In this piece from Umbrella issue 12, Giles Milton pays tribute to JD Wetherspoon, the pub chain that’s defied its critics to become a much-loved staple of the British high street
Not so long ago, over a bottle of Vedett and some hand-cooked crisps, I sat with an old friend admiring a bright blue January vista over Camden Lock in north London.
Inside the pub where we were sitting, a selection of characters created a busy lunchtime hum. Hip, pierced exchange students devoured pulled pork buns, ageing rockers queued for jugs of guest ale and two young mums tucked into soya and pomegranate salads. The walls were dedicated to the local history of canal and market trade.
This boutique pub ambience was only let down by the very prominent adverts for Wing it Wednesday and Thursday night’s Curry Club. Welcome to JD Wetherspoon in 2015.
Mere mentions of the ’Spoon’s may have some spilling their Brooklyn lagers in indignation, such is the contempt held for chain pubs, let alone an establishment built on beer and burger deals.
But this particular lunchtime, my companion and I pondered whether the mighty Wetherspoon has ascended to national treasure status. It’s certainly a modern business phenomenon – ducking the trend for pub closures and growing unstoppably over 35 years.
Born from one Muswell Hill boozer in 1979, founder Tim Martin now has over 900 establishments across Britain carrying the Wetherspoon banner (Wetherspoon being the name of one of Martin’s teachers who said he’d amount of nothing, the ‘JD’ from JD Hogg in TV series the Dukes of Hazzard). These include many listed buildings, from former banks and theatres to ex-churches and a former swimming pool, plus less charming options like the M40 services.
With cheap food, cheap drinks, big-screen sports and an absence of music, this champion of austerity Britain could easily have become another soulless addition to the struggling high street, amid the betting chains and charity shops.
Yet step inside one and you find a slice of our modern, diverse country. True, Fosters may still be on tap, but it sits alongside local craft ales and random foreign bottled lagers. Dietary requirements are all met. Hours are as long as they can be. Fish and chips comes with bread and butter, and a cuppa. Wetherspoon is everything to everyone, at a price anyone can afford.
In a Wetherspoon’s pub you’ll see people from every walk of life: families, elderly couples, youngsters, Brits, Europeans, rich, poor. Not only has the ’Spoon’s become a modern hub for ‘normal’ Britain, affordable for all and catering for the needs of the everyone, but rather than offering generic crap it’s actually the biggest supporter of microbreweries in the UK, bringing bottles of Vedett to people who would struggle to find it in 95 per cent of all other UK pubs. Like Five Guys, its burgers are never frozen. Unlike Five Guys, you don’t have to queue for 45 minutes outside to taste them.
Everyone has their own Wetherspoon’s story.
Mine stretches back to student nights at the grandiose Beckett’s Bank in Leeds, with its Victorian gothic exterior and Rhinos on the big screens. The College Arms in Peterborough, with its ‘interesting’ odour, was the venue of my first date with my future wife.
The Capitol in Forest Hill, a magnificent former theatre filled with vested middle-aged men and a coffee bar, was our cheap breakfast or lunch of choice when struggling to save for our first house. I hear that the Capitol is now closing, to be developed into something depressing, like a theatre.
A national treasure? Perhaps. But, like it or not, JD Wetherspoon has slowly become part of the cultural fabric of Britain. And if that means getting two bottles of Vedett and a packet of crisps for under a fiver in central London, I’m in.
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