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The Globe and Mail

Lord Nelson pub in England closes amid owner-operator dispute

When British naval hero Horatio Nelson wanted to hold a meeting with his crew or celebrate a military victory, he often headed to The Plough pub in Burnham Thorpe, a small village in eastern England where he was born in 1758.

Nelson lived much of his life in Burnham Thorpe and the pub eventually changed its name to The Lord Nelson in honour of his many victories, including defeating the French and Spanish navies in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The tiny pub is still standing, complete with the same long benches Nelson sat on and the original stone floor, which has been worn down by centuries of footsteps. It's become something of a national treasure and a landmark in Norfolk, which prides itself as "Nelson's county."

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But now a dispute between the pub's owners and the operators has thrown the future of The Lord Nelson into question.

Last week, bailiffs descended on the 380-year-old building and closed it amid allegations the operators had left and stripped the inside of numerous historic artifacts. Today, the pub looks abandoned and eerily empty. A wooden sign in front that featured a picture of Lord Nelson has vanished and a small notice posted on a window by the door says simply; "Sorry. Pub Temporarily Closed."

"The whole village is upset," said David Black, a long-time resident who belongs to the Friends of Burnham Thorpe. "It's not exactly a world heritage site but there are people all over the world who love Nelson and who feel they have Nelson links and just feel absolutely shocked at what's happened."

Mr. Black said conservation officials have begun to examine the building and they are working with the community to figure out what artifacts have been lost. He has also posted pictures online that show what little has been left inside the pub. Gone are dozens of photographs, decorations and fixtures that gave the place its character. Mr. Black said someone tried to unscrew some of the wooden benches from the wall and a few have been battered into fragments.

"It just feels like it's bordering on vandalism. There are historic items that have been smashed about like Ikea furniture," he said. "It's a huge shame. You had the feeling when you went into that pub of exactly how it was when Nelson was here. … It's a very real connection with Nelson's time."

The owner, pub giant Greene King PLC, has declined to discuss details of the dispute but the company has promised to reopen the pub with a new licensee. In a statement, a Greene King spokesperson also said the operators owned many of the fixtures and the company tried to buy them but the offer was rejected.

The former operators, Peter and Deborah De Groeve, ran the pub for about 10 years. They have declined to comment other than to tell local media that they only took what they owned.

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That hasn't satisfied many villagers who still want answers to what happened. The parish council is meeting Monday and will discuss the fate of the pub, but for now there isn't much it can do.

"It's out of our hands," said Tom Wheeler, the clerk of the council. "We're certainly very keen that the pub be restored to its former glory."

He added that the closure of The Lord Nelson has hurt the village, which relied on it as a tourist attraction. "The pub's such a tremendous asset to the village it's just very saddening really," he said. "It undeniably does draw people to the village. It brings tourists in, which helps the businesses in the village. It's a real feature. It's a real cornerstone of the village. So yeah, there's some worry about."

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