A very crooked development…

A very crooked development…
Photo (c) Chris Green

Black Country folk awoke this morning in shock to the news that the iconic former pub “The Crooked House” had been set ablaze late last night.

For many people elsewhere, this sounds like a bit of a ‘non-story’, after all, there are lots of buildings that catch fire, right? Well yes, but there is something very suspicious about this one, and its not just me, many others have noticed the same.

The Crooked House

The Crooked House, nr Himley, Dudley

The story began earlier this year when pub owner Marstons Breweries put the Crooked House up for sale, along with 60 other sites.

Earlier in July, the Express & Star reported that due to a break-in, where thousands of pounds of damage was caused, the pub would close its doors for good.

The landlord of the iconic leaning watering hole between Dudley and Himley, Lee Goodchild, took to social media this weekend to explain that due to a break-in at the site on June 25, and with the building being on the market, the doors were now closed.

He said that someone had broken into the pub and caused “tens of thousands of pounds” worth of damage to windows, doors, furniture, bathrooms, the kitchen and spirit bottles.

The Himley Road site is among 61 pubs being sold off by the owners, the Wolverhampton-based Marston group.

The tourist attraction had only recently been given a new lease of life after being given a much-needed makeover.

The Facebook post stated: “To all customers and guests. Unfortunately due to the damage done after the break-in and now Marston’s sale of the site, I have been told I can no longer trade or operate at this site.

“Landmark Crooked House public house forced to close after burglar wrecks bar, kitchen and bathrooms” – Express & Star, July 9th 2023

Just over a week ago, it was reported that Marstons had completed the sale of the property to an un-named buyer, who intended to use the building for ‘alternative use’ and thus was unlikely to open to drinkers again.

According to a post on the Stourbridge and Halesowen CAMRA page by the current landlord, the building in Himley, which has been there since 1765 has been sold by owners Marston’s.

The quirky building, which suffered mining subsidence but was made structurally safe in the 1940s, was once dubbed ‘Britain’s wonkiest pub’ and in its heyday attracted drinkers from across the globe. It stands in an isolated location, close to Himley just off the B4176 and is reached down a long gravel track.

It was famed for being the place where coins and marbles seemingly rolled uphill along the bar but the iconic former farmhouse was listed for sale earlier this year, with a guide price of £675,000, one of 61 pubs being sold off by the Marston’s group.

In recent years The Crooked House has struggled to attract the amount of custom it once did and in recent years it’s location has become a target for fly-tippers, repairs also need doing to the access road approaching it and it is believed Marstons were reluctant to keep it open for those reasons.

A Marston’s spokesman said: ““We are pleased to confirm the sale of The Crooked House has now completed. At this stage we’re unable to disclose any details on the buyer or price.”

“‘A great shame’ as Crooked House pub set to be redeveloped for ‘other use'” – Express & Star, July 28th 2023

Last night (5th August 2023), firefighters were called when a local man reported the pub was on fire.

A photo posted on Facebook showed the famous venue ablaze late on Saturday, with flames and smoke pouring out of the 18th century building.

Staffordshire Fire & Rescue Service said the call came in at 10pm. Six crews from both Staffordshire and West Midlands Fire Service were at the scene.

Ash Smith witnessed the blaze and called the fire service. He told the Express & Star: “I went up to my yard to check on my horses and could see a lot of smoke coming from the area of The Crooked House so we drove closer to have a look and could see that it was on fire.”

He added that the lane up to the pub off Himley Road between Dudley and Himley had been blocked, leaving firefighters unable to get their vehicles up close to the blaze.

Speaking shortly after midnight, he added: “It is still on fire now. Six fire engines are there and they are pumping water all the way down the lane with hoses and pumping water from the local stream.”

“Fire engulfs The Crooked House pub – flames and smoke seen pouring out of iconic building” – Express & Star, August 6th 2023

Note the remark about the lane up to the pub being ‘blocked’. By whom and for what purpose, is currently unknown, but just adds to the level of suspicion.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this pub and it’s location, it is almost literally in the middle of nowhere, accessed via a long narrow lane from the B4176 Himley Road, surrounded by woodland and a former quarry.

The Crooked Development

Quite what the new owner intended for this site is currently unknown, but it could be suggested that the ‘alternative use’ didn’t require the building as it currently is.

The Crooked House has been a Grade II listed building since 1960. *

Now anyone who’s ever bought a listed building will know about the rigmarole you have to go through, with regards to planning permissions, and listed buildings are also protected from being demolished to make way for new building(s).

So let’s say you’ve just bought a listed property on a site you’d like to redevelop. How can you easily bypass building regulations and planning permissions?

Well, it’s probably as easy as arranging for someone to start a fire in the building, let it burn to the ground, and have the fire service arrange for the rest to be demolished due to being ‘structurally unsound’. Let’s also say that having recently purchased the property, you’ve taken out insurance to cover any loss incurred as a result of criminal damage or arson.

A police investigation has of course begun, and fire investigators are still working to establish the cause.

Corruption runs deep, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the police close the criminal case for “lack of evidence”, and the fire investigators determine the cause of the fire as “unknown” or “accidental”.

(Quite how an isolated, unoccupied property ‘accidentally’ catches fire will forever remain a ‘mystery’)

Meanwhile, the new owner(s) – once the dust has (in this case literally) settled – have themselves a nice bit of land, which they can then do what they want with. Maybe they’ll have a few ‘luxury’ homes built, which could fetch a high price in such a secluded ‘quiet’ location, and they’ll easily make a huge profit on their investment.

But no thought or care given to this historic building that has stood there since 1765, survived collapsed mine-workings and of course the ‘Great Dudley Earthquake’ of 2002, the epicentre of which was at nearby Brick Kiln Lane.

A little piece of Black Country history is now gone, conveniently removed in the name of ‘progress’, just to line some greedy developers’ pockets.

Not the first, and won’t be the last

I’m pretty sure this goes on all the time though, and you may find similarities with other such ‘developments’.

When I heard about this story this morning, I immediately remembered what happened with the Vale Onslow shop on Stratford Road, Sparkbrook, in January 2018.

After selling their building to developers, which they had occupied since the 1930s, the motorcycle company closed up and relocated to new premises on January 19th 2018.

On Sunday 28th January, in the afternoon, a fire ‘mysteriously’ broke out in the building, which later had to be demolished by Birmingham City Council, as well as a number of adjoining properties.

The cause of Sunday’s ferocious blaze that destroyed a row of empty shops on Stratford Road, Sparkbrook, remains a mystery.

The three-storey building had, from the 1930s until recently, been home to Vale Onslow Motorcycles Ltd.

But on January 19, the company shuts its doors – moving to a new base in Bordesley Green after selling its former site to developers.

On Monday, we told how the buildings would need to be demolished after they were deemed ‘structurally unsound’ following Sunday’s fire.

A tweet by Birmingham City Council read: “Due to demolition work required following yesterday’s fire, Stratford Road will be closed between Kyotts Lake Road and Henley Street today.

“Please avoid the A34 if possible and allow extra time for journeys. Signed diversions will be in place.”

The fire service was praised after racing to the blaze in just three minutes.

On Sunday, West Midlands Fire Service Group Commander Martin Ward-White, said: “We received a call at 1.50pm to reports of a building fire, above a row of shops on Stratford Road.

“We attended in three minutes two seconds, and immediately started fire fighting actions.”

“Vale Onslow family left heartbroken after former business destroyed in mystery Stratford Road fire” – Birmingham Mail, 30th January 2018

Yes, that one also smelt very fishy, and on that occasion it was remarkable just how quickly the fire service attended (were they tipped off or given prior warning?)

You’ll find this kind of thing happens far more often than most people notice. And you have to wonder just how far the level of corruption goes.

Correction: it seems that the building isn’t actually ‘Grade II Listed’ as was claimed in several news articles.

The National Heritage List for England has a number of buildings with the same name listed on its website as being of Grade II status, which is where the confusion appears to come from. However those buildings are in Gloucestershire, Suffolk, Hampshire and Dorset.

BirminghamLive also contacted Historic England to clarify the situation. It confirmed The Crooked House was not listed.

“Is The Crooked House a listed building?” – Birmingham Mail, 7th August 2023