On August 17, the Grove Tavern is set to celebrate eight years as a derelict site, as its freeholder, the Dulwich Estate and Southwark Council fail to agree redevelopment plans. Attempts to reach a planning deal have now lasted twice as long as talks to settle as Brexit. Ward councillors Catherine Rose and Andy Simons said: “We have been disappointed at both the slow pace of progress regarding the site and the failure of the lessee, Stonegate, to maintain the site in an acceptable state.” The councillors favour a mixed-use development backed by the local community, following the previous failure of pre-planning negotiations between the Estate and Southwark.
The immediate outlook looks grim. A council spokeswoman said: “Although the council’s planning officers have had several informal conversations with Dulwich Estate there is no formal pre-application being discussed.”
Dulwich Estate chief executive Simone Crofton says: “The site is under consideration. When proposals are ready we will bring these forward with the Council and residents. Until then it wouldn't be right to share ongoing internal processes more widely. We are of course mindful of the interest in the Grove - and will be going through all due processes when we get to that stage.”
The Grove has seen happier days. It stands on the site of an earlier pub, the Green Man, whose mineral stream inspired a pleasure garden. It was frequented by diarist John Evelyn, according to the London Parks & Gardens Trust. In the late 18thCentury, the pub was replaced by Dr Glennie’s Academy, where the poet, Lord Byron, received his early education. As the Dulwich Society has recorded, he wrote to his cousin, just before his departure: “I am going to leave this damned place at Easter and am going to Harrow.” Given his reported love of dressing up as a highwayman, with his friends, it is unlikely that locals mourned his departure. The year 1862 saw the development of the Grove Tavern by Courage Breweries. The pub was viewed as “no celebrity in any way,” according to British History Online. But it went on to develop a decent reputation as a restaurant, latterly a Harvester. A publication called Derelict London noted that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor dined at the establishment in the 1960s, most residents put this down as an urban myth.
Owned by Stonegate Pub Company from 2011, the Grove ceased to be a Harvester and suffered mixed restaurant reviews. According to one review online, it offered: “Rubbish service, rubbish food.” Another said: “Very low quality food. They served pineapple from the salad cart with the desert.”
The 2012 fire at the Grove broke out in the kitchen and Stonegate chose not to refurbish the pub. It is obliged to pay rent to the freeholders, the Dulwich Estate, for the remainder of its lease, said to total seven years.
Beyond that point the Estate will face a loss of rent plus an obligation to cover council tax. This may not be good news for private school beneficiaries. The sum, said to total £250,000 p.a., would be small against the Estate’s income of £11.5 million last year but this needed to cover expenditure of £10.8 million including £7.2 million paid to beneficiaries.
The Estate went on to draw up plans for residential and commercial development on the site. The council suggested amendments and the Estate changed its plan. But the council undermined the proposal by deciding the pub should stay.
Locals have discussed turning the Grove into a community pub. But these ventures are expensive, Stonegate’s residual lease is short and the market for pubs is weak. Even Wetherspoons is putting a lease for its Capitol pub, Forest Hill, on the market. An estate agents board offering a pub lease appeared on the the Grove at one point, but vanished in despair soon after.
In a 2017 draft plan for the borough Southwark says a redevelopment should: “Retain a pub, if there is no demand for a pub, an equivalent amount of employment floorspace should be provided within a mixed use development with active ground floor frontages.” The site “should provide new homes but may provide new extra care housing.”
The current expectation is that the Estate will table plans to refurbish the pub for a change in use. Community, care home, or commercial space has been mooted. But residential development could well dominate, potentially including affordable housing. However, Catherine Rose and Andy Simmons say local residents want the site to offer affordable pub, community and residential space. They continue to press the Dulwich Estate for a resolution to the sorry affair.
An open meeting hosted by the Dulwich Society in November 2017 did not produce a development consensus. Reports of a draft Southwark plan to agree sixty flats was viewed “with suspicion” by some, in terms of the impact of large new building, and the possible end users. But there was a unanimous view that the site needed to be better maintained. The appearance of the pub has continued to deteriorate, as graffiti progressively covers the lower part of the building and windows continue to be broken. The building appears secure but rubbish and weeds infest the site. The car park has been barricaded to keep out travellers but local shopkeepers are wary of burglaries.
The Grove site has the misfortune to adjoin a South Circular junction suffering a lack of pedestrian crossings and a high level of car emissions.
Pressure from the ward councillors and Helen Hayes, MP, means Transport for London is planning to improve pedestrian access this year. But emissions are a tougher challenge. An estate agent said the site could be suitable for a McDonalds Drive Thru: “But this could lead to increased traffic in an already busy area.”
The Stonegate Pub Company have failed to respond to enquiries.