Julian Holt spoke to the departing landlord of The Water Witch about his decision to sell and his plans for the future.
What prompted your decision to sell the lease?
Once ScotCo bought into Waterways (the owner of the site - JH) we were confronted with a new reality. Their policy, naturally enough, is driven by a pub co formula, and in our case this included a massive increase in rent. We had no realistic option but to sell up - it was a question of economic necessity. As you know, I can get rather emotional about things, and at times I get a lump in my throat about the place, but in the end it’s not about romance: it’s a business. Incidentally I should say that John Gilbert, the ScotCo rep we dealt with, was very professional and is doing a great job.
The pub has been acquired by Mitchell’s. What are your thoughts about that?
There were initially three potential buyers, then to our amazement, at the eleventh hour along came Mitchell’s. It will be an unusual venture for them as their interest is usually in the freehold market and this is a lease. I think they’re experimenting, using the Water Witch to branch out in a different direction. I must admit that in our discussions with them they seemed very honourable. I suppose I was an opponent of Mitchell’s for a long time, but now I see where they’re coming from.
And they’ve given assurances about the beer range.
What do you see as your achievements?
We’ve been here almost five years, inheriting what was, to say the least, a distinctly non-viable proposition. Look at it now. We’ve won four UK awards and numerous local ones and in doing so have put Lancaster on the brewers’ map. The real ale scene in this area has been revolutionised in that period, and we have played a major role in that. When Wetherspoon’s arrived on the scene local pubs were faced with a dilemma. However, the answer wasn’t to try to compete with that ethos and those low prices. The answer was to raise the game to a much higher level. With all the comforts people have at home - home entertainment, internet access, carryouts and takeaways - we needed to get them out by providing a venue that offered the best. So we put on good food and excellent beer and a choice of wines and spirits, especially vodkas, that was second to none. On a personal note I feel I’ve achieved what I set out to do, though I couldn’t have done it without my business partner, Phil.
A new venture in Barrow-in-Furness. The plan to take a pub in Preston fell through, and Phil found this place on the internet. The Duke of Edinburgh is a five-storey Victorian property and we’ve acquired it freehold. It consists of a pub, restaurant, wine bar and night club, letting rooms and outbuildings: 30,000 square feet of retail. It’s all pretty dilapidated at the moment and will require major investment to renovate it. But the aim is a conference centre and hotel offering absolutely first rate accommodation. And, of course, Lancaster Brewery beers.
I was going to ask you about the future of the brewery.
Lancaster Brewery will be unaffected by the move from the Water Witch. Things are going really well and we’ve just about reached capacity at our current premises. We’re examining various possibilities, including a move to a site in the Trough of Bowland, which will actually be more economical than premises in Lancaster. One big mistake we made, however, was with buying plastic casks, which led to lots of issues with quality control. We’re now phasing them out, but replacing them is a very expensive business..
A fuller version of this interview will appear in the next issue of The Lunesdale Drinker.
Statement from Andrew Barker of Mitchells
Mitchells of Lancaster are delighted to announce the acquisition of the Water Witch in Lancaster which is a highly successful operation.
We will be aiming to build on the success of The Water witch by continuing with the values that have made it successful over the last few years, i.e. building on the great range of products that it offers over the bar and through its restaurant, and additionally through the high levels of customer service that it offers currently and in the future through improved staff training.
Please note all existing suppliers have been retained.