Former eyesore is a sight for sore eyes

Former eyesore is a sight for sore eyes

Property developer Ian Dowling spent hundreds of thousands of pounds turning a wrecked Victorian building into a thriving pub and hotel. Steve Dyson reports.

The 19th century Talbot Inn at Newnham Bridge, near Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, was in a pitiful state back in March 2011. Originally a hunting lodge before a century operating as a busy coaching inn, the Gothic-styled building was empty for nearly three years after a bank’s repossession, quickly becoming a derelict village eyesore. Despite being boarded up, all fixtures, fittings and furniture were stolen, and the roof was stripped of lead – causing damaging leaks throughout the 9,000sq ft building.

The Talbot Inn was, as property developer Ian Dowling, puts it: “Completely knackered.” And yet he fell in love with it, buying the ruin and the half-acre it sits on for £240,000, and spending 14-months restoring it to its former glory. “The water damage was so bad we had to take the whole building back to its brickwork to dry it out,” recalls Ian, aged 44, who trades as Marina Bay Investments Ltd. “Then we had to completely rewire it and fit new plumbing – effectively treating it like a new-build shell.” Some of the building’s original skirting boards and floorboards were salvaged, and centrepiece furnishings like the main fireplace was a bargain from a reclaim yard, but everything else had to be purchased and fitted. By the time it reopened in September 2012, Ian estimates he’d invested more than £330,000.

But his eye for a bargain and sheer hard work paid off: in 2013, its first full year as a boutique hotel, restaurant and pub, the Talbot Inn turned over £650,000, returning profits in excess of £100,000. “We got off to a flying start,” says Ian, a married dad of two. “We had a very good chef, and we grew from there. The accommodation was slower, taking longer to build up traction. But now the seven rooms have taken off, the bed and breakfast trade drives the business.”

Although this is his first dining pub with luxury rooms, Ian has quickly realised how the trade works, and knows that if he can fill his bedrooms, he covers costs, with casual food and drink becoming profits. “After the first year, what had been a heaving restaurant died down, and we lost a lot of lunchtime trade. But although we’d had between 30 and 50 lunches a day, this was not a high spend, and it was difficult to get stability of numbers. You could have 30 to eat one day, but only five or six the next, and that was expensive to operate.

“But the rooms quickly became steady, and so we did a lot of proactive thinking to get people to stay. We brought in a lot of custom online through things like Secret Escapes, the Daily Telegraph’s travel deals, and by getting entries in Sawday’s and The Good Pub Guide. We also get a lot of business from the Midland Automobile Club [based in Worcester].

“We still do great food, but now that’s also enjoyed by people staying overnight, perhaps for a weekend treat, as well as passing trade. And we quickly learned that the local drinking trade is not that significant. We’re a rural pub, and there just isn’t enough demand to rely on locals. Instead, we’ve got to work hard to bring people in.”

Turnover dropped slightly in 2014, but Ian’s growing experience of trading patterns meant labour costs were lower, less was spent on new equipment, and the revenue was more from accommodation rather than food, so profit margins improved.

Ian says: “Rooms at the Talbot Inn start at £85 for bed and breakfast, and so if a couple come for a weekend, they’ll spend a minimum of £220 once they’ve also had a meal or two with wine. With seven rooms full, that’s 14 people also dining and drinking, and added custom is then the bonus. A good Friday or Saturday can see anything between £4,000 and £6,000 takings, although you have to balance that against what’s sometimes only £500 or £600 on Mondays.”

Using figures from September 2014, Ian shows how the Talbot Inn sold between 40 and 45 rooms out of 49 available each week – an occupancy rate of between 75% and 90%. And he says this is building – with a special £99 dinner, bed and breakfast rate running throughout January and February 2015, and more discounts to get people in on Sunday nights.

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“It’s a very competitive marketplace,” says Ian, “but I think we’re experiencing a resurgence of the independent operators as people are turning away from larger branded models. People are saying ‘no’ to Travel Lodge, and ‘yes’ to unique, high-quality venues like ours.

“Consumers expect more from the places they’re staying at. They don’t want to pay the earth, and they certainly don’t want to be ripped off. But they’re less concerned about slight premiums for better quality.”

The biggest challenge for Ian has been staffing – especially because of the Talbot Inn’s rural location. He’s very happy with his manager, who runs the venue day-to-day, and with his chef, who sources “great local produce” that’s popular with diners. But he says having enough staff – in the kitchen and serving tables – when “you’re not absolutely sure if you’re going to be full or empty” is a hazard of the pub-dining business.

“There’s probably easier ways of making the money,” Ian reflects, “but it’s a great lifestyle business. It’s a bit like sitting on a trading floor: when the kitchen’s manic with 80 to 90 diners, you thrive on the chaos. That’s exciting – you constantly get to think on your feet and quickly if you’re busy, enjoying great guests.

“But when it’s dead, it’s so frustrating. Where is everybody? What’s wrong with our food? I suppose you’ve got to have a bit of paranoia. And it’s tricky to staff. We have six full-time staff, and up to 15 part-timers, but that fluctuates. That makes it more interesting than 9-to-5 predictability – that’s for someone else.”

Ian comes across as someone having a lot of fun, but he’s keen to share two issues in the pub sector that trouble him. The first thing is “the Government’s unfair treatment of pubs by insisting they charge VAT on alcohol”, while supermarkets don’t have to, leading to more and more people drinking at home rather than in local hostelries.

But far more stressful is a dispute he’s having with Malvern Hills District Council on the commercial rates they’ve recently applied at the Talbot Inn. “When I bought the place, the rateable value was £13,000 a year, which I thought reasonable. But now they’ve whacked it up to £26,000.

“The government bemoans how pubs are closing down around the country, but here’s me, a small businessman, taking on what was the empty Talbot. And Malvern Hills say: ‘Now you’re open, and because you’ve invested all that money, your turnover will increase, and therefore your profits will grow.’ So they double the rates – plus we’re paying £1,200 in Council Tax for the manager’s flat.

“We’re fighting it now, but it’s madness, and if that’s what’s happening across the country there’s just no incentive to reopen the doors of some of these great, historic pubs.”

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A thriving pub in the heart of the country

There’s no way I could write about a thriving pub-hotel without staying there myself. Well, it’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it…

What I particularly liked about the Talbot Inn was the sound of silence after everyone’s gone to bed, from around 11.30pm. It’s so tucked away in the countryside that traffic just stops until around 6am. The bedrooms themselves are of boutique hotel quality: large, comfortable beds, huge stone bathrooms, sizeable showers.

I stayed with Ruth, my wife, and we enjoyed Wye Valley IPA and Hobsons real ale, dinner and fine wine on a Friday night with a jazz-style band, and by 9pm it was standing room only. It was good to see a place that was derelict until a few years ago so busy.

The ale was well kept. My venison stew very tasty. And in the morning we had a very decent English breakfast – including those all-important pan mushrooms and black pudding.

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