Business booming at historic Alnwick pub as The Dirty Bottles reaps the rewards of £400,000 refurbishment

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Business is booming at a historic pub in the heart of Alnwick following a £400,000 refurbishment which has doubled its capacity.

The Dirty Bottles on Narrowgate reopened earlier this month with a fresh emphasis on food and has reaped the benefits of the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

"We’ve been fully booked weeks in advance so Eat Out to Help Out has definitely been a huge boost,” said owner Mark Jones.

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Indeed, he says the main difficulty since reopening on August 13 has been coping with the level of demand.

The Dirty Bottles, Alnwick.The Dirty Bottles, Alnwick.
The Dirty Bottles, Alnwick.

“We’ve had our chefs doing night shifts just to prep for the following day,” he revealed.

Staff have also been inundated with booking inquiries by phone and social media.

"It’s one of those things but we’ve been so busy that we must have turned 200-300 people away,” said Mark.

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The revamp has included the refurbishment of the kitchen and extension of the bar and dining areas to increase the number of covers to around 130.

The Dirty Bottles in Alnwick with its new look.The Dirty Bottles in Alnwick with its new look.
The Dirty Bottles in Alnwick with its new look.

"We had always planned a refurbishment but we were going to do it over the winter,” Mark said. “When we closed in March with lockdown we decided to take the risk of getting it done.

"The bar area has been opened up and enlarged and we’ve extended the tables area for food offerings.

“In total we’ve doubled the number of covers to 130 which, under the current circumstances, has been very good news.

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"Most businesses have reopened with fewer covers because of Covid-19 and social distancing whereas we’ve been fortunate enough to do the opposite thanks to our extended space.”

The new dining area.The new dining area.
The new dining area.

Mark bought the property in 2015 and has been keen to learn lessons from the initial opening.

“Most of the work we’ve done has been based on customer feedback,” he said.

"When we opened five years ago we did it in a way where we did a bit of food but also focused on cocktails and self-pull beers in the thinking people could pull their own pints watching rugby on the big screen.

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"We opened the doors and it didn’t work that way at all, it was food, food, food to the point where there was no space for the drinkers.”

The new kitchen.The new kitchen.
The new kitchen.

The transformation has gone down well with customers.

"The feedback has been immense,” said Mark. “People can’t get their heads around it.

"We wanted to retain the history and character of the building but wanted to bring a cool vibe to it.

"We also felt that after five years it was time for a refurbishment and new style and menu.”

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One of the biggest challenges was the frontage of the building where the paint was flaking off.

"We’ve brought it back to the old stonework which has had amazing feedback,” he said.

The dirty bottles which give the pub its name.The dirty bottles which give the pub its name.
The dirty bottles which give the pub its name.

Restoration of a property dating back to the 1600s does not come cheap.

"It’s been expensive,” Mark admitted. “It’s a £400,000 investment which is a lot of money but we are smashing revenue in terms of turnover with the Eat Out to Help Out and with a bit of luck that will continue and we will get our investment back.”

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He is hopeful that turnover for the year will top £1million despite the five-month closure.

The venue also boasts four boutique bedrooms which are also proving attractive to visitors.

"We’re seeing lots of accommodation bookings through the autumn as the staycation continues,” said Mark.

"We’re seeing booking levels in October and November like we would normally expect in July and August so we’re tentatively hoping things will continue like that for a while, barring a major problem with a second wave.”

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Mark, who is Alnwick born and bred, always saw the potential for the premises.

“At that time it was owned by Star Pubs, the leased pubs business of Heineken, but had been closed for about two years,” he explained.

"There had been a plan to turn it into flats but I thought I couldn’t let that happen so bought the building from the brewery.”

The business currently employs 20 full and part-time staff but extra positions have been created due to demand.

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“I really believe in Alnwick and I hope The Dirty Bottles can do its bit,” Mark said.

“We’re very fortunate to have Alnwick Castle and The Alnwick Garden here which attract thousands of visitors every year. We get a lot of that passing trade at The Dirty Bottles.

"I know Northumberland Estates gets a bit of flak in some quarters but I think they’ve done a lot of good for the town.”

He hopes the Duchess of Northumberland’s ambitious Lilidorei play project will boost the local economy event further. The scheme is expected to attract 169,000 new tourists a year once complete.

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"Alnwick is a great place to invest in, said Mark. “That is why we have spent this amount of money because we’re confident it is on the rise.

"If anything, what has happened with Covid-19 and the increase in staycations is going to provide Northumberland with a boost.”

The Dirty Bottles, previously called Ye Old Cross, has an intriguing past.

"The old cross above the door is believed to be linked to the de Vesci family who sat in Alnwick Castle before the Percys,” revealed Mark.

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“The story of the dirty bottles on the outside comes from the 18th century when a landlord is said to have gone to clean them and dropped down dead of a heart attack.

"The same thing happened to the next landlord so his wife proclaimed that they were cursed. The story stuck and they’ve been locked away since. We get a lot of interest from ghost hunters!

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