Built as a coaching inn in 1701, the 27-bedroom Grade II listed Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel in Dartford is the town’s oldest inn. After being thoroughly neglected for years by its previous owners, it was acquired by South CoastInns two years ago.
Bill Lumley takes a look around an impressive restoration in the heart of a town lacking a reputation as a tourist destination
Bleak is a word many might justifiably use to describe the Kent town of Dartford. Some 20 years ago, Bluewater Shopping Centre opened up nearby, with 330 stores, 40 restaurants and cafes and a 13-screen cinema. This caused much of Dartford’s thriving businesses to close, and since then a metaphorical pall of despair has descended over this once-thriving market town, something many high streets have faced with the rise of the out-of-town shopping centre.
The town centre itself hosts a historical James II coaching inn, The Royal Victoria & Bull Hotel, which is said to have been built on the site of a 14th century inn known as the Bull Hole. Before that the inn is understood to have been a stopover for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, including, so it is believed, Thomas Beckett, just days before his murder in 1170.
Unfortunately when the street outside the inn was pedestrianised some years ago the treasure trove of archaeological evidence of what had stood there beforehand was binned by the construction workers.
By 2017 the downstairs of the inn had become a notorious, loud and sleazy nightclub.
This was a dramatic fall from grace for an inn where Jane Austen is known to have stayed in 1789, at a time when it was known as the George and Bull Inn, and where Princess Victoria spent a night in 1836, the year before she was crowned, affording it the name it has kept ever since.
Nearly 180 years later, in 2015, the erstwhile owner Tattershall Castle Group was placed in administration, leading to two steady years of decline at the inn.
All that changed two years ago thanks to visionary Chris Chapman, founder of family-owned South Coast Inns. Undaunted by claims that the Royal Victoria & Bull Hotel was a lost cause, and with a chance to acquire the business, Chris formed in his mind a restoration programme, and he invited his existing general management team of Andy and Sue Purkis to turn around the inn’s fortunes.
Their first impressions were indeed bleak, Andy says. “Downstairs was being used as a nightclub, and it was awful. Upstairs the place was neglected, with fewer than half the guest rooms operational, and the rooms themselves were in an appalling state. Water was pouring through some of the walls, and the existing owners wouldn’t do anything about it.”
He recalls: “The nightclub had a licence till 2am from Thursday to Saturday nights. If you came here for a drink, you’d be greeted by four bouncers at the door.”
One of the reasons for the terrible descent of this beautiful old coaching inn to the condition into which it had fallen was that “kids”, as he puts it, were essentially running the place. “This was the strategy of the owners, who couldn’t afford to put decent people in charge,” Andy says. There are many Dartford locals today who are still frankly amazed the place stayed open, and that it was never closed down by the police, he says.
It was only on the fifth visit that Andy was able to persuade his wife Sue that this was a job they could realistically take on. “I finally presented her with Chris Chapman’s restoration vision, persuading her that we could restore it to its heyday as an elegant, busy high street pub and restaurant,” he says.
Chris Chapman and his team set about refurbishing the ground floor bar in January 2018, and installed windows at the entry to the bar with the names of historic Dartford companies adorning the walls. Every one of these companies has operated at one time or another in the town’s high street.
The biggest challenge was getting rid of the appalling reputation the inn had acquired in recent years, Andy tells Innkeeper. “To begin with we had a lot of problems with ‘undesirables’, but now they no longer come in. We have a good core of staff who know a lot of the locals,” he says.
Andy and Sue began with a strategy to provide good food on a two-for-£10 menu. “We came in cheap, but good. We pushed the food element, changed the music, and we persevered,” he says.
The inn itself opens its doors most days at 9am. The couple soon introduced their Market Day Breakfast for £4.99, served on mornings when the nearby 220-stall Dartford market is open. This breakfast is a sizeable dish, which Andy says is highly popular with the locals. The market day offering is an eight-piece breakfast, not including toast. “It is cooked to order, rather than cooked altogether and put into a buffet: bacon, sausage, egg – boiled, poached, scrambled or fried – black pudding, beans, tomatoes, hash brown and mushrooms,” he says.
Despite years of neglect prior to its acquisition in 2017, the Royal Victoria & Bull Hotel retains many of its highly impressive period features, including the vaulted gallery in the main bar, which originally would have been positioned around the carriage archway.
In the entry porch on the stone wall hangs a photograph of the inn taken in 1920, which shows the place much as it had been for the previous 200 years. Over the 100 years since, however, it has been subject to a variety of structural changes. For example, the area where the carriages would park has now been turned into an enclosed bar area, and the stables at the back have been knocked down to accommodate the Dartford Priory Shopping Centre.
Windows that had been installed in the 19th century in the once-exposed corridor above one end of the bar area had been subject to modification when, in the late 1970s, fire regulations were introduced that led to the introduction of a combination of windows and plasterboard all around the walkway that overlooks the bar from all sides.
Reflecting on the dramatic restoration of the last two years and pointing up at the wall, Andy says: “One of the exceptional features of Chris Chapman’s renovation are the replicas of the original window arrangement at one end of the open-plan bar area. They come across to the observer as original artwork.”
The inn’s original two coats of arms today hang in the bar. These had been weather-worn and had hung on the wall outside the front of the inn, but they were brought in and restored with the support of a lottery grant.
Still awaiting restoration is the function room, which is to due be renovated soon, while still retaining its original grade II-listed period features. Despite the years of neglect, the function room’s walls are still intriguingly adorned with paintings dating back to the 18th century that themselves could benefit from a degree of careful restorative attention.
Andy says the plan will be to let out the facility for weddings, family events or conferences.
Meanwhile the Royal Victoria & Bull Hotel originally featured a gallery overlooking the yard into which stagecoaches and carriages would enter through an entrance twice as wide as it is today. The open yard is believed to have been glazed over by the landlord in 1826 to provide a sheltered corn exchange.
Since being bought two years ago, the inn’s guest rooms have been renovated to a high standard. They have a premium feel about them, with high-quality furniture and mattresses all selected by Chris Chapman and his architects.
Many of the inn’s guests staying on weekdays are contractors, while a high number of guests staying at the weekend are visitors from abroad. The town itself is convenient for those seeking London on a budget, with direct trains from the nearby station to various central London terminals. It is also an attractive location geographically, owing to its proximity four miles from the M25.
“Visitors are attracted to the inn because of its location, our price range, and because of its history,” says Andy.
Tantalisingly, Dartford’s reputation for being a somewhat run-down urban spot may soon be a thing of the past as the town is currently undergoing a promising £75m facelift, which is helping to boost the number of contractors that come to stay at the inn.
Having a number of contractors staying overnight on weekdays means the inn benefits from higher year-round occupancy than many other such businesses. Andy says: “The construction work in Dartford means during the week we are always busy. We also get a lot of guests staying at weekends visiting when they come to the Brands Hatch racing track less than 10 miles away.”
He adds: “With the local Orchard Theatre on our doorstep, we host actors staying in town when they are presenting plays, musicals or stand-up comedy.”
At the time of my visit, a number of the lighting crew from the musical Annie, poised to be presented at the theatre, were staying for a couple of days before the show opened, with plans come back when they come to take it all down again at the end of the season.
Apart from working in conjunction with the Orchard theatre, however, Andy says he does not advertise the business locally. “For marketing, we use booking.com and expedia – although we greatly resent the exorbitant rates of commission they charge,” he says. “We tell any people who may be likely to come back again to book directly with us and get 10% off in return.”
While experience has taught Andy that it can be tough to hire adequate levels of reliable staff throughout the year at a pub or inn in a rural location, the practice can also be quite challenging even in Dartford, he says. “Nowadays people only need to apply for a job for them to get their money, so we get many bogus job applications. But we can generally weed them out because we soon know how many times they have applied here in the past.”
The key to retaining good staff is simple, he says: “We look after them.”
Andy and his wife Sue have worked together running pubs and hotels for the past 22 years, 16 of them working for Chris Chapman. Among the businesses the couple have run are landmark pubs such as The Bugle on the River Hamble, the Highdown Hotel in Worthing which they ran for five years, and Chequers Hotel in Pulborough, which unfortunately fell into administration owing to the global financial crisis.
Before South Coast Inns appointed Andy and Sue to run the inn in Dartford two years ago, Andy had been an area manager for the company, running 18 different pubs and hotels in the southwest stretching as far north as Tewksbury, as far west as Coleford in the Forest of Dean, down to Somerset. Prior to that the couple had for four years run the Kings Arms in Godalming.
South Coast Inns
The West Sussex-based South Coast Inns was run by Chris Chapman, his wife Delia and their sons, and was formed following the sale of the Chapman Group in November 2016. The company owned and managed 37 pubs, inns, bars, clubs and hotels in the south of England before selling most of those in 2015 to Dominion Hospitality, an affiliate of Stellex Capital Management, a private equity group that invests in middle market companies.
South Coast Inns now owns and runs just half a dozen sites, among them of course the Royal Victoria Bull Hotel in Dartford.
Although Andy had worked as area manager for Chris Chapman, he moved with the new owners when the business was sold. However, he says he did not enjoy the experience. “Funnily enough the company I went to turned out to be the same company running the inn that I now manage under the administrator. When I handed my notice in and said that I was coming here, they retorted that I would never make anything of the place. ‘It’s a horrible place, no-one likes Dartford’ they said – the usual things said about Dartford. But Sue and I came and renovated it, and now the bar and hotel are both very busy, so we have proved them wrong.”
He reflects: “It’s a lovely pub. It’s old, it’s quaint, and it has a lot of character. We do a lot of things including cream teas, the Mad Hatter’s tea party, and we show football. On football nights it can get very busy in here. We subscribe both to BT and Sky so we can show two games at one time, with four TV screens in the bar.”
Visionary Chris Chapman had the vision of precisely what was needed to be done to restore the inn to its former glory, and that vision is what stands there today. Unfortunately, Chris passed away just a few weeks ago, but not before he got to see his vision brought to life at the Royal Victoria & Bull.
Andy reflects: “Chris loved the place, and he loved doing up other historic places of this nature.”
As the regeneration now underway brings Dartford out from a long era of gloom, at its heart will be Chris Chapman’s great legacy, the restoration of the Royal Victoria & Bull Hotel.