The sober landlords transforming one of Chorlton’s most famous pubs

South Manchester institution The Lloyds is about to get a shot in the arm

By Ben Arnold | Last updated 19 April 2024

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Two sober landlords open a pub. Even Rupert Hill and his business partner of nearly 20 years Jonny Booth admit it sounds like the start of a joke.

But last week, they got the keys to The Lloyds, one of the most renowned pubs in Chorlton.

To be entirely clear from the off, The Lloyds is not and will not be a sober pub, in the vein of recent openings and pop-ups like Love From, the alcohol-free bar which opened at Kampus earlier this year.

The booze will flow as normal. It’s just not the be all and end all. And, once you hear Rupert and Jonny talking about what they want to do with it, you’ll see why.

The Lloyds is an imposing hulk of a building, owned by Manchester family brewery J.W. Lees, with a sprawling bowling green at the back, the custodians of which are the Lloyd Hotel Bowling Club, founded in 1870, also the year the pub and hotel opened its doors.

This is far from Rupert and Jonny’s first rodeo. Together they’ve owned music venues The Castle Hotel and Gullivers on Oldham Street for well over a decade, as well as The Parlour in Chorlton, The Red Lion in Cheadle and the Bakers Vaults in Stockport, along with the bar in the Royal Exchange theatre, The Rivals.

But this time, things are a bit different. Well, very different.

Rupert has been sober nearly three years, and Jonny quit around 15 months ago. Without entering into too much intrusive detail, both admit that the manner in which they were hiding and disguising their drinking from others had become increasingly involved and elaborate. 

Jonny speaks about having ‘the keys to the sweet shop’. “It had just become mindless, routine drinking. I’d find myself out with friends and be thinking ‘these people aren’t drinking quick enough’. So I’d just go, go home where I wasn’t observed. I’d go to different shops, trying to hide where I was buying alcohol, to hide from the cashiers, and I thought ‘I’ve read about this’.”

“Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine has quoted it extremely well,” he adds. “I enjoy drinking when I don’t control it, and when I control it, I don’t enjoy it. That sums it up for me.”

Rupert also says things had got ‘way, way out of hand’. “Like first thing in the morning out of hand,” he adds. “I realised that every aspect of my life was suffering. Continuously having the same night, again and again and again. Like having a computer game that you’ve completed a thousand times.” Something fundamental had to change.

“People give up smoking and get a pat on the back. Give up drinking and people condemn you for it, or say ‘what’s wrong’. There’s a stigma to it. I think it’s really important for people to not feel ashamed about saying ‘look, that got the better of me’. In fact, it’s something to be incredibly proud of.”

Both now say that everything promised by a sober life has been delivered, and in spades. They feel better, fitter, and more focussed. After some trepidation, Rupert had his best ever Glastonbury last year, not drinking. 

But since going sober, both had, understandably, distanced themselves somewhat from the more operational sides of the pub-running business.

Neither set foot in a pub for over a year after going sober, but this one is different. Jonny had been pestering J.W. Lees for a decade to get his hands on this place, not least because of the room upstairs, which the pair will be turning into a gig venue.

So when it came up, neither hesitated. “Me and Jonny had kind of lost interest with the pub business,” says Rupert, who’s also forged a successful career as an actor, writer and director. To his amusement, he’s not ‘quit acting’ as a rash of tabloids proclaimed last week, tabloids which still find him a point of interest thanks to his years in Coronation Street. 

“Once you give up booze, you feel a bit done with it. But then when they finally came to us with this, we were like ‘this is the perfect opportunity’. It’s near home, the kids can come and hang out. Normally opening a pub is quite a hedonistic pursuit, but this will be kind of different. It just feels like the right time.”

“Yeah, there was a point where it felt like ‘we’re just done… unless…’. There were one or two sites that would have brought us back in. Just one last big job!” Jonny jokes. “It was kind of this place or nowhere. And we knew what we would do with it a long time ago.”

“The fastest growing sector of industry is alcohol free,” says Rupert. “The non-alcohol beers now are really good, post refurb we’ll start doing some interesting cocktails, but we’ll be constantly nudging the brewery to keep increasing the offer. But what we choose to put in our own systems is literally irrelevant to the running of a pub.”

“It’s a bit like the growth of veganism,” says Jonny. “It’s got to a point now everyone where has a reasonable vegan offering on the menu. It doesn’t necessarily require a standalone vegan restaurant. Do we need a sober bar, or can the two things just naturally grow to exist with each other?” 

“Something like 30 to 40 percent of 18-35 year olds identify as non-drinkers. That’s probably the only drink market that’s in growth. I think there’s an exciting opportunity to drive some of that. We don’t want to just serve non-alcoholic drinks that are entirely inert. You can do a non-alcoholic espresso martini, but it still has the pep of caffeine. 

“There’s a great company called Three Spirit, who make functional alcohol-free drinks, with things like lion’s mane and cordyceps. It’s functional, not just an inert mix of juices. We could do a lion’s mane Old Fashioned, things like that, drinks with ginseng. A matcha mojito.”

“But it’ll only be part of the story. We’re not evangelical about it. I don’t look back at my party days with disdain, it was great. I’m just done with it.”

Upstairs, the function room will be converted into a proper space for live music – with the whole pub closing for a month in September and being given a full refurbishment. Like at The Castle and Gullivers, grassroots support for bands will be at the forefront of what they do. There will be no venue hire fees, bands will just pay for their sound engineer.

“Over the years, the one thing that’s never failed us is the live music aspect,” says Rupert. “We’re talking to the Manchester College about giving students work placement for sound engineering courses.”

“We want to feed into grassroots. Having been in bands ourselves, we know how it feels to arrive at a venue and already be £500 deep before you’ve even plugged anything in,” adds Jonny. “Immediately, we’ll be throwing hire fees out of the window. If you don’t feed into the bottom, and everyone is just creaming off the top, eventually it’s going to die. That’s really, really important to us.”

“It’ll be the same in the kitchen. There will be no hire fee for the kitchen [the plan is to have rotating food traders], just a percentage to cover equipment maintenance and utilities. It just keeps feeding the scene, and helps people moving out from a truck or a gazebo to make that step.”

They’re both brimming with plans for this place. “It’ll probably take us 12 months to whittle down the hundreds of ideas we’ve got,” says Jonny. 

“Chorlton has historically always been creative, and a lot of those arts spaces and music venues have slowly disappeared. The point of this project is about creativity. About looking what you can do in a pub that isn’t just drinking. What activities can we put in? Drinking or not drinking.” Already, they’ve put in a fine jukebox, something that sat in pride of place back at The Parlour.

“I love pubs,” says Rupert. “I’ve always loved them. I love the look of them. The community of them. When the focus of pubs is for people simply to get hammered, that’s when pubs become a problem, dangerous even.

“We’re talking about having maybe food vendors out the front. Because it’s so big, have daytime DJs, food vendors, almost have an indoor, all-day festival kind of thing going. We’ll build another little stage so we can have live music downstairs too. Maybe whole weekend things, daytime stuff. Making somewhere that’s popular and busy.

“This is all about opening a pub that we want to be in.”

The Lloyds is open now at 617 Wilbraham Rd, Manchester M21 9AN