For the past 25 years the Spyglass Inn on Ventnor Esplanade has been a popular haunt for locals and tourists alike.
But what many of the customers are probably blissfully unaware of is that while they are enjoying their drink or meal, they are sitting right above what used to be Victorian salt water baths, and several are still fully intact and nestling just under the floorboards.
Much has changed since those salt water bath days, and it was in 1987 that Neil and Stephanie Gibbs took something of a gamble by deciding to buy a building that had fallen badly into disrepair, and had been all but gutted by fire. But they were undeterred, and even though they initially had no plans to turn it into a pub, the following year the doors of the Spyglass were opened, and it has been a rounding success ever since.
There will be three days and nights of 25th anniversary celebrations at the Spyglass in March. So Island Life went along to meet Neil and Stephanie – and some of their long serving and loyal staff – to find out more about the building’s history, and why they embarked on such an adventure.
Neil recalled: “I was an antique dealer and property restorer at the time, and when this came up for sale it seemed a good idea at the time. When we bought it the roof had been burned off and there was a big hole in the sea wall. All the stuff the fire brigade had thrown out was along the sea front – it was a dreadful state.”
At the time of the fire, the building was being used as DHSS flats, and three tenants were still living there – but were swiftly moved on!
“We bought it because it was a building in a great position, and initially we thought we might turn it into tea rooms,” said Neil. “When we decided to have a pub the licence was opposed, but it went through in the end.”
Stephanie smiled: “Neil didn’t even have a jacket or decent pair of shoes to go to the licensing court, so he borrowed them off someone who was living with us at the time, just to look the part.”
After the licence was granted, Neil began the renovations – with Stephanie not too impressed – until she was ‘bribed’ with the promise of a new car when it was completed. It sealed the deal for her, and even though the work took a year to complete the new red Vauxhall Nova duly arrived as the pub was opened.
Neil added: “When we opened we didn’t really know what we were doing. On the opening night I was behind the bar for about 10 minutes, and that was enough for me – never again.” That was until we arrived, and Neil agreed to pull a pint for our persuasive photographer Laura!
However, going back to the 1830s, the building where the Spyglass now stands contained salt water baths for residents at the Royal Hotel, and now of course the two are linked by Bath Road. The five brick-built baths were preserved, but boarded over when the building became a boarding house in the late 19th century.
After the Spyglass opened Neil used his antiques expertise, knowledge and contacts to help create the nautical theme, which remains today. Now he and Stephanie are helped in the family business by son Henry, daughter Rosie and son-in-law Meg. At least one staff member has been working for them from day one, with a further 10 or so having been there at least a decade.
“We like to think we have steadily improved the place over the years. We have the terracing, and have built the Boat house, but there is always something that needs to be done,” said Neil. “When we started we had to grow with ideas we could cope with, and cope with the huge demand. Sometimes in the summer we can do as many as 1,000 meals in a day. So what we put on the menu is what we are able to do.”
Stephanie admits that within a couple of weeks she fell in love with the Spyglass, and has subsequently worked behind the bar, and helped with the cleaning, cooking and all the other duties that come with running a successful pub. But she accepts: “We could not have done it without such wonderful staff. We owe them a big thank you, and also a big thank you to our loyal customers.”
Neil and Stephanie’s families have strong Ventnor connections, with Neil’s grandfather and father both running a clothes shop in the town, which opened 90 years ago. Over the last 10 years the couple have also acquired the Mill Bay and the Met Wine Bar on Ventnor seafront.
But it is at the Spyglass where the 25th anniversary celebrations will take place on March 22, 23 and 24. There will be a variety of music to mark the occasion, with some of the artists appearing having worked at the Spyglass from the day it opened, including JC and Angelina and Johnny at the Piano. Cheers, and here’s to the next 25 years!