Spoonsgate

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

We’re not quite sure why restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin chose to review a branch of Wetherspoon in her new column for the Sunday Times but she did, and didn’t like it.

We haven’t been able to read the column because it’s behind a paywall so won’t comment on it directly except to say that from the generous quotes the Morning Advertiser has permitted itself here it does seem that she was offering a genuine reaction to the quality of the food. If you’re skint, one of those quotations suggests, the chippy is cheaper and better — a sound argument and surely one that (as intended) goes someway to mitigating accusations of pure snobbery.

But, still, this delicate rebuttal by the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush for the i newspaper chimed with us, bringing back memories of our teens and early twenties:

I’m not going to pretend that I adore the food at Wetherspoons, but it has, nonetheless, been responsible for some of the best meals of my life. When I was working in a shop and gradually tunnelling out from under my overdraft, a monthly treat for me and the rest of the staff was a trip outside of the store’s catchment area (where we could be certain of not bumping into any of the clientele) to have dinner at Spoons… It wasn’t good, but it was affordable, we could sit down without being hassled to move on and, crucially, you pay separately and upfront, with no anxiety about who was paying for what.

This got us thinking about how often Wetherspoon pubs are (to paraphrase a favourite line of the Pub Curmudgeon’s) distress destinations — somewhere you end up out of convenience, as a compromise or because, yes, you’re skint.

We often have a great time in Spoons but that’s usually because it’s so quick, easy and cheap (per Stephen Bush) it takes all the stress out of deciding where to go so you can concentrate on having fun with friends and family. You can walk in with a party of eight, including a teetotaller, a vegetarian, a conservative bitter drinker and a craft beer geek (actual case study) and be sure that everyone will have a reasonably good time, and that nobody will come away feeling ripped off.

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

But, at the same time, any one of those people, if it was entirely their choice and money was no object, would probably choose somewhere else.

Of course it’s not always a compromise. The lure of interesting festival beers makes Spoons the go-to place at certain times of year; some of the buildings are beautiful, important and/or atmospheric; and (controversial opinion klaxon) we’ve yet to have better chicken wings than theirs, and — believe us — not for want of trying.

More generally it’s fascinating how much coverage Spoons gets in the mainstream press, and how many clicks those articles seem to generate. It is very close to a universal British experience these days, after all, and heavy with cultural symbolism in the age of Brexit.

There’s a full chapter on Wetherspoon’s in our new book20th Century Pub, and as a result (disclosure) it’s apparently reviewed or at least mentioned in the upcoming edition of Wetherspoon News. We’ll be acquiring a copy or two of the magazine for posterity.

An Extraordinary Gentleman: the Brand New Victorian Pubs of Roddy Gradidge

MAIN IMAGE: The Markham Arms in 1976 © Klaus Hiltscher, used with permission.

The architect and interior designer Roderick ‘Roddy’ Gradidge was both a conservative and a wannabe Teddy Boy proto-punk. Though he worked on all kinds of buildings, and wrote several books, he is usually described in short-form as one thing: a pub designer.

We’ve put together this profile based on the newspaper archives we were able to access, online sources, and the books in the ever-expanding Arthur Millard Memorial Library (our box room). As such, consider it a work in progress: when we get chance, for example, we’ll visit the RIBA library and see if we can come up with a more comprehensive list of his projects. Here’s what we know for now.

John Roderick Warlow Gradidge was born in Norfolk in 1929 but grew up in India where his father served in the colonial army. Young Roderick came back to England in 1943 to attend Stowe under the headmastership of J.F. Roxburgh. Writing in the aftermath of Gradidge’s death the writer A.N. Wilson, a friend, suggested that Roxburgh was a key influence on Gradidge’s character:

When one thinks of the flamboyant gallery of talent fostered by that schoolmaster – Peregrine Worsthorne, Antony Quinton, George Melly, – it is hard not to feel some connection.

Flamboyant is certainly the right word: Gradidge, who everyone describes as ‘huge’ or ‘massive’, started wearing an earring in 1955 and ‘longed to be a Teddy boy’, donning the uniform drape jacket, sideburns, tight trousers and suede brothel-creepers and devoting himself to rock’n’roll.

Continue reading “An Extraordinary Gentleman: the Brand New Victorian Pubs of Roddy Gradidge”

Us on Estate Pubs

Detail from an unused book cover: a pub in black-and-white.

When we started work on 20th Century Pub a few years ago the intention was to write a 20,000 word e-book about post-war pubs in particular. We even got as far as mocking up a cover, above.

The book we eventually wrote takes a much wider view but has a substantial chapter on ‘mod pubs’ and by way of a supplement, we’ve written two original pieces on the same topic.

The first is in the latest edition of The Modernist subtitled ‘Gone’ which launched late last week and is available can be ordered from their website or picked up in specialist design bookshops such as Magma in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. We gather it’s a very small print-run, though, so if you want a copy, get a bend on. (We’ll also make this article available to Patreon subscribers at some point soon.)

The second was published today at Municipal Dreams, one of our favourite blogs, and includes some quotations we didn’t get to use in the book, such as this by Geoffrey Moorhouse from 1964:

At the moment, whereas Shotton has five pubs, five working men’s clubs, and a cinema, Peterlee hasn’t even got a cinema. The ones who do come, so they say in Peterlee, very often stay for only a year or two, until a cottage becomes available in their old village, and then they’re back off to it with without any apparent regrets of the exchange of a modern semi for a period piece straight out of the industrial revolution.

We can’t say any of this — all the research, thousands of words — has got the obsession with this type of pub out of our system. If anything, it’s intensified it. No doubt there’ll be more on the subject here from time to time.

Partial Pub Preservation: Hermit Micropubs?

Many historic pub building are too big to be sustainable but could micropubs be the answer to their salvation rather than, as now, merely added competition?

We’ve been thinking quite a lot about the problem of big old pubs in recent years. Many of them, especially those built between the wars, were constructed on the principle that one smart new pub replacing five old beerhouses was the way forward — easier to manage, easier to police, brighter and more airy. In practice, that wasn’t conducive to creating atmosphere, and they were both difficult and expensive to maintain as buildings. Which is why so many are now branches of Tesco or McDonald’s or whatever.

In 2014, we suggested this might be preferable to abandonment or dereliction because at least the building is occupied and cared for, and can be appreciated in its setting, even if you can’t get a pint. But, in emotional terms, it is sad to see, and we kept wondering if there might be some way to keep at least one part of those pubs operating for the benefit of boozers, behind a proper pub-like facade.

Then researching the new book (all good bookshops, always be closing, etc. etc.) we visited the Fellowship in Bellingham, south London, and heard about the current owners’ pragmatic plans to divide the vast building for use not only as a pub but also as a music rehearsal space, a microbrewery, a cinema, and so on.

At the same time, we’ve got to know micropubs — in fact, our new local, the Draper’s in Bristol, is a notable example of the trend. At their best, they can feel more pubby than many echoing, empty, over-grand pubs, focused as they are on beer and not much else. And, as passion projects, they often come with a warm glow and unique character missing from corporate, managed establishments, harking back to the days of Thompson’s Beerhouse.

So, putting two and two together, here’s our suggestion: developers in the process of converting pubs for other uses should be encouraged to make one part of the building available for use as a micropub, even if the rest becomes a fast food outlet, supermarket or nursery. After all, most of the pubs we’re talking about have, or had, multiple rooms and certainly multiple doors, so the separation between residential occupiers and/or shop customers ought to be quite easy.

The Greenford Hotel, west London.

Quibble #1: ‘Developers are mercenary cynics — why would they ever do this?’ Perhaps for the same reasons they chose to include a brewpub at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford. (DISCLOSURE: Boak’s little brother works at Tap East.) That is, partly because beer is cool and having a pub/bar/brewery on site sells the ‘experience’; and partly because it helps with planning negotiations — a contribution to the community in exchange for the right to invade its space and change the character of the area. In other words, it’s a PR exercise, but that’s fine by us if the outcome is anything other than no pub at all.

Quibble #2: ‘Micropubs are awful — middle-class, middle-aged, not proper pubs.’ This would be somewhere in between, wouldn’t it? It would probably — hopefully — keep the old name and sign; and might even, if we’re lucky, retain at least part of the pub’s original interior, even if the rest has been turned over to self-service customer interaction nodes. And the perceived middle-classness of micropubs (debatable) helps with the planning negotiations as what is thought (rightly or wrongly) to be a respectable type of pub replaces pubs that have invariably become the very opposite.

Quibble #3: ‘This is Quisling collaboration with the enemy! No compromise!’ Skilled, determined campaigners with the support of heritage organisations and local government can win this kind of battle to keep pubs going, and it seems to be happening more and more often, but there are still places where forcing a huge old pub to remain a huge old pub, though it might feel like a victory, is just prolonging the misery. A pub with room for 300 drinkers, but where 300 drinkers are not be found in the surrounding streets, is going to struggle even if it is saved. But there might be 30 potential regulars, if not in the immediate area then perhaps a little beyond, such is the allure of the micropub to a certain kind of drinker. This is a way of keeping a foot in the door.

But, anyway, this is us thinking aloud again in the hope that (a) people might tell us if and where this has already happened or (b) point us to, say, planning documents which explain why it hasn’t. So, go for it!

The Alpine Gasthof: Let’s Crack This

We’ve been working on an article about German Bierkellers in English towns in the 1970s and as a side quest found ourselves looking into one of the UK’s weirdest pubs: The Alpine Gasthof, Rochdale.

We’ve never been, though it’s very much on the wishlist, but Tandleman wrote about his visit earlier in the year:

Perhaps the oddest of Sam Smith’s pubs is its take-off of a German local pub, uprooted it seems, in looks if nothing else, from Garmisch or some other Alpine resort. Only it is in Rochdale. Not only is it in Rochdale, but it is on a busy main road, which if you follow it for not too long, will take you to Bacup. This is the Land that Time Forgot. Don’t do that… Not only is it incongruously in Rochdale, but it is in a less than salubrious part of town… The pub has the usual German style high sloping roof and inside is, well, a sort of pastiche of a German pub, but done, unusually for Sam’s, sort of on the cheap.

Although there are lots of photos, and though everyone seems quite fascinated by the place, there don’t seem to be many concrete facts. When was it built? Why?

We didn’t hold out great hopes for any information from the brewery which is notoriously tight-lipped but did get this, which is a start:

The Alpine Gasthof was built in the 1970s (don’t have the exact date to hand) because the previous pub we had on that site had to be demolished for road widening. To have a bit of fun we decided to build a pub modelled on the Brauerei Gasthof Hotel in Aying, Germany because at that time we were brewing Ayinger beer under licence.

We can well imagine Sam Smith’s execs going to Aying during licence negotiations and being charmed by the original, pictured here in a shot taken from the gallery on the hotel website:

Brauereigasthof-Hotel-Aying exterior.

Although, oddly, the pastiche doesn’t look that much like it. Here it is photographed in 2013, via Ian S on Geograph.org.uk under a Creative Commons Licence:

The Alpine Gasthof, Rochdale.

With a bit more to go on we reckon we can guess that the date of its construction was around 1972, at the tail-end of the theme pub craze (Further reading: Chapter 5 in 20th Century Pub) and just as the German Bierkeller trend was kicking in. That’s also when Sam Smith’s started brewing Ayinger-branded beers. But we’re awful short on actual evidence. We thought this might be something…

Google Search result.

…but there are two problems. First, though Google Books has the date of publication as 1972 the particular issue referencing the Alpine Gasthof might be from, say, 1978. We’ve come across this problem in the past. It’s hard to know until you have the journal in front of you, fully readable. Secondly… It says Wetherby, Yorkshire. Surely some mistake? But, no, apparently not — there is at least one other (slightly odd) reference to an Alpine Gasthaus in Wetherby, giving the address as Boroughbridge Road, LS22 5HH. That led us to this local news story about the burning down in 2005 of the Alpine Lodge, a two-storey chalet-style building in Kirk Deighton (Wetherby). There are various other bits out there including this interview with the couple who ran it for several decades and a teasingly indistinct photo taken from a moving car in bright sunlight on this Facebook nostalgia website. We’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here, with some tweaks — hopefully no-one will mind.

The Alpine Inn AKA the Alpine Lodge.

What a bizarre building to find there on the side of the A1.

And that leaves us with two Alpine-style Sam Smith’s pubs to be puzzled about.

So, do drop us a line if you know anything concrete about the origins of either pub (that is, not reckonings or guesses); have friends or family members who might have drunk in them; or live near either Rochdale or Wetherby and fancy popping to your local library to look at newspapers for 1972.