as a child, during his father's stay in Marshalsea debtors' prison nearby. The Gladstone Arms is about halfway down, doors open to the narrow street on a warm afternoon in August.

Inside, an old man nurses a pint in late summer light that falls through mullioned windows. The grain of the oak floors has a dark patina of London grime. There is nothing spiffed-up about the place. But it's beautiful, and in decent nick. A black and white cat sits on the piano.

This tiny place is also a live music venue, and even has an in-house label for bands that play there regularly. CDs are for sale at the bar. The Gladstone also sells Pieminister pies, from a company based in Bristol. From about 7 p.m., even on a Monday in August, it starts filling with young 'creatives' and innovators: a demographic contemporary politicians wax lyrical about.

So the Gladstone Arms supports small businesses ('the lifeblood of the economy', according to those same politicians), employs local people, and serves the local community. And it's thriving. Unfortunately, it now looks doomed.

Last year, the site and the pub that has stood there since the Victorian era were acquired by a holding company based in the Cayman Islands, called Sartoria. Another firm set up last year in the Isle of Man to specialise in the London residential market provides the bridging finance until a decision on the site is made. The parent company is based in Luxembourg.

Sartoria has applied for planning permission to demolish the pub and erect a ten-storey building with nine storeys of luxury flats ('with panoramic views') above a brand-new pub on the ground floor. Around the corner on Marshalsea Road, where once the prison stood, a studio flat is on the market for £425,000. These new flats will sell for far more.

The economics are simple and if, as looks likely, Sartoria achieves planning permission, it will be all up with the Gladstone Arms. Of course the fate of one pub is immaterial. But 3,000 London pubs have closed in recent years. …

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