IT has reputedly been operating since Henry VIII was on the throne but now the shutters may finally come down on what is largely regarded as Swindon’s oldest business.
The Bell pub and hotel in Old Town – one of Swindon’s three surviving ancient inns – will be transformed into an arcade of small, independent shops if a new £500,000 scheme gets the go-ahead.
The High Street tavern, which bears the inscription “1515” over the front door, closed earlier this year following a failed attempt to revive its flagging fortunes with a makeover.
Now hundreds of years of tradition will come to an end at the site in the heart of Old Town if Swindon councillors approve plans to convert the prominent Grade II listed stone structure.
Swindon real ale campaigners yesterday called on councillors to carefully consider the heritage of The Bell, which they would like to see preserved as a pub, before consigning it to the history books.
Chairman of the Swindon and North Wiltshire branch of the Campaign to Save Real Ale (CAMRA) Hans Hoffbauer said: “The Bell is an important part of the historic fabric of Old Town.
“We want to see it preserved in the function in which it has been operating for as far back as 500 years.
“I feel it would take quite a bit of imagination to make this a viable, going concern. But it can be done.
“It is a large building with a lot of potential which could be utilised in many ways.”
Mr Hoffbauer said that Swindon Council had been sympathetic in the past towards pubs threatened with closure.
The case of The Bell, he felt, was especially important owing to its history.
He added: “We are not in favour of changing the nature of this building – we would not be happy if The Bell closed.”
Chairman of the Pipers Area Residents Association Colin Doubleday called for a full public consultation before a decision was made on such a significant planning application.
He said: “We want a wide discussion on this involving all the community – not just people who live in properties neighbouring The Bell.
“The Bell has been operating for as far back as 500 years; apart from a few farms in the area it is a business that has been running probably longer than any other in Swindon.”
While bearing the legend “1515” there is no hard evidence to show that a pub has existed on the site for almost half a millennium. However, there are documents showing that ale has been sold there for at least 370 years.
It is believed to be the oldest of Swindon’s three surviving ancient inns; the others being The Goddard Arms and the pub that is now The Steam Railway, both in Old Town.
The pub – whose distinctive bell which hangs above the door is a well-known Old Town landmark – was closed for most of last year before re-opening in November after a 14-week refurbishment.
However, just three months later The Bell was once more boarded up with a “to let” sign in the window.
Developer Christopher O’Connell has now submitted a scheme for a change of use from pub to shops and accommodation.
The proposals, which are likely to go before planners over the next few weeks, envisage seven mixed shopping units on the ground floor with with high quality hostel-style accommodation on the first floor.
The plan also involves extending the premises into an ancient courtyard.
The present building is around 200 years old, having replaced an earlier hostelry on the site.
Swindon’s planning officers felt the proposed arcade would “fully support and enhance the unique retail function of Old Town.”
Overall the scheme would provide “an appropriate mix of uses for the site, whilst developing it in a sensitive nature taking account of its historic context”.