'It's devastating': Loss of Christmas trade could force village pub to close

Bell Inn

Brendan Morgan fears he will have to close the Bell Inn at Denver, near Downham Market, in the New Year after seeing party bookings cancelled - Credit: Chris Bishop

Cancelled party bookings could force a village pub landlord to call time in the New Year because he will not be able to afford to pay his rent. A collapse in trade at what should be the hospitality industry's busiest time of the year, means he may not be the only one. Chris Bishop reports.

All Brendan Morgan wanted for Christmas was enough trade to keep his pub afloat into the New Year.

Then came a new kind of coronavirus, swiftly followed by warnings to avoid socialising and Christmas parties. 

And then the phone started ringing at the Bell Inn at Denver, near Downham Market.

Denver Bell

Brendan Morgan has been mine host at the Denver Bell for five years - Credit: Chris Bshop

"I had eight parties booked and seven of them have now cancelled," said the 58-year-old who has been running the pub next to the village church for five years. 

"Each was for 25 - 35 people, it's devastating, you're losing £8,000 - £9,000 that's a lot of money, that's helping pay your rent for two or three months, you need that cashflow to get you over January."

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on

Chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty. - Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

While no-one has actually told pubs to close, they might just as well have done. England's chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty has advised Britons to consider cutting back on socialising around Christmas, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson said people should "think carefully" before going out to celebrate.

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In March, the government announced pubs could apply for grants of up to £18,000 to help their businesses to weather Covid. No extra support grants have so far been announced in the wake of increasingly dire warnings.

"I speak to a lot of landlords and everyone's saying the same," said Mr Morgan. "There's no support and the whole thing is just wrong. I know there's a pandemic out there, but I know come January there will be so many pubs going into liquidation.

Bell Inn

The Bell Inn at Denver, near Downham Market - Credit: Chris Bishop

"I know I'll probably be in that line. I'm fighting now as hard as I can. I work every day, you take yesterday it was 14 - 16 hours and I have to do that every day.

"I've got the chef, myself and myself. I can't afford the staff so you have to do everything yourself."

Denver Bell

Customers in the Denver Bell, near Downham Market - Credit: Chrs Bishop

Mr Morgan grew up a bar in the rolling wills of County Meath, west of Dublin. He has spent the last 29 years running pubs on this side of the Irish Sea, with stints in London and Norfolk.

"We have to get the grants again," he said. "They have to support us because we're going to close here, people are going to go under."

Mr Morgan said rural pubs were under more pressure then those in towns and cities because they did not have the same footfall.

He called a radio phone-in programme after finishing his shift behind the bar in Thursday and gave a tearful account of the state of his business.

When he opened on Friday, a number of new customers came into the bar, who had heard the interview or seen it on social media.

Sam, 46, who lives in a neighbouring village, said: "I was going to the market, I looked at my phone and someone had sent a message saying if you're in the area, give him some support."

Holidaymakers Jane and Gary, from Doncaster, said they had heard the piece on the radio and come to show support.

Denver Bell

Regular Shirley Howlett at the Denver Bell - Credit: Chris Bishop

"We don't want village pubs to close because they're the lifeblood of this country," said Jane.

Regular Shirley Howlett was in at her usual time of 1pm for her glass of lager.

"They can't close this pub," said Mrs Howlett, 77. "We've got a good landlord, we'll never get another landlord like this one."

What can be done?

The Treasury launched a business rates holiday for hospitality, retail and leisure firms during the pandemic but this has been heavily reduced in recent months.

Meanwhile, hospitality VAT has increased to 12.5pc from 5pc in recent months and is due to return to 20pc in April.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was due to hold talks with industry leaders on Friday afternoon.

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) has said pubs are now expected to lose out on almost £300m in trade this Christmas.

It fears if operators are unable to trade profitably over the next month, many will simply not survive.

Chief executive Emma McClarkin said: "Although no new restrictions have been announced, the message to not socialise is hugely damaging to our sector.

"The Government must take responsibility and step in to save pubs this Christmas."

CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, said pubs had been forced into "lockdown by proxy" by government warnings.

Nigel Nudds, vice chair of its west Norfolk branch, said: "I'm sure there are quite a few pubs that are suffering. 

"I think the VAT should stay as it is for the whole of next year. I think there's pressure on he government to do something about this."

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