The Lamb is a traditional boozer (a 'wet-led' pub, serving just drinks, with no kitchen) in north London. It has a small, cosy front room, a slightly larger one at the back. It’s renowned for live music, and, in normal times, is packed with football fans before and after matches at the nearby home of Arsenal. There’s no outdoor space.
In short, everything is stacked against The Lamb on Holloway Road.
Pubs in general have not had it easy. Aside from having to introduce Covid-related safety measures, they've had to contend with more rule changes than the early years of the US Constitution. Some of these, like the 10pm curfew or the ban on household mixing, have severely impacted business, rendering pubs unviable.
The Lamb, which most years manages to turn a profit, got through the first lockdown; a £25k grant took care of the rent, staff were all furloughed. After reopening in the summer it chugged along, even attempting live music, but was running at a loss. By the time the second lockdown hit, tables were limited to two people and capacity was severely down. Its future looked bleak.
This week Ade Clarke, who has owned The Lamb for six years, was forced to launch a Crowdfunding campaign in order to keep his pub alive. He is not the first. Earlier this year the iconic French House in Soho raised over £80,000, while The Abinger Hatch in Surrey secured £18,000. Clarke has set a target of £15,000, achieving over two-thirds of that in four days thanks to strong support from musicians and locals, but feels pained by the decision.
“This is the last thing we wanted to do," Clarke admits. "It feels a bit like begging.” But there are countless bills to pay. “I’ve got a rent bill of ten grand to come next month, insurance, licensing, accountancy fees, fire inspection. Hilariously, I have to pay £750 to Islington Council for the late-night levy, which we haven’t used this year.” His staff are currently furloughed, after the Chancellor announced an extension to the scheme.
Does Clarke think pubs been treated unfairly? “All the pubs around here have been taking it really seriously – the social distancing, track and trace, hand sanitisers, the curfews,” he says. “The spread from pubs is quite minimal, people are making a real effort. Though we’ve seen some horror stories, I think it’s been too harsh.”
The hit on foodless pubs is unjustified, Clarke argues. “We’re a community. I’ve got a lot of regulars who live on their own, not just older ones but younger ones as well. People have been struggling not being able to see other people, they miss that sense of community.”
A recent survey by three leading pub and hospitality bodies predicts that up to 72 per cent of hospitality businesses, including pubs, could shut for good in 2021, leading to mass job losses. The new tiered system coming into force next week is even harsher than the previous one – and with London in Tier 2, which only allows pubs to open if they serve a “substantial meal” alongside alcohol, the doors of The Lamb remain closed. It is a huge blow for landlords of wet-led pubs across the country.
“We don't have a kitchen, we don't do food, we're old-fashioned in that away,” says Clarke. It also means missing out on vital trade during the festive season. Instead, Clarke has had to borrow money just to keep the pub viable, which he says is the “last thing I ever wanted to do. I'm a 59-year-old man, all my money has gone into this. If we had to shut, I'm not sure what the situation would be. Who would want to buy the lease? I'm a man who has wrestled with depression; it would be unbelievably s***. But we're going to fight tooth and nail to stop that happening.”
This year, Clarke is paying himself just £1,000 per month, yet he still remains upbeat. “In a weird way, having this crowdfunding project, it’s quite exciting. In the last lockdown, we couldn’t do anything and the pub felt sad. But it’s affecting my wife, Anji, more. She’s anxious, and has been pretty down, worrying about this. It does take its toll.”
Despite facing such hardships, Clarke hopes that if the pub is up and running by spring it will survive, provided it hits its crowdfunding target. “Hopefully a vaccine will be on its way next year, and it’ll start getting back to normal, though it will be a long time before there are 60,000 people in the Emirates Stadium, for instance.”
If the campaign surpasses the £15,000 mark, Clarke plans to pass on the excess to staff, who have been stuck on 80 per cent pay on the furlough scheme.
And it may well do. The response, according to Clarke, has been “overwhelming” and he is offering rewards for those who donate, such as walking tours of the local area or special beer deals. “If we’re in this position, there must be thousands of pubs nationwide in a similar one. We’re lucky we’re such a well-loved boozer.”