A vicious row has erupted in a picturesque Chilterns village over a multimillionaire businessman’s plans to convert a historical local pub.
The Valiant Trooper in Aldbury, Hertfordshire, had been at the heart of village life since 1753 and was once visited by the Duke of Wellington. Popular with cyclists and walkers, it was named local Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) pub of year in 2017.
But the venue – which features a mummified cat – closed in summer 2021 when the lease for the previous tenants expired, with a business linked to wealthy local businessman Rupert Poulson, 48, buying up the freehold for £1million weeks later.
After seeing off an attempted community buyout, he lodged plans to build three mews houses in the garden, with the main building divided into a cafe, a farm shop and a small bar area. While he insists this will keep the pub alive, campaigners believe his plan is ‘set up to fail’ so he can turn the building into homes.
The Valiant Trooper in Aldbury, Hertfordshire, had been at the heart of village life since 1753
Popular with cyclists and walkers, it was named local Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) pub of year in 2017
CAMRA, the Chiltern Society and dozens of residents led by Erica Vilkauls, a 60-year-old local fashion consultant, have joined a coalition opposing Mr Poulson’s planning application to adapt the Grade II-listed building.
Paul Ainsworth, a planning expert who chairs CAMRA’s Pub Heritage Group, is suspicious of Mr Poulson’s plans.
‘People often see a nice old pub and think they’ll take a punt on it as a commercial development,’ he told MailOnline.
‘Everything points to that sort of scenario having surfaced in Aldbury, because this chap clearly wants to do things with the building that are not pub related.
‘He’s also suggesting a downsized pub that would not serve food, but in rural areas these days pubs that don’t serve food are going to struggle.’
Mr Ainsworth claimed the plan – which includes demolishing a corridor that currently links the pub bar with an adjoining dining area – is ‘designed to fail’.
He added: ‘The developer may be looking at running the remaining bar area for a couple of years in such a way that will allow him to say it’s not viable.’
The picturesque village of Aldbury, which has a combined stocks and whipping post dating to around the 1600s
Local businessman Rupert Poulson, 48, says plans he has lodged with the local council will preserve the pub, but campaigners including Erica Vilkauls (right) are skeptical of his motives
Paul Osbond, 62, who is retired, said: ‘We fear he is going to convert the main building into a dwelling’
Paul Osbond, 62, who is retired, said: ‘We fear he is going to convert the main building into a dwelling.
‘There is a barn down the side that could be turned into another two or three bed home and then there is the application to put three mews houses on the car park. In this area the mews houses would go for £750,000 each.’
Campaigners were furious when Mr Poulson began carrying out building work on the site without first receiving listed buildings consent – leading to the Dacorum Borough Council giving him a formal warning for breaking planning laws.
Locals have tried to get the pub listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). This would grant it extra protection from development and allow campaigners to try to reopen the venue as a traditional village pub serving drinks and food.
But this was rejected by the council in September 2021, with officials ruling the application ‘did not evidence any use in the recent past which furthered the social well-being or interests of the local community which were not just incidental to the use as a pub’.
Workmen at the Valiant Trooper have complained of being pelted with eggs by people opposed to its development
The rear of the pub, where Mr Poulson plans to build three mews houses
They noted that Mr Poulson had said he had ‘no intention’ to reopen the pub in its original form due to the ‘amount of capital investment required’ and ‘competition from another pub and food establishments in nearby villages’.
As part of his planning application to convert the site, Mr Poulson commissioned a report from estate agent Savills which found operating the pub in its previous format as a traditional food and drink pub was ‘unviable’.
The report claimed the pub could not accommodate enough diners to be profitable while also citing ‘Covid, the cost of living crisis, high inflation, rising food costs and increasing labour costs’ as factors that made its outlook ‘even worse’.
However, campaigner Erica Vilkauls insists the report is flawed – pointing out that it suggests the site could only accommodate 90 diners, whereas her own analysis carried out before the venue closed found it could actually house 188.
She said: ‘We are working closely with the Chiltern Society and Camera. This slow erosion of community assets will destroy villages like Aldbury, unless we act now. It was a very popular pub – used by walkers and cyclists.’
Villagers have now commissioned their own viability report to show that the pub can still make money in its previous form.
‘We have saved the pub,’ Mr Poulson told MailOnline. Pictured: The bar area
An unusual feature of the Valiant Trooper is the remains of a mummified cat
Mr Poulson moved to Aldbury in 2013, and lives in a large mansion which is for sale on RightMove for £3.5million.
‘We have saved the pub,’ the businessman, who drives a grey Land Rover Defender, insisted to MailOnline.
He added: ‘The pub had been failing for many years and was shut when I acquired it, so it would have been far easier to keep it shut and turn it into a house.
‘But no, I have been painstakingly refurbishing the property over the past 12 months.’
One of the workers he has commissioned to carry out work at the Valiant Trooper said: ‘We opened Christmas Day for the villagers and offered them a free drink. The bar is kitted out. It is going to be run as a pub.
‘We spent half a million pounds on it and haven’t finished. The chimney was falling down. We have taken the link down but we have got permission to do that.
‘There is some bad feeling. Some of the workers here have been abused and had eggs thrown at them.’
Mr Poulson declined further requests to comment.
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