News

Historic cafe in heart of Oxford faces battle to survive amid eviction dispute with church landowners who want to press ahead with redevelopment plans


An historic and much-loved cafe in Oxford is facing a battle to survive as its church landowners are seeking to force it out to make way for a redevelopment plan. 

The Vaults and Garden, in historic Radcliffe Square, Oxford, has been a popular hang out for the local community and students since it opened 20 years ago.

But the cafe was given three months’ notice to quit in May by the owners of the site, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.

Now, the cafe’s owners, Fresh Connection Ltd, are being taken to court next month over claims they are occupying the site as trespassers.

A petition to save the café has got more than 9,400 signatures and the eviction dispute is set to be heard at Oxford County Court on November 14.

Owner Will Pouget, 48, was initially granted a 15-year licence for the café in November 2003 and has been operating under the same terms since it expired.

An historic and much-loved cafe in Oxford is facing a battle to survive as its church landowners are seeking to force it out to make way for a redevelopment plan. The Vaults and Garden, in historic Radcliffe Square, Oxford, has been a popular hang out for the local community and students since it opened 20 years ago. Above: Staff stage a protest outside the venue

An historic and much-loved cafe in Oxford is facing a battle to survive as its church landowners are seeking to force it out to make way for a redevelopment plan. The Vaults and Garden, in historic Radcliffe Square, Oxford, has been a popular hang out for the local community and students since it opened 20 years ago. Above: Staff stage a protest outside the venue

Owner Will Pouget, 48, was initially granted a 15-year licence for the café in November 2003 and has been operating under the same terms since it expired

But the church terminated this licence when it issued the notice period in May, which expired at the end of August.

Almost simultaneously, the grade I listed church, which attracts thousands of paying visitors every year to see the famous view of Oxford from the tower, has unveiled a redevelopment plan of the café’s facilities.

The church claims the scheme will ‘reduce energy usage, improve accessibility, enhance security’ and ensure the building was ‘fit to welcome all visitors well into the future’.

The café facilities are inside the Old Congregation House which was constructed in 1320 and is one of the oldest purpose-built university buildings in northern Europe.

Repairs to existing stonework, replanting of gardens, and expanded facilities are also planned.

They anticipate a new café, operated as a social enterprise, would open in Spring 2025.

The plans have been reviewed by the Diocesan Advisory Committee and the Church Buildings Council but a planning application on the delicate site has yet to be submitted.

The cafe was given three months' notice to quit in May by the owners of the site, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Above: The entrance to the venue

The cafe was given three months’ notice to quit in May by the owners of the site, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Above: The entrance to the venue

The PCC claims the plans have been in development for two years and that it had sought to engage the current café licensee constructively about its plans for some time but has not been able to reach agreement.

But, according to Mr Pouget the origins of the falling-out began during the Covid lockdown when he claims there was a dispute about rent.

‘We were in a very difficult position because we were completely closed during lockdown and the finances of the company were in tatters,’ he said.

‘I was struggling to pay myself, I was on a fraction of the salary I would normally be paying myself.’

He added: ‘The church put pressure on us to pay what I feel was an inflated rate of rent and that’s how the dispute started and I tried to negotiate better terms for the company.’

Mr Pouget said the café is paying the church £100,000 a year in rent but admits it paid less during pandemic lockdowns due to closure and a collapse in trade. 

He says he has also invested as much as £400,000 into the site and faces losing another £100,000 in redundancy liabilities.

Mr Pouget operates four other venues in Oxford but the Vaults and Garden is by far the biggest, representing 60 per cent of the company’s turnover amounting to £1.8million and is the base for 70 staff.

Mr Pouget insisted that his desire is still to ‘make things work’ with the church but claims that the vicar, The Reverend Canon Dr William Lamb, is ‘not willing to engage’ with him or the company.

Mr Pouget added: ‘We’re willing to find a settlement that words for both parties, we just need to be able to mediate and negotiate the terms of that, which is acceptable for both.’

The café’s closure would be a blow to its many loyal customers.

In September, Mark Pyper, the former headmaster at Gordonstoun where King Charles was educated, wrote a letter to the Oxford Mail saying: ‘I write with horror, matched only by my despair, on learning that the Vicar and Church Council of the University Church of St Mary are expelling with virtually no notice the current tenants of the Vaults cafe, which has provided a wonderful service for 20 years to its clients, both Oxford residents and visitors, many of whom are thereby drawn to visit the church itself.’

University Church of St Mary the Virgin. The oldest part of the church is the tower which dates from around 127

University Church of St Mary the Virgin. The oldest part of the church is the tower which dates from around 127

The centrepiece of Radcliffe Square is the Radcliffe Camera, which houses a library

The centrepiece of Radcliffe Square is the Radcliffe Camera, which houses a library

Izzie Kauer, a student at Magdalen College, said: ‘As a gluten-free eater, the options and flexibility that Vaults and Gardens offers are unbeatable’.

Rebecca F Kuang, author of the bestselling novel Babel, said: ‘The Vaults & Garden is near and dear to my heart and without doubt my favourite place in Oxford. 

‘I am devastated to imagine an Oxford without V&G and hope very much a compromise can be found.’

It also won the Best Café in Oxfordshire award in 2017 at the Oxfordshire Restaurant Awards. 

The plans come after a multi-million pound renovation of the church – including more than £3.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund – that was completed in 2013.

At the time, Reverend Canon Brian Mountford said that the renovation would ‘see St Mary’s through the next fifty years’.

A spokesperson for the PCC said the café was in ‘urgent need of attention and must be redeveloped to reduce any potential harm to this ancient historic building’.

And they insisted there had been ‘prolonged attempts by the PCC to achieve an amicable resolution with the current licensee’ but the Mr Pouget had refused to accept a revised license fee proposed in 2018 and the average licence fee he had paid since 2016 was £69,000 per year. 



Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button