Published: 15:00, 15 January 2022
| Updated: 15:41, 15 January 2022
Martyn Hillier had been selling draught ale out of his flower shop for seven years when he was told he could turn the business into a pub.
Drinkers would descend on his store – called Herne Village Florist and Beer Seller – near Herne Bay and march past the flowers sold inside for a tipple.
But during a conversation with a Canterbury City Council licensing officer, the then 46-year-old was informed a recent change in the law had eased the way for spaces to be converted into boozers.
Shortly afterwards, in November 2005, Martyn opened the country’s first micropub.
“It couldn’t be done before 2005 – it was nigh-on impossible because of the old laws,” said the landlord, speaking last year.
“After speaking to the licensing officer, my first thought was, ‘Bloody pubs. They sell lager and most people smoke in them. And they’re not friendly places.’
“But then I realised this was going to be my pub – I would decide what I’d sell. It would be my pub, and I’d do as I wish.”
Called the Butcher’s Arms, the watering hole had no music, television, lager or food.
It was not equipped with a conventional bar either, in a bid to prevent patrons from spending inordinate time queuing for drinks.
Seats were also positioned in such a way that they all faced each other, forcing pub-goers into conversation.
“The banter in the pub is the winner,” Martyn adds. “It’s brilliant – it’s better than watching TV.”
This created a band of regulars, which includes, according to Martyn, former nuclear submariners, senior police officers and millionaires.
While inside, many of them are known by different names, including Popeye, Andy the Onion and Kev the Pickle.
Despite this, the Butcher’s Arms remained the only micropub in the country for four years. Martyn’s vision for pubs was looked upon with suspicion.
“I opened expecting loads to follow me, but they didn’t,” he continues.
“They were just thinking it can’t work – if big pubs selling food can’t work, how can this?
“But my overheads are so low. Shops are cheap to rent and, by not serving food, I don’t need to employ chefs and waitresses.
“Costs go on the beer because that’s what people can’t buy anywhere else, proper draught beer.”
The second sprouted up in Hartlepool, sparking a wave of new micropub openings in former tattoo parlours, saddleries, pet shops and hairdressers across the country.
They were all small free houses that predominantly served cask ale and were wedded to the notion that all forms of electronic entertainment should be shunned. They also subscribed to the idea that the only food sold on-site should be traditional bar snacks.
There are now 720 in the UK. Martyn says he lost the custom of six of his own customers, as they too decided to launch their own micropubs.
One of them was Bob Jackson. The pensioner, along with old friends Gary O’Hara and Werner Neumann, chewed over the idea of running their own boozer after their local in Strood was bought by a landlord intent on attracting a younger clientele.
They sampled the atmosphere in the The Butcher’s Arms, and liked what they saw. But just to be sure they were on to a winner, the trio visited 27 more micropubs across Kent.
After completing their rigorous investigation in 2015, they unveiled the 10:50 from Victoria, which lies in a railway arch behind an Asda car park.
“I’ve got a property in Strood with 11 railway arches in the garden. We just chose one and that was it,” Bob remembers.
“It took three or four months to convert it. We had to render the inside to stop the water coming through from the railway.
“I didn’t think it would do all that well to start with, but you’d be surprised just how many people like real ale. There was just us three guys drinking in it and then it grew and grew and grew.
“It’s very popular now."
The pub, which can squeeze a maximum of 30 punters inside, only serves real ale, cider and wine,
Like Martyn, the trio decided not to sell food or lager and dispensed with anything they thought could inhibit conversations between customers.
It is for this reason that many landlords believe their premises have become integral to their communities.
Retired police officer Shawn Galvin says his Broadstairs micropubs, the Yard of Ale and Mind the Gap, attract men and women of all ages.
“Because there is no loud music or any distractions, like fruit machines, it’s a community hub,” he explained last year. “Everyone’s sitting down chatting to each other and everyone’s friendly.
“We get people inside ranging from 18-year-olds to people in old age.”
Before Shawn launched the Yard of Ale, his first pub, the building used to be a decrepit stable. Despite having to contend with collapsing walls and mangled windows, he says the six-month renovation of the site cost him just £16,000.
“It was a lot of hard work, but it paid off. If someone wanted to start one up, there’s no massive outlay,” he opined.
“If you could just convert a shop that didn’t need an awful lot done to it, anything from £8,000 to £15,000 would probably be enough.
“Because they’re generally smaller, you get rate relief and you pay less for heating.”
The hospitality industry has been among the hardest-hit by the pandemic, prompting some landlords to fear micropubs will be forced to close.
But Kent filmmaker Syd Heather, whose documentary Micropubs - The New Local aired last year, believes their rise will continue once life eventually returns to normal.
"For the most part, because of their low overheads, I think they have been able to manage better than larger pubs because they can be run solo or with just one or two others," he reasoned last year.
"With that business model I think they’re more likely to have at least managed to sustain themselves over the last year, so I think generally they’ll be OK. I think they can bounce back a bit quicker than larger pubs."