It started with four guys and a shared dream of opening a pub.
Twenty years ago this November, Isaac Tooby, Michael Robinson, Neil Watson, and Shane Ranasinghe made that vision a reality, clubbing together to reopen The Roebuck in Borough. It thrived, and in the two decades since, the four have continued on what’s become their mission to take ownership of underused pubs, threatened with being shut down by developers.
Under the umbrella brand Parched, they’ve since taken on The White Horse and The Montpelier in Peckham; The Railway in Streatham; the Grove House Tavern in Camberwell; and most recently, The Earl of Derby in New Cross.
Parched’s 20th birthday celebrations are a month-long affair, taking place throughout the entirety of November. Across the six pubs, there’s quiz nights, DJ sets, beer festivals and, if you time your visit right, a chance to sip your usual brew at its 2003 price.
With the anniversary celebrations getting underway, we spoke to the four Parched founders to find out how it started and how it’s going…
Firstly, how did it all start? Were you friends before acquiring your first pub in 2003? If so, how did you meet?
Shane and Michael met in the early nineties in Brixton. Isaac and Neil were friends at college and moved to south London together. Our two pairs of friends then met in Clapham North in 1999.
What were you doing before taking on your first pub? Were you in the hospitality industry already or was it a career shift?
Yes, we were all working in the industry beforehand, all in slightly different ways. Shane set up a DJ bar in a Railway Arch called Arch 635, and Michael was resident DJ there. Isaac and Neil were pub managers who in their free time, came for drinks at Arch 635.
What’s your criteria for the pubs you take on? Do you rename them, or do they keep their original names?
We love the traditional features of all of our pubs, it’s one of the reasons that make the ‘British pub’ so famous around the world.
We always try to retain as much history as possible so the name of the pub would only be changed if it wasn’t the original name.
There’s something very in the spirit of Christmas about saving a beloved local institution from being bought up by developers, isn’t there?
For us, the run up to Christmas is the perfect time to pause and catch up with people in the pub. Doing so also supports those institutions: over a quarter of UK pubs have closed down in the past 20 years. A lot have been developed into flats or supermarkets, leaving some communities with no communal space to meet friends and family.
Pubs aren’t only places to drink; they’re part of our tradition and heritage, and something to pass onto the next generation.
Some might argue with that, as they’re essentially money making businesses. Do they really serve the community?
Our pubs are linked to the communities they serve: we host choirs, book circles, board game nights, sewing clubs, baby groups, quizzes, birthdays, wakes, christenings, wedding receptions and desk space for remote workers.
We all live within 15-30 minutes of our pubs, so we really do know our local areas and what our communities are looking for.
Parched celebrates its 20th anniversary this November. How have you been marking it?
We’ve been hosting a month’s worth of events at all our pubs. We’ve been throwing club nights, comedy gigs, quizzes and supper clubs.
Check our pub websites for the last remaining events!
What are your hopes for 2024? Will you be opening any more pubs?
Absolutely, if the right site becomes available. When we know an area and community well and we have confidence a pub can thrive, we throw everything at trying to get the keys.
Christmas must be one of your busiest times. Are there any special events or initiatives at your pubs over the festive season that the south London community should know about?
We have set menus and buffets running at all the pubs along with festive mulled wine and cider. We really go for it on the decorations, too.
Have any other south London businesses been an inspiration to your vision for Parched?
CJ’s, which later became Brixton Brassiere, on Acre Lane circa 1993 was a golden time for Shane and Michael in Brixton. It was a melting pot of different types of people; it was inclusive but still edgy.
It was our introduction to a pub-club hybrid: it was open really late and offered free entry, DJs and cocktails. It served urban tunes and a little bit of attitude. It really inspired us to want to own our own place one day.
The George Canning, now Hootananny, was also particularly good. It had the latest licence in the area, staying open until 12am, so we’d have a few drinks there before heading off to CJ’s.
Lastly, what’s the one thing, place or activity south of the river that people should try at least once?
It’s got to be Bermondsey Beer Mile. Start nearer to South Bermondsey and work your way up for a bite to eat at 40 Maltby Street.
Parched is the pub group behind south London pubs The Roebuck, The White Horse, The Montpelier, The Railway, the Grove House Tavern, and The Earl of Derby.