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‘Living my dream’ - how community pub has thrived as it passes 190 years

PUBLISHED: 16:26 02 March 2020 | UPDATED: 16:26 02 March 2020

General manager Steve Fiske and owner Mike Lorenz outside The Whalebone pub in Norwich. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

General manager Steve Fiske and owner Mike Lorenz outside The Whalebone pub in Norwich. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

When the Whalebone pub first opened, William IV sat on the throne and police forces were being set up for the first time.

The Whalebone caught in the background of an old wedding photograph. Photo: Submitted/The WhaleboneThe Whalebone caught in the background of an old wedding photograph. Photo: Submitted/The Whalebone

The Magdalen Road pub has remained a mainstay in its community since it opened in the 1830s, as both the world around it and its customers have evolved.

And despite a challenging climate for pubs, it has passed more than 190 years in business - and its team are determined to enjoy a future in its long-established home.

Owner Mike Lorenz took over in 1992, having been in the trade since 1976, and was joined by its general manager Steve Fiske in 1994.

The pair have worked together ever since, forging a pub which is home to several local groups, sponsors the Old Catton Cricket Club, runs wine and rum tastings, organises a popular charity beer festival and is a go-to for sports lovers.

The Whalebone pub in Bullards days. Photo: SubmittedThe Whalebone pub in Bullards days. Photo: Submitted

Mr Lorenz, 76, said: "We see ourselves as a community pub which has survived. We are still investing to try and meet the needs of the public, which are changing every day.

"To a degree the Whalebone is living my dream, because it encompasses all the things I wanted to create in a pub."

He said a key shift during his career had been the number of women visiting pubs, saying the industry had been "very male orientated" but had benefitted from efforts to make them welcoming for everyone.

Others include the move away from cash - they say 60pc of their take over the counter is now on cards - the smoking ban of 2008 and a decline in the number of people drinking out.

The Whalebone in Norwich. Picture: Denise BradleyThe Whalebone in Norwich. Picture: Denise Bradley

But Mr Lorenz said nothing could replicate the atmosphere of a local pub.

"People say now that you can go to the supermarket and buy this and that there, " he said, "but the fact is in the supermarket you can't get the whole package you get in a pub and that interaction between customers."

While some pubs have opted to specialise, carving themselves out a niche, the Whalebone instead intends to cater for all.

"Our view is we don't need to specialise in any one genre of what people drink," he said. "We want people to come in, we don't mind what they drink."

The Whalebone general manager Steve Fiske. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe Whalebone general manager Steve Fiske. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

That variety is visible - part remains a traditional pub drinking area, including original features, while a separate space is now dedicated to a modern wine bar.

For Mr Fiske, 50, the day to day of the pub might have changed, but the end result hasn't. "People want to be a part of this, and people enjoy it," he said. "Seeing that it very rewarding."

The history of the pub - and the new face of NR3

The Whalebone pub general manager Steve Fiske. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe Whalebone pub general manager Steve Fiske. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The pub is believed to have opened around 1830, though some maps show buildings on the site as early as 1824.

According to Norfolk Pubs, a website which details the history of many of the county's watering holes, its first landlord was Richard Sexton, who ran the business until 1846.

The adjacent garage to the pub was originally a brewhouse and was believed to have had the longest single oak beam in the country running its entire length.

It is believed to have changed hands more than 20 times over the following decades, until in 1993 it was taken on by Mr Lorenz, and managed by Mr Fiske from 1994.

Recent years have seen a boom in popularity of the NR3 area - house prices have risen as young families and couples flock to what has become a trendy area. But that rush has brought competition.

"Some of those pubs which weren't competition previously have had money invested in them," Mr Lorenz said. "But it keeps us on our toes. Not only that, but it drives people into the area."


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