THERE were cheers all round this week as the Tonbridge pub that was saved by the people opened its doors for the first time in more than a year.
The Nelson Arms, on the corner of Cromer Street and Nelson Avenue, reopened as a free house yesterday [May 22] under the ownership of Matthew Rudd and his partner Emma Cole.
The pub, which was owned by Shepherd Neame, closed in February 2017 when the brewery decided it no longer fitted their ‘business strategy’.
It was feared that the site would be developed for residential housing after the Faversham firm put it on the market with potential to turn it into ‘a pair of semi-detached houses or flats’.
But the Barden Residents Association [BRA] campaigned to have it classified as an Asset of Community Value.
That meant the pub could not be sold for a period of seven and a half months.
Shepherd Neame appealed against the decision, which was rejected by Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council, after which it decided to sell the premises as a public house after all.
That was when Mr Rudd and Ms Cole made their move. They were running the Windmill in Weald, near Sevenoaks, but were looking for a new challenge.
‘We had seen the Nelson before we came to the Windmill but only as a tenancy – it had been advertised frequently as that,’ Mr Rudd told the Times.
The couple have a history of going in and rescuing pubs that have closed and they say the Nelson’s future is bright.
‘We’re extremely confident it’s going to work,’ said Mr Rudd. ‘I think it didn’t work before because it’s not the style of pub that fits Shepherd Neame’s portfolio.
‘Smaller pubs can get lost in a group. They’re not catering for a pub’s demographic or trading to its strengths.
‘Big groups are not flexible. As a freeholder you’ve got more tools at your disposal to adapt products to the community around you.’
Residents are thrilled by the revival. ‘Feedback has been ever so positive and we’re really looking forward to running a pub that is an important part of the community,’ said Mr Rudd.
The refurbishment has been ‘a complete rip-out’ with new walls, pillars, and ceilings to create three different bars. ‘We’ve gone right back to basics.’
The Windmill has become a foodies’ destination since the couple took over in 2012 but the Nelson will only be -providing bar snacks.
It will focus instead on serving high-quality beer and Mr Rudd is offering 10 cask ales. The Windmill has always delivered strongly in that regard, having been voted Pub of the Year in West Kent by the Campaign for Real Ale three years in a row from 2014-16.
Does Mr Rudd, 53, think it’s a risk to try to run a pub without a dining option? ‘I’m really interested in having a go at it, a wet-led community pub.
‘I believe there is a demand in the market, especially in Tonbridge. There’s a lot going on, it’s a vibrant town and there’s a buzz about the place.
‘The Nelson’s in a good location, it has its drawbacks but that’s part of the challenge.’
Mr Rudd paid tribute to the Residents’ Association and its Chairman, Mark Hood, saying: ‘This is such a part of Tonbridge’s history that it would have been a shame to close it down.
‘Thankfully, largely due to the residents, we have been able to take on the pub.’
Mr Hood told the Times: ‘When we heard that Shepherd Neame was selling our pub we feared the worst. North Tonbridge had lost all but one of its pubs and the Nelson Arms and Barden Stores are the hubs of our community here.
‘We scrambled to register the pub as an Asset of Community Value and that enabled Matthew and Emma to purchase the pub at a reduced price.’
He added: ‘Now we are delighted that they are bringing their CAMRA award-winning experience to our neck of the woods.
Fellow resident Lucy Athey said: ‘We had a plan for how it could be run but Matthew and Emma buying it is our dream scenario: they are very experienced and have some fantastic ideas.
‘They are keen to be part of the community and have already attended our Residents’ Association meetings. It’s been a long refurbishment so we can’t wait to get the first round in!’
Winds of change in Weald?
Mr Rudd and Ms Cole have put the Windmill up for sale, prompting fears that the village of Weald might lose its only remaining pub.
But Mr Rudd says he has no intention of allowing developers to take it over – and indeed may not sell it at all.
‘The Windmill is on the market because of our changing personal circumstances but we’re not too bothered if we don’t sell it.
‘But it’s been a smashing community and we hope to sell it as a going concern. Our intention is to sell it to someone in the trade.’
PICTURE: FIRST ORDERS: Local residents raise a glass in celebration of the Nelson Arms opening its doors on Tuesday under the ownership of Matthew Rudd (far left) PHOTO: Lucy Athey