Wonky walls and 250-year-old bricks: How will the Crooked House be rebuilt?

When it comes to rebuilding a pub from the ground up, Ben Martin and Tom Rees are the experts.

They own the Carlton Tavern – a London pub which was illegally torn down in 2015 by its previous owners who were then ordered to rebuild it “brick by brick”.

The Crooked House pub in Dudley faces a similar future after it was destroyed in a suspicious fire in August 2023. However, the project will be slightly more challenging as its wonky silhouette – a result of ground subsidence which caused one half of the building to sink – will need to be restored.

Rebuilding a pub from the rubble is a difficult task but it is one the owners of the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale found immensely rewarding. Ben and Tom started their business, Homegrown Pubs, during lockdown and were on the hunt for their first project. When they heard about the Carlton Tavern’s destruction and the subsequent rebuild order, it felt like “fate”.

The Carlton Tavern pub
The Carlton Tavern pub was knocked down by a property firm (Westminster City Council/PA)

“I think everyone thought we were absolutely nuts when we took on the pub as our first project – especially as it was during lockdown. No one could see the potential at first because it was literally a shell and a huge amount of work, but Tom and I saw the potential and just thought it was such a great opportunity.”

Israeli developer CLTX bulldozed the property after failing to obtain the necessary planning permission to turn the building into 10 flats. After a campaign by local residents and a legal battle led by Westminster Council, the property firm was ordered to build an exact replica of the 100-year-old property.

Ben and Tom took on the project in the early rebuild stages and after years of meticulous planning and hard work, the Carlton Tavern reopened in April 2021 – on the day lockdown restrictions were eased in the UK.

The Carlton Tavern pub
The pub was rebuilt into a community pub (Westminster City Council/PA)

“Parts of the original bar were salvaged, so there are sections that are pretty gnarly in terms of their kind of shape and style. Those parts were literally pulled from the rubble,” Ben said.

“The fireplace is original and the radiators are the original Victorian radiators from the old building so we deliberately haven’t tried to overdo it all, and make everything look brand new – we wanted to keep the character so that you really just feel like you’re in a building that has been here for 100 years.”

Whilst the owners prioritised recreating the atmosphere and preserving features of the original pub, they also made sure to inject their personality and unique style into the project.

“We have really personalised the interior and made it our own. There’s old family photos on the wall behind the bar – including a picture of my grandad playing in his old cricket team and we’ve also got the presents our friends and family gave to us on the day we reopened on display,” Tom said.

“Making the pub feel genuine – not just like a new pub that has sprung up with no personality… that was really important for us.”

The local community rallied around the pub and supported the reopening in 2021, and have continued to do so in the years since.

The Carlton Tavern pub
Two men take a seat in the Carlton Tavern (Home Grown Pubs/PA)

The Carlton Tavern is now a thriving community establishment. With a packed weekly schedule, including Wing Wednesdays and live music events, Ben and Tom have successfully integrated the pub into the changing landscape of the west London district.

The 250-year-old Crooked House pub in Himley faced a similar experience after it caught on fire in August 2023 in a suspected arson attack. The building was demolished two days later.

The news spread across the country and anger grew. Eventually South Staffordshire Council served an enforcement notice on the owners which required “Britain’s wonkiest inn” to be built back to what it was prior to the fire.

Campaigners played a key role in securing the Crooked House’s future, in a similar way to those involved in the push to rebuild the Carlton Tavern.

Coronavirus – Mon May 17, 2021
A customer gets a drink at the Carlton Tavern which reopened after lockdown (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“Just yesterday, Tom texted the campaign leader, Ian, and said congratulations for the amazing news and they said they want to come down to see us in a month or so, all the campaigners, and want to have a drink with us,” Ben said.

“So we’ve got a connection with them already – a relationship – which is really nice.”

Their main advice for those involved with the Crooked House’s rebuild is to ensure the personality and legacy of the old building is not forgotten.

“Try and be as sympathetic as you can to the building – that’s what Tom and I have done,” Ben said.

“This is a 1921 building so we put 1920s-style furniture, heritage colours – the classic kind of pub colours – lighting that feels specifically 1920s. That’s made it feel more natural and organic, rather than it being contrived.

“It’s more about the atmosphere and aesthetics, rather than about perfection in the building itself, because it should take shape as long as it’s not too forced.”

Before the fire, visitors travelled from across the country to visit the Crooked House, famed for its “wonky” silhouette which caused optical illusions inside the pub.

Crooked House pub fire
Marco Longhi, MP for Dudley North, speaks at a public meeting in Himley (Jacob King/PA)

Graeme Moore, a specialist conservation architect at CONSARC, said rebuilding the pub to be “deliberately wonky” would present challenges.

“There will need to be some very clever thought about just how you create the building to be deliberately wonky – there will be sloping ceilings, sloping floors, sloping walls – but still have them robust enough so they will stand,” Mr Moore said.

In photographs of the pub taken before the fire, he noticed that buttress structures had been built to reinforce some of the walls to ensure they did not completely collapse. He said wedge-shaped brick piers would likely be used to rebuild the pub, along with the original brick and lime mortar materials that would allow the building to “bend” without breaking.

Mr Moore told PA that building refurbishment projects usually start with taking and compiling photographs, drawings and written notes of a structure but, due to the fire, the process would be “slightly the wrong way round”.

However, he said the information-gathering process would likely be easier due to the support of local residents and the council.

Crooked House pub fire
People inspect the remains of the Crooked House (Matthew Cooper/PA)

“I think there’s going to be lots and lots of information out there, and also a very willing public because there’s been this outpouring of fondness for the building. It’s something which has captured people’s imaginations nationally and internationally, as well as locally.”

Ben Ridley, architect founder of Architecture for London, told PA that finding materials to match the historic components of the pub would be challenging.

“The brickwork will likely be reclaimed, so finding a source of matching bricks is going to be important. Other features like historic glass, which has a texture, unlike modern flat glass, are important to match,” Mr Ridley said.

The success of the Carlton Tavern’s owners show that although there is a long road ahead for the Crooked House, the pay-off should be worth the effort.

The organised campaigns in response to the demolition of both pubs, as well as the national publicity and outrage, have “sent a very strong message to developers”, James Watson, a pub protection adviser at the Campaign for Pubs, said.

His group has long called on local planning authorities to make better use of legal powers at their disposal to protect pubs from demolition or change of use.

“We are delighted to see robust action taken by this authority (South Staffordshire Council), which has clearly considered this case very carefully, recognising the widespread public outrage surrounding the matter,” Mr Watson told PA.

Whilst the rebuild process was a rewarding experience for Tom and Ben, and the reconstruction order for the Crooked House is a victory for campaigners, the Campaign for Pubs hopes both cases send a strong message to developers not to mess with the community establishments in the first place.

Mr Watson said he was thrilled to see “the Carlton Tavern standing proud once more as a thriving community pub” and the campaign group, along with Ben and Tom, hope for a similarly successful future for the Crooked House.

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