I have never been to Whitstable in Kent, so the delights of the nearby Sportsman at Seasalter have eluded me. Why make the effort when it is described, even on its own Twitter account, as a ‘grotty rundown pub by the sea’? The interior doesn’t sound much better. Who wants to make a trip to see an ‘old-school bar, mismatched wooden tables and chairs, and a simple blackboard menu’? Well, more people than would have done a couple of years ago as the pub has just been awarded first place in the 2016 National Restaurant Awards, alongside its Michelin star.
The reviews suggest that it serves proper food, a starter, main and pudding for a reasonable price rather than the gastropub nonsense which so often seems to involve an artfully arranged piece of rocket on a piece of slate.
I don’t draw your attention to the place because I particularly want to go, though it does serve Shepherd Neame beers, which are an attraction. My point is that in the right hands any pub can be a success. Over the past few years, there have been somewhere between 20 and 30 pubs closing every week, and I have often heard it said that this is fine, as the poor ones close and the good ones survive. I would suggest that there is no such thing as a good or poor pub based on the building or location. What make a good pub are the landlord and staff. A question I am often asked is which is my favourite pub, and I can only answer by fixing it in time as well as location. Nellie’s in Beverley in the early 70’s, The Dukes Head at West Rudham in the 90’s… the list goes on, but you could not go to the same pub now and experience it as it was then, so better to look for new paradise rather than trying to recapture an old one, especially when the past is viewed through rose tinted spectacles.
So what are we to make of the empty pubs around the area which are gently crumbling away? Places such as the Lord Kelvin, the Wenns, the old RAOB club and plenty more. Some experts will tell you that they have had their day and should be bulldozed or converted to other uses, but history can teach us another lesson. I give you three places that were deemed to be unviable as pubs for various reasons at some time in the past. The Kings Arms at Shouldham, the Dabbling Duck at Great Massingham, (a fitting legacy for former councillor Mike Tilbury, who did so much to save it), and the Carpenters Arms at East Winch, many years ago deemed surplus to requirements by Watneys. They are all different to their former incarnations, but all thriving under the right ownership. Any pub, regardless of its location, style or past history can be turned around by the right person. In other towns I have seen shop units, industrial premises and even market stalls become fabulous pubs. So where are the people in Lynn who can see beyond the obvious and seize an opportunity? Perhaps a start has been made with the conversion of a former butcher’s shop on London Road into a café and bar. I didn’t try the keg beer there, but I did have a super kebab and coffee, and perhaps in time it may develop into something special.
The easy solution for somewhere like the Kelvin might be to demolish it, but what an opportunity it could be in the right hands.