On the afternoon of Sunday 6th of September 1998 the congregation at Salem Baptist Church in Clarence Parade met for the very last time for their worship. The Salem Baptist Church had been holding religious services for 154 years. The church was consecrated in 1844. Although structurally secure, the fabric of the building had fallen into disrepair and needed about £200,000 to return it to its former glory. The last overhaul was in 1981 when a new sanctuary was opened on the first floor. The Reverend David Gamston said: “we want to spend our resources on people not on property.” He added, “This has been a good home over the years. It holds a lot of fond memories for a lot of people but we’re talking about the future and it’s God who holds the future. It’s a new future and we’re looking forward to it.”
The church secretary said: “We are not making any comment on the use of the building will be put to. God has led us this way. We did not invite any of this but we were approached and we have been guided.” One member of the congregation, a church-goer since 1951, said: “The concept of a pub goes against the grain.”
It was bought by Allied Domecq and nearly £1 million was spent on the 17-week project to convert the Salem Baptist Church to a pub. The carved first-floor balcony and three ceiling roses were retained in the refurbishment and the two 30 feet front doors, believed to be the tallest chapel doors in the country, were also integrated into the design. The two-floor pub was built with two bars, with a replacement balcony built around the outer edge giving diners a birds-eye view of the bar area. The Festival & Firkin was opened on 18th February 1999 by Cheltenham Lib Dem MP Nigel Jones. A development manager for Allied Domecq said: “We like to tie the name in with the location and our researchers discovered that Cheltenham has more festivals than anywhere else.” He added, “It’s obviously a listed building with a lot of character and we’ll do everything we can to keep the original features.”
The refit included some unusual interior bric-a-brac with the famous Cheltenham Festival being represented by plastic dummies of the Queen and Prince Charles dressed as jockeys sitting on horses. During the Cheltenham Festival in March 1999 the dummies were driven around the town raising a few eyebrows. A clever marketing strategy promoting the newly opened pub. However, the branding as the Festival & Firkin was short-lived. The Firkin pub chain had been set up by David Bruce and the initial concept was to convert pubs into spartan beer houses with the emphasis on beer brewed exclusively on the premises. Dogbolter being the core beer throughout the estate. It was a formula that worked well and caught the attention of big brewer Allied Domecq who bought the brand in 1991with 15 pubs and expanded the business model into their own property portfolio. Pubs like the Festival & Firkin never had an in-house micro-brewery. Essentially the once successful Firkin concept had run out of steam, familiarity breeding contempt. The Festival & Firkin may have been the last pub to open in the chain. Another factor is the pub chain had transferred ownership from Allied Domecq to Bass Leisure Retail, the new company keen to dissociate from Allied’s brands.
An application in October 2000 for the extension of licensing hours to stay open until midnight from Thursday to Saturday was refused. Cheltenham Borough Licensing granted a public entertainments licence restricted to 11am to 11pm on Monday to Saturday and 12pm to 10.30pm on Sunday. A spokesman for Gloucestershire police said: “Our objection is that if the extension is allowed it will cause far more problems. If pub-goers are given an extra hour of drinking they could come out of the premises in a very boisterous mood.” Fears were also expressed that later hours would increase the likelihood of beer glasses being knocked over or thrown over the first-floor balcony onto the ground floor where other customers were drinking. Following the refusal of the extension of permitted hours the Festival & Firkin closed at the end of October 2000. It was announced that the property would undergo a £200,000 refit and be re-branded under Bass’ “It’s A Scream” label to appeal to the student market.
In November 2000 Derek Goddard, columnist and raconteur for the Gloucestershire Echo, noted that something was unusual in the brand-new signs being positioned on the building opposite his Echo offices. He wrote: ‘I thought my eyes were deceiving me until I saw two passers-by who had clearly noticed the same thing. It looks as though there is going to be a name change when it reopens because high on the wall above the door there has appeared the title THE PULLPIT in huge letters. Now I have heard of the pulpit as in a church – which I imagine is the connection – and I wonder if they have simply mis-spelled it or whether they really mean THE PULLPIT. If they do, the mind boggles as to what it is supposed to mean.’ Cheltenham Mayor, Daphne Powell, said at the time that the new name was distasteful and encouraged students to be promiscuous.”
But a spokeswoman from Bass said that the sign had been accidently spelt wrong. She said: “There has been a mistake with the pub sign. The pub was always intended to be called ‘The Pulpit’ with one L to reflect the building’s previous history as a church. We apologise for any offence which may have been caused and the sign will be taken down in the next few days and replaced with one with the correct spelling.” It had been changed by the beginning of December. Maybe it was a genuine mistake, but what an excellent free marketing opportunity.
In October 2001 the permitted drinking hours were extended until midnight but an extension of the public entertainment was refused. A spokesman for Cheltenham Borough Council’s licensing committee said: “We’ve taken the view that as it is more residential than any other pub in town, we have chosen to refuse the application for extra hours.” Bass Retail Group had then changed their name to Six Continents. An area manager for the company indicated that an appeal might be lodged.
A minor refurbishment took place in August 2001 with routine work brightening up the toilets and the bar area. Eight months later in April 2002 another refurb remodelled the bar giving it a more contemporary look and ‘to bring it in line with the rest of the pubs in the chain.’ It is thought that the handpumps associated with the Firkin real ale range were removed during the £100,000 facelift. A third application to apply for a late licence for dancing until midnight was submitted to the licensing committee. Gloucestershire police stated that there would be no objection providing that a CCTV system was installed. A spokesman for Pulpit said: “We are a pub and we just want people to be able to dance here after 11pm. It won’t make any difference to the noise levels as our customers are already allowed to drink and listen to music until midnight” There were some objections from neighbours. The owner of the adjoining Greek restaurant was concerned that it was an attempt to create a nightclub by the back door but was resigned to the fact that there was little that he could do. The application was given the green light.
Yet another application for extended entertainment and licensing hours was refused by Cheltenham Borough Council’s licensing committee in April 2005. A bid had been made by new owners Mitchell & Butlers for the venue to turn into a late-night 70’ theme bar called Flares with closing time at 2.30am. It was agreed that the extended hours would have an impact on the local residents with excessive noise levels when the customers left. An appeal was lodged at Cheltenham Magistrates Court. One resident claimed that “her life was hell. You can’t sleep on any night except Sunday. We’ve had graffiti. We’ve had things thrown at our door, our wheelie bins overturned. We get people throwing up in our doorways”
In May 2006 Inventive Leisure Services Limited applied to Cheltenham Borough Council for a premises licence ‘in respect of Revolution, Clarence Parade (presently trading as The Pulpit)’. The application requested the same hours as those granted to the Pulpit. The new look venue opened in September 2006 and invited guests were treated to an opening Casino Royale theme-night where Bond girls welcomed them as they walked a red carpet, being snapped by fake paparazzi before being greeted by stilt walkers and fire eaters. Inside the cocktails flowed and hostesses with the Midas touch shimmered in gold paint to hand out free shots of the bar’s flavoured spirits. In a little over eight years the building had gone from a religious place of worship, through a brief period of being a pub to a trendy fun bar. Cheltenham Borough Council licensing committee received another application by Inventive Leisure Services, owners of Revolution, in January 2007 for an extension of the entertainment licence until 1am every night. One local resident said: “They said it was going to be aimed at older drinkers but it’s full of drunk students. It wasn’t as bad as this when it was the Pulpit.” The plans were dropped and a spokesman for the solicitors acting for the company said: “In the light of the representations, the applicants do not feel it appropriate to pursue the application any further at this stage.”
A ’Pub Talk’ (January 2007) review in the Gloucestershire Echo described Revolution as being ‘at the smart end of Cheltenham’s pubs. Revolution is a vodka bar chain. It has been going for 10 years, but with its neo-Russian mirrors and jaw-dropping chandeliers, it’s worth a visit. There’s lots of seating on two floors and DJ’s six nights a week. Saturdays are for over-21’s only. And don’t even think about wearing caps or trainers.’ It added, ‘Monday’s Vodfest is Revolution’s vodka party night, aimed at under 25’s and students. The drinks are cheap and the DJ spins old-school anthems. If you are in your late 20’s check out the super-stylish Saturday night crowd, or zip in suited and booted for a cocktail after work.’ The conclusion was that ‘your granny wouldn’t like it or those looking for a quiet pint of ale and a catch up with the locals.’
A fresh application was submitted to the licensing committee in December 2007 seeking permission to extend the permitted hours for the sale of alcohol and the provision of late night entertainment, Monday to Sunday 10.00 until 01.00, and the provision of late night refreshment until 01.30.
Revolution closed at the end of September 2013 for yet another refurbishment, opening again on the 5th October. The new-look venue was rebranded as the Vodka Revolution Bar. The bar was re-decorated, and a new cocktail bar was added. On the opening night guests were given a party with their “brand new cocktail shakerbooth, mini masterclasses, music, canopes, drinks reception and much more.”
On the menu (November 2013) were a range of burgers with names such as ‘dirty dog’, ‘bourbon bad boy’ and a Ranch Burger which was served on a brioche bun piled with a slice of crisp back bacon, American cheese, chipotle sauce and generous pulled pork. A reviewer concluded that the ‘menu isn’t breaking any gastronomic boundaries but by and large it’s a safe bet.”
A quarter of a million pounds investment to the Revolution in Cheltenham was completed in time for the Queens Platinum Jubilee in 2022. Opening on Thursday 2nd June the refurbishment included specially designed murals that, when the doors are open, can be seen from the street. Suspended from the ceiling are special effect LED lighting with laser cut-back metal screens in the private booths with bespoke 3D sculptures. Revolution even has a designated VIP area comprising five tables, plush leather seating and a ‘living ceiling’.
General manager of Revolution in Cheltenham, Adam Moody, told the press: “We’ve always been proud to be part of one of the most beautiful Revolution bars in the brands extensive portfolio and the refurb just takes it to new heights. It’s going to be stunning. The former church building has given us the perfect canvas to create something special, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”