Published: 06:00, 05 March 2021
| Updated: 15:49, 05 March 2021
An historic pub in the centre of a village could be turned into two homes after "struggling for more than a decade".
The Royal Oak in Mersham, near Ashford, ceased trading in October last year, with the Covid-19 pandemic proving the last straw to its survival.
Plans have now been submitted to convert the site as – according to planning agent Milliken & Company – it couldn't compete with the community-owned Farriers Arms less than a mile away and had seen five landlords pass through since 2013.
In plans lodged with Ashford Borough Council, a statement attached to the proposal reads: "While the Royal Oak had been struggling as a public house for over a decade, its forced closure for three months as a result of Covid restrictions in March 2020, and its subsequent inability to effectively compete as primarily a wet sales operation with a limited food offering (due to a lack of adequate circulation space to successfully introduce social distancing measures), meant that Shepherd Neame was faced with the difficult decision of having to permanently close the pub."
The Faversham brewery then disposed of the freehold and the new owners now want to convert it into two homes – one to rent out and one to live in for their retirement.
The scheme would leave the interior largely untouched and would use most of the existing internal walls.
A heritage statement said that while the hall house built in about 1450 had special architectural interest, a number of later additions left little of the original building work.
This could ease the planning process but Mersham residents are up in arms over the plan for the pub, which opened in 1592 when it served as a gamekeeper’s lodge for the Hatch estate.
Villager Richard Jakeman said: "I don't think it has to compete with the Farriers. Since being in the village we've used the Oak as a sociable drinking local and the Farriers for eating.
"They're both very good at what they do but admittedly the Oak is always going to face a challenge making money predominantly from 'wet' sales.
"The landlords did a great job but were definitely constrained by the brewery, as a free house the place would have a real chance to be successful."
However another said: "No one has ever made the pub work with breweries involved over the last 14 years.
"If it became a restaurant there is not enough parking, so maybe a sympathetic restoration to two dwellings could work."
But the last landlady, Maxine Smith, said she was insulted by this, adding: "Running a pub is difficult in any climate with high rents and the highest VAT on beer anywhere in Europe but the last year especially.
"My husband Dave and I had a fantastic two years at the Oak and would have continued if it hadn’t been for Covid.
"We had some amazing regulars who supported us and could have done with a few more from the village to be fair.
"That is the problem with these types of pubs – no one realises what they’ve lost until they are gone.
"It will be a shame to lose the pub as it has never been run as a free house, free from the restraints of a brewery.
"If somebody gave it a go it would get support but for how long is a different matter.
"It’s also one of the last coaching houses in Kent so a bit of Kentish history is dying."
Since leaving in September, Mrs Smith has returned to work in education, a career she had held for 20 years before moving into the pub.
For more information on the application, or to leave a comment, search 21/00374/AS on the Ashford Borough Council planning portal.