Martin Roberts ploughs £500k in most daunting property project03/05/2023
In a rather sad and run-down bar in the Welsh valleys, there’s a sign on the wall. Put up in better days on the slightly stained walls and aimed at lifting the spirits of even the most world-weary drinkers, it includes the optimistic maxim: “Believe in miracles”.
“I’ve certainly taken that message on board,” jokes the inn’s unlikely new owner, Martin Roberts. “Oops, I’ve bought a pub!”
The irrepressible host of the BBC’s renovation series Homes Under The Hammer smiles as he continues: “This is the most daunting challenge of my life – something I never thought I’d do in a million years.”
Frankly, it is a message he will need to heed in the coming months.
Fearing his wife Kirsty, a marketing executive, would kybosh his renovation project, he kept his new purchase firmly under wraps until last September when he finally handed over £200,000.
In doing so, he became the proud owner of the Hendrewen Inn and Hotel in the village of Blaencwm, at the top of the Rhondda Valley, an hour’s drive from Cardiff. It is the only pub in the local community.
When she eventually found out, Kirsty required more than a little persuasion.
“My head is still spinning right now,” she admits from the comfort of the family home in Bath, where daughter Megan,13, and son Scott, 16, go to school. “How are we going to turn this around? This scares me. It could become a money pit.”
Indeed, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), some 21 British pubs a week are closing for business or losing their licensees.
Soaring energy costs, staffing shortages and customers tightening their belts as a result of the cost-of-living crisis have all cut a swathe through the hospitality sector.
Here in the Rhondda Valley, a former coal mining area and now one of the more depressed regions of Europe, the economic situation is even more dire.
While the initial shock has now worn off, Kirsty remains sceptical that her husband and business partner can run an inn successfully.
The new landlord cheerfully admits he’s never even pulled a pint before.
“Kirsty has visited the pub and come around a lot but I’m in no doubt this is a gamble with a lot riding on it,” continues Martin cheerfully.
“However, I do relish a challenge and when I follow my gut instinct it generally comes off.”
The previous owners closed the inn during lockdown and then decided to retire and sell up, so the building has been empty for several years.
The revamp Martin plans will cost at least £500,000. Although there is no visible damp, surfaces are dusty, paint is peeling in places and the whole building is in desperate need of modernising to bring it out of the 1970s and into the 2020s.
But Martin, 59, who in fairness has made a career out of advising hopeful property owners, sees the potential of his new business. He also feels passionately about the importance of pubs as centres for local communities – something he has in common with groups across the country.
Also author of a series of children’s books, he has persuaded his illustrator to create drawings of what the Hendrewen might eventually look like. Stroking his beard as he sits on a stool, he explains how he plans to change the entire bar area and move the front door back to its original position at the centre of the inn.
“I want to keep the style and grandness of the building, all the beautiful stone work, but I want the pub area to be fun and funky,” he adds.
He has already bought an old Chopper bicycle from the 1970s to hang on one of the pub walls. And he’d love to build a train set to run around the bar. There’s even a Magic Roundabout-themed fun ride proposed for children to play on.
“Kids visiting the pub will love it,” he says. “It will help create a lovely, fun atmosphere. When I told my wife and kids about the Magic Roundabout ride they thought I was mad.
“We want to have comfy sofas to make people feel at home. I think it will have a bistro feel with a buzzy atmosphere.”
Until its closure, the Hendrewen had been an important part of the community for decades. “I see owning it as being given a gift and I want to give that gift back to the community.”
As well as TV presenting, Martin and his wife have a large portfolio of properties, mainly used as Airbnb rentals. They have plenty of experience in property renovation, including “a beautiful old farmhouse” nearby that dates back to the 1650s.
“Over time we all fell in love with this glorious part of Wales,” he says. “My son loves mountain biking and this valley is perfect for that sort of thing. The scenery is sensational and the people are just the most generous and warm-hearted people you could hope to meet.
“While staying up here, I heard about the hotel going up for sale and had to go and see it. Within a few minutes I could see the potential. I knew I had to have it and bring the pub back to life.”
The INN has two bar areas, at least one of which will be used for live bands and karaoke nights. As landlord he is keen to make use of his music licence as soon as possible. The four bedrooms upstairs are cosy but dated, and next to them is a function room which will be converted into two more bedrooms – one possibly a bridal suite. One one side of the pub is a car park.
Here Martin plans to build an eight-bedroom block with disabled access, plus a conservatory and a village store for essential supplies. “There are fantastic views from there up to the mountains and we want visitors to enjoy all the scenery,” he says.
“You can see two waterfalls just by looking out of the window of the pub. How many pubs have this on the doorstep?”
Although he grew up in Warrington, Cheshire, Martin has developed a close affinity to Wales.
He recently discovered his great, great, great-grandfather was a sea captain born in North Wales who married a woman from Cardiff, so there is Welsh blood in his family if you go back far enough.
In addition, many of the properties he features in his BBC show Homes Under The Hammer are in Wales.
“It’s rather spooky how I am being drawn back to Wales at this time of my life,” he adds. “The programme celebrates its 20th anniversary in November and I’ve actually spent a large part of my time presenting Welsh properties. It all seems to be fitting into place.”
He’s determined to employ as many local people as possible to work at the inn and on the renovation project, which could take up to a year. His love of trains has also led him to become patron of a campaign to reopen a disused railway tunnel for cyclists and walkers, which has its entrance just 500 yards from Hendrewen, as a gateway to the Brecon Beacons beyond.
Built in 1885 by the Swansea Bay Railway, it was closed in 1970 because of concerns about damage in the tunnel roof. The campaigners are asking the government to spend £15million on renovation, making it one of Europe’s longest pedestrian tunnels, at just under two miles in length.
“With my illustrator, we have been working on a new logo of a dragon standing at the entrance to the tunnel,” adds Martin.
“The Welsh dragon has been sleeping for decades but it’s time to let him out.”
For now, Martin is letting his imagination run riot, turning the Hendrewen into a successful and popular inn at a time when, around Britain, many if not the majority of pubs are facing an existential threat.
CAMRA Chairman Nik Antona has said: “We risk losing more pubs which are at the heart of community life and play such a crucial role in bringing people together and tackling loneliness and social isolation.
“With the cost of doing business rocketing, energy costs sky-high and customers tightening their belts, it is little wonder that hundreds of pubs across the country are closing for business or are standing empty.”
Martin agrees wholeheartedly.
“We can’t just watch all these pubs go to the wall,” he insists.
“Pubs are the centre of communities, places where people meet to love, laugh and cry together as a community. That spirit will always be there but it need supporting. “My job now is to give them a place which is warm, cosy and meets the modern standards people expect these days. They want to be entertained as well.”
Those who work with Martin say he’s on a roll, relishing being a catalyst for change in an area still suffering from the closure of coal mines. If he needs a miracle to turn the Hendrewen around, then he certainly has the renovation experience, profile and energy to pull it off.
But right now that “Believe in Miracles” sign on his wall couldn’t be more apt.
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