It has been five years since Joel Cadbury and his longterm business partner, Ollie Vigors, acquired the Bel & The Dragon chain of country inns and restaurants out of administration, and the pair has worked tirelessly to instil new life into the original venues, while also expanding with some striking new outlets. Hospitality Interiors’ Gemma Ralph caught up with Joel and Ollie to find out more about the venture, the inspiration behind the interiors, and their future plans.

Could you tell us a little about your professional background to date?
We have been in the leisure industry for many years and acquired Bel & The Dragon out of administration five years ago. It was a group of four beautiful buildings with great heritage and had historically been a success, although in recent times it had been terribly neglected. We saw an opportunity to bring the original buildings and business back to life and also to add new Bel & The Dragons to the group. 

What would you say has been the highlight of the project thus far?
In terms of Bel & The Dragon, it is probably the transformation in Cookham, which had almost no custom when we took it on and is now the most successful site in the group.

Could you tell us a little more about Bel & The Dragon at The George – what drew you to this particular venture?
It is in the historic village of Odiham, in the Hart district of Hampshire. Bel & The Dragon at The George is a Grade-II star Listed building that retains many of its original features from as far back as 1540.

We were drawn to the venture as we had a good knowledge of the area since Joel and Nicola Harding, our interior designer, were both born there. We have completely renovated the building and believe that it now offers a cosy and classic interior including a historic bar, stunning restaurant and 10 beautifully appointed bedrooms.

What do you look for in a potential venue?
Neglected interesting buildings/ businesses that are in need of TLC and in areas that we know a bit about – this is generally in the A3/M40 corridor. Ideally we like sites with a bar, separate restaurant and up to 10 bedrooms, so that we can re-create a traditional country inn.

How do you approach the interior design of each venue? Would you say there are consistent design elements throughout the venues or are they very much separate entities visually?
Each site is unique, for example Bel & The Dragon in Godalming unravels in a deconsecrated church, while Reading occupies a former biscuit factory, and Churt, with 14 bedrooms and a three bedroom cottage, has always been a hotel (once owned by TrustHouse Forte).

Whilst the physical premises are different and throughout the process we try to maintain the buildings’ charm and character, you can definitely tell that you are in a Bel & The Dragon if you have been to one before. This is predominantly down to the signage, menus and other branded items, but also to some of the fittings, which we have used in more than one venue.

Do you have a particular favourite, design-wise, amongst the existing venues?
Bel & The Dragon, Godalming is certainly a favourite – it is a spectacular site, formerly a congressional church built in the 1600s. We are so pleased to have been able to invest properly in the building, to restore it to its former glory and hopefully much more.

What has been the most challenging aspect of this venture, for you?
Dealing with buildings that are Listed.

What’s next for Bel & The Dragon?
We will be opening a new site in Kingsclere, early in the second quarter of 2015 and are looking to add other sites to the Bel & The Dragon group in the near future.