A feature of Soham life since the early 1600s, The Red Lion had served customers through a civil war and two world wars but when it closed three years ago the future looked bleak for the popular hostelry, which was quite literally starting to crumble.
Although abandoned and derelict, its potential was spotted by Soham-born interior designer Peter Leonard and restaurateur Lucy Jarman who together cooked up a plan to buy the building and turn it into a restaurant.
But as soon as the renovation work began, the size of the task ahead became clear as workmen discovered years of cover-up jobs, bad building decisions and damp. Years of neglect meant that the walls were falling away from the roof.
“I didn’t really know just how fragile the building was,” said Peter, whose father once ran a butcher’s business in Soham and who now divides his time between the town and London.
“It was impossible to see. Over the years, any time anything went wrong with the building it was just covered up. The first thing that we had to do was peel away layer upon layer upon layer of history until we got back to the basic bones of the building. When we did get back to them, we found out a lot of those bones were missing.”
Lucy, whose mother Ann is well known by patrons of The Old Fire Engine House in Ely, the restaurant she has run in Ely for 50 years, added: “It was in a really, really bad way. It was a boozer that had been allowed to decay and decay. As every bit of the building was revealed more damage was uncovered. Old buildings really need air and it just had stuff plonked on top of wall, on top of wall, on top of wall. Taking this off has revealed a lot of gems.”
One of these is the spectacular original 17th century fireplace which had been covered up, first by a Georgian fire, then a Victorian fire, then a 1920s and a 1950s fireplace.
Around the property there are displays of deeds going through the centuries, authentic fixtures, and uncovered artwork and posters that were previously hidden behind centuries of plaster and wallpaper. Alongside those are the restored wooden roof and wall supports and brickwork.
The restaurant has two sections. The oldest part is covered with a thatched roof with low ceilings familiar in a building of its age. The other part is more modern, built in the early 1800s.
Peter said local folklore, which suggested the building’s end wall was being held up by the traditional red telephone box, wasn’t far from the truth.
“That wall was the worst section,” he said. “We had to fill that end of the building with concrete beams and sink a lot of steel girders into the ground to stabilize it.”
As well as adding and strengthening supporting columns, craftsmen had to replace foundations, remove tonnes of cement from the courtyard and tear out the bitumen and plastic that had sealed damp inside the property for years.
“I was born 50 yards away from the Red Lion,” said Peter. “It was such a part of my childhood, and my dad used to go there for his drink on a Sunday whilst Mum was cooking. It was of one of those iconic places in Soham that I couldn’t bear seeing boarded up and abandoned.”
“It has been a labour of love for me. Throughout the project I have been both thrilled and horrified because you would get one nice surprise and then you get something ghastly that happens.”
It has taken more than two years, but the listed Soham landmark has now been restored to its former glory, with the use of traditional materials including lime plaster, and reclaimed wood.
“We couldn’t go too fast because the building was too fragile and there was too much work to be done at any one time,” said Peter.
And he and Lucy have found they have a bit more than their interest in the Red Lion in common. “I was looking back through my family history and Lucy’s great-grandfather and my great-grandfather were next door neighbours and business people together in the town,” said Peter, “so this is two families that go back many generations in Soham. It’s really nice that we are carrying on with that tradition.”
Lucy is now busy developing the menu she will have on offer at the restaurant. She describes it as ‘generous, rustic, fun cooking’, a mixture of British and Mediterranean food. The 60-seater venue is now open to serve drinks and aims to start serving food by the end of the month.
“We want everything to be of the highest quality. The food isn’t going to be fancy, it’s going to be hearty rather than pretty which, hopefully, will appeal to people in Soham.”
Lucy will be creating around 15 jobs and having had more than 200 applications from potential employees is confident she will be able to recruit a very good team.
Having dreamt of running her own restaurant since she was a child and even planning menus in her sleep, Lucy is now on the brink of realising her long-held ambition.
“I’m really excited. I was a nervous wreck because it’s such a big undertaking setting up a restaurant on your own,” she said. “When you realise your dream, it can be quite a daunting prospect because you’ve got to try to fulfil it the way you have dreamt about it.”