Of Alehouses and England
Arise, Sir Tim!
The pub is fast becoming uninhabitable
Kingsley Amis, On Drink, 1971
Prior to the New Years Honours list, one Twitter user was baffled.
But many, myself included, were not. Martin will, in fact, be more responsible for the survival of pubs than any government of my lifetime.
Founded in 1979, you can now find a Wetherspoons in almost every town in Britain. They are favoured for one thing above all else; their prices. Taking in a pint there can cost half as much as other pubs, even in comparable chains. As successive governments have tried to price us out of our drinking habit, Wetherspoons stands athwart public health nannying shouting; stop!
The prices are so low because the business model focuses on quantity, and that focus on quantity gives rise to another reason Wetherspoons is loved; their buildings.
During the 90s, the business closed many of its’ smaller and less profitable pubs and prioritised much larger premises, often far larger than conventional pubs. The kind of buildings Wetherspoons targeted - large-scale, provincial, centrally located, often in need of refit – had fewer potential buyers, which reduced the cost per square foot. But they were often architecturally interesting; former courthouses, banks, churches, theatres, cinemas, trains stations, schools, post offices, ballrooms and prisons.
Although the primary driver is economic, not aesthetic, Wetherspoons receives praise for keeping buildings of interest like this open - and properly, publicly open, not the false openness of St Pancras or Admiralty Arch. It’s praise which they deserve thoroughly.
More, in fact.
Our provincial towns have lost a good deal of good buildings, often thanks to postwar planners aping the disdain for the realities of human occupancy that Waugh satirised through Professor Silenus in Decline and Fall. As Britain’s high streets have grown increasingly unloved, the buildings that Wetherspoons now occupy would likely, in most cases, have closed and never opened again. Soon falling derelict, the council would have flattened them or they’d have gone for housing.
Now no one could claim that every Wetherspoons is an architectural marvel. But most are good, solid, provincial buildings, and often hold the door open to local history. There is The Square Peg in Birmingham, which was built as a Lewis’s department store after the slum clearance around Corporation Street under Disraeli, who allowed local councils to buy up slums to clear and then rebuild them as part of his social reform initiative, which followed his Manchester and Crystal Palace speeches (many of these buildings were then lost to post-war planners). There is the Grade II listed Quayside in Newcastle, a 16th century group of timber framed houses and warehouses that is a rare remnant of the export infrastructure that made the city rich. There is The Winter Gardens in Harrogate, part of Baggerley Bristow’s 1897 Royal Baths complex which was used to allow the Victorian spa visitors who made the town rich to relax in all weathers. There are countless other Wetherspoons whose original uses are intrinsically tied to the history of the towns and cities they serve.
This appreciation for the needless grandiosity of Wetherspoons is a hangover from the Victorian drinking era. As Ian Nairn wrote in his famous essay for Architectural Review on the Crown and Sceptre in Marylebone, pubs are unique architectural spaces;
A pint of bitter can be just so much alcohol, and a bar can be just a bare room in which you knock it back. That’s existence. But the drink can be as subtle and as exciting as you wish, if you choose your brewery; and the room, as these pages try to show, can become a powerful spatial parable.
Most of the best pubs (I confine this to the urban type) were built during the pub building boom of the Victorian era, the result of rising demand from the increasing population in towns and cities combining with new wealth from the industries that employed them. These pubs helped shape our modern sense of what a pub is, and are exemplary of the Victorian habit of making things far grander than they ever needed to be - they’re extravagant, ornate, impressive; what need has a pub for etched glass, marble urinals, wood-panelled walls, mosaic floors or a tiled bar?
It’s also because Victorian pubs feature different sub-divisions, originally to separate drinkers of different classes or sexes, which created a complex space of different levels. These, as Nairn argued;
correspond to psychological levels and states in the imbiber - and the more he imbibes, the clearer do the levels get, up to the usual point of incapability…and that the effects are all well down in the subconscious does not make them any less viable.
The sometimes almost comical stateliness of Wetherspoons reflects those historical drinking habits, then - but it isn’t reflective of industry trends.
Which way, western drinker? Much of the wet-led hospitality industry is gravitating towards a more industrial aesthetic, often occupying converted industrial spaces like railway arches. Without exception, these achingly hip spaces serve craft beers named - with the tiresome, manufactured jocularity of half-witted urban creatives - things like Ruby’s round the corner, Wizard’s cuff or Thatcher’s grave marker. Their permeative, marketed and performative alternativism falls entirely into the category of tragical and try-hard. There is a reason Brewdog is cringe-coded.
But these faux-industrial spaces are also unpleasant spaces to drink in. They are often single, cavernous rooms, and lack the layered spaces which Nairn argued were ‘as necessary to long-term drinking as good beer’. Their hard surfaces and too-bright lights are anaesthetic, inhospitable, impersonal. A feeling of comfort, of ‘windows steamed with the breath of familiar voices, a friend waiting to make space on the sofa’ is impossible to foster in a space that’s more like a cold store than a living room – and that comfort is the reason that walking into your local (if you’re using it enough) feels like walking into your own front room. Likewise, it’s why the best pubs, after you’ve been more than once, give you a warmth of growing familiarity.
That’s why Tim Martin will have done more to save the pub than most governments of my lifetime. In an industry characterised by decline, Wetherspoons are not only surviving but thriving. Their popularity isn’t just because they are cheap; it’s because the welcoming alehouse is the living room of Deep England.
 Not that there’s anything wrong with housing!