Interview: Sister Midnight campaign to Save The Ravensbourne Arms in Lewisham as a community music pub

Every time I walk from my flat in Lewisham towards Catford I’m greeted with a depressing sight. The Ravensbourne Arms, once a flourishing local boozer and home to open mics and club nights, now sitting empty, its windows and doors boarded up with sheets of black painted plywood, dotted with the occasional smear of graffiti or the remnants of a weather-beaten poster.

Sadly this image is replicated around the UK with the Office for National Statistics reporting a loss of 13,600 pubs between 2000 and 2019 and a report by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport finding that London had lost 35% of its grassroots music venues between 2007 and 2016. With the financial pain endured during the recent lockdowns that number looked set to increase.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The excellent work done by the likes of The Music Venue Trust has helped to keep post-lockdown venue losses as low as possible and in our little corner of Lewisham, a plan is being concocted to revive The Ravensbourne Arms. We caught up with Lenny Watson, Director of Sister Midnight, whose excellent cafe/record shop/music venue/gallery in nearby Deptford was a favoured hangout of many a band to have graced these pages, including local Joyzine faves Italia 90, Scrounge and Fatberg, to find out about their plans to revive The Ravensbourne Arms as a community owned live music pub, and how you can get involved as a community shareholder or volunteer.

Tell us a little bit about The Ravensbourne Arms – what is its history and why is this the venue that you’ve chosen?

The Ravensbourne Arms, previously known as the Coach and Horses, has sat on Lewisham High Street since 1934, but there’s been a pub on that site since 1750. It’s been through quite a few iterations as a pub, apparently back in the early 2000’s it was known as Hotshots, and put on live music! The pub eventually wound up being owned by Antic Pub Co, who closed it down in 2016 and sold the pub off to private property developers. The developers converted the top two floors of the building into flats, but couldn’t get planning consent for a change of use for the pub itself, so they’ve put the whole building on the market.

There are a lot of reasons why we think the Ravensbourne Arms has huge potential as a great live music pub, infact having searched for a suitable venue for some time, we think it’s one of the few available commercial sites in Lewisham that would be suitable for use as a venue. It’s really difficult to find spaces for live music in London that aren’t surrounded by residential buildings. The Ravensbourne is neighboured by a church, a school and an MOT garage. There are very few residential buildings nearby aside from the flats above, which we will purchase as part of the freehold sale. This means we can reduce the rents below market rates to account for the fact that the tenants will have a slightly different living situation being above a trading pub and live music venue, and we can be completely transparent with them about what to expect. This is a vital part of our noise mitigation plan. It’s also a huge building, which will provide enough space for a separate events room as well as a decent size pub. 

Can you give us some background on Sister Midnight – who are you and what is your background in the local community and music scene?

Sister Midnight started in 2018, taking over our shop space on Tanners Hill from a previously existing venue and saving it from closure. I volunteered at the previous venue and when I heard it was headed for closure I knew I had to act to make sure that we didn’t lose another local grassroots space for creativity. I scraped together the money to take on the lease, and that’s how Sister Midnight was born. We were a record shop / music venue / cafe / gallery space, but live music was always the beating heart of Sister Midnight. We quickly grew a community around the space and became an important part of the local DIY music scene. Sister Midnight was more than just a venue though, it was, informally, a kind of community hub. We had people who came there every day just to sit and chat, and it really felt like it was a lot of people’s second home. That’s exactly what we want to continue at the Ravensbourne Arms.

Given the hard times that music venues across the UK are facing, why start a new venue in this climate? What are the biggest hurdles you’re facing/expecting to face and what support is available for new venues?

The pandemic is just the latest in a long history of the struggles faced by grassroots venues, we’ve lost 50% of our venues across the UK in the last couple of decades, and pubs have been hit even worse. We’ve all been starved of community and culture and live music for too long during lockdown, so I can’t think of a better time to be opening a new venue.

I imagine we’ll face our fair share of hurdles on this journey, but we’ll have the power of our community on our side. Sister Midnight was kept afloat by the support of our community in times of great adversity. In the end, our Deptford site closed because of issues with the building itself, and because we didn’t own the building we couldn’t make the infrastructural changes needed to fix those issues. Our community will own the Ravensbourne Arms freehold, so we won’t be at the mercy of landlords anymore. That makes a huge difference in a number of ways, we can fix and improve our building without lining our landlords pocket, we’ll have security of tenure, we won’t be subjected to unaffordable rent increases and our building won’t be sold out from underneath us for redevelopment. Crucially, no matter what other hurdles we face, we’ll have a huge community of shareholders committed to helping the Ravensbourne succeed – and that support network is one of the greatest risk-mitigators that a business can have in their arsenal.

The area of Lewisham that The Ravensbourne is located in is not necessarily one that many music fans in London will know – what is special about this place?

Lewisham is, and always has been, home to thriving music subcultures. There are endless bands, musicians and DJ’s living and working in the borough, but the issue we have in Lewisham is not having enough venues. The ones we do have (Fox & Firkin, Matchstick Piehouse, Bunker Club) are incredible, but we need more spaces to sustain the huge amount of culture that’s happening here. Because there aren’t enough spaces, culture has been starting to retreat underground – more people are putting on gigs in their basements, living rooms and garages. Whilst those gigs are important and have their place in the music ecosystem, if that’s all we have then culture becomes less accessible.

There’s exciting and groundbreaking things happening musically in South East London right now, I really believe this is a time that will be looked back on as an important moment in music culture. That’s why we need venues that can platform local music to show everyone what’s so unique about Lewisham’s music scenes, and cement the area’s reputation as a cultural destination.

What makes a community-owned pub different? Are there any existing venues that have provided inspiration for this venture?

The key benefit of a community-owned pub is that it puts power into the hands of local people. Having ownership of the building provides security against commonly faced threats like poor building condition or rising rents. On top of being community-owned, the pub will also be democratically run. This means shareholders get voting rights on key business decisions and are given a voice in shaping what kind of place the Ravensbourne will be.

There are just over 120 community pubs in the UK, and they have a 100% success rate, because the communities that own them are committed to seeing them flourish. We have the Ivy House over in Nunhead which is a great example of a community owned pub, and we’ve also taken inspiration from places like The Exchange in Bristol, and Le Pub in Newport, who are both thriving community owned live music venues. 

What plans do you have for the pub, both in terms of re-development and programming? Do you have an idea of when you might be able to open if you are successful in raising the funds? 

The inside of the pub has been completely stripped out, so a priority in our redevelopment plans will be restoring the pub’s architectural heritage, and bringing back all of it’s classic 1930’s character. Because the pub is a bit of a blank canvas, we can make it a functional space that can meet the demands of being a trading pub as well as a music venue. We’ll also be able to make the space fully accessible, and integrate accessibility features into the design of the space.

In terms of programming we’ll be platforming music from across all genres with a strong focus of showcasing local talent. We won’t just be hosting music though, there’ll also be pub quizzes, comedy nights. cabaret, theatre and more. We’ll also use the space as a community hub, running events like arts and craft fairs, family friendly gigs, parent and baby music classes, yoga classes, skills training workshops, radical reading groups and more – as well as providing meeting space for other community and activist groups. In terms of a timeline for opening, I’m afraid that’s harder to pin down as we don’t really know how long it will take to complete an agreement for sale. But once we have the keys to the pub, we think we can have it up and running within 3-4 months!

Sketch of how the interior of The Ravensbourne Arms might look by steering group member Alistair Howard

What has the response from the local community and music scene been like so far?

It’s been incredible, we feel really lucky to have the backing of so many local people, bands, labels, musicians, businesses and organisations. It’s made it clear to us that this is something that people really want and need. There is a gap in South East London for a creative cultural hub that reflects and upholds the ethics and values of our communities, and that’s what we want the Ravensbourne Arms to be. A thriving live music venue and community pub that is run on the principles of affordability, accessibility, ethics, fair pay, inclusivity, democratic ownership, and sustainability. 

You’ve launched the fundraiser with live shows in local venues featuring the likes of Goat Girl and Porridge Radio – do you have any more events in the pipeline?

We’ve got loads more planned, our next one is back at the Fox & Firkin on December 4th. We’ve got Grove, Horsey and Malady headlining plus loads more great local acts. We’ve also got the Quaggy Community Choir coming down to sing songs around the firepit in the garden. It’s going to be a cosy and festive affair, tickets are only a tenner and all funds will go towards out campaign, so we’d encourage everyone to come down!

How can people get involved and what incentives are there for them?

The best way people can support the campaign is by investing in our share offer. When they do they’ll become co-owners of the Ravensbourne Arms (so if you’ve ever dreamed of owning a pub, now’s your chance!) and they’ll also get voting rights giving them a say on how things will be done. They’ll get paid 3% interest on their shareholding, and they can eventually withdraw their shares and get their money back. Really, it’s quite similar to a savings account with a bank – except we’ll pay a better interest rate and you’ll be helping to save a local pub! Shares start at £100, but we have an affordable shares scheme that anyone can apply to so they can get all the same benefits as other investors starting from £25.

We also need volunteers to help canvass the local area and distribute flyers to get the word out there. But if you can’t afford to invest, the simplest way you can support the campaign is by sharing the crowdfunder link around and getting people talking about this. We’ve raised over a third of our target now which is amazing, so we just need to keep shouting about this from the rooftops and getting as many people involved as possible!

Invest in The Ravensbourne Arms here

The next Save The Ravensbourne Arms gig is on 4th December at The Fox & Firkin, Lewisham ft. Grove, Horsey, Malady, Lou Terry, Baggio, Henry Webb-Jenkins and Quaggy Community Choir. Tickets, priced at £10 plus booking fee are available here

Find out more on Sister Midnight’s official website

Interview by Paul Maps

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