A pub famed for its rabbit warren of nooks and crannies has been sold to a Chelsea-based pub group for a record price of £4.5 million.

The distinctive Lion and Lobster pub in Sillwood Street in Brighton is believed to have become the most expensive pub in the city after being sold to the City Pub Company.

The popular pub which has a range of different rooms over three floors has been owned by actor Gary Whelan since 2001.

The sale will be a considerable mark-up for The Bill star who bought the property from friend Jack Harding for less than £1 million.

Regulars are being reassured that the pub's new owners are keen to “stick with the formula” that has made the pub one of the city's most popular and packed drinking establishments.

Mr Whelan, who is best-known for his role as Detective Inspector Haines in The Bill and who appeared as headmaster Brendan Kearney in Ballykissangel, has now moved back to his birthplace of Dublin.

The Lion and Lobster is one of Brighton's oldest pubs dating back to the 19th century and was previously known as The Olive Branch and The Rockingham.

It will be the first time that the London-based City Pub Company have bought a pub in Brighton and Hove and expands on their portfolio of establishments they own in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich and Stratford-Upon-Avon.

The City Pub Company is the latest venture of pub entrepreneur Clive Watson after selling his previous firm, the Capital Pub Company, to brewers Greene King for £70 million three years ago.

James Grimes, of licensed leisure specialists AG&G who acted for the buyers, said the £4.5 million price tag was “groundbreaking” not just for the city but also the country with very few establishments selling at such a price.

Previous high pub sales in Brighton and Hove were around the £2 million mark including the Wick Inn in Western Road, the Good Companions in Dyke Road, the Pub Du Vin in Ship Street and the Post and Telegraph Wetherspoons in North Street.

Mr Grimes said that his client was interested in buying more pubs in the city and favoured traditional establishments.

He added: “There are not many in the pub trade like The Lion and Lobster, there cannot be that many that do the business they are doing.

“It is an institution and I have always known that the pub was a gold mine.

“The owners approached me, the market is very strong at the moment and I think they thought it would be a good time to sell, and my client had been looking at Brighton if the right deal came along.

“The Lion and Lobster was sold by Irish actor Gary Whelan, who has made a name for himself playing police officers on shows such as The Bill, EastEnders and Prime Suspect - I think it's safe to say both sides consider the deal a fair cop

“Essentially, they want to stick with the formula that has made the pub such a success over the years.”

The seven-figure deal is set to be completed next week.