Are the pubs dead because there’s a Wetherspoon nearby? Or is the Wetherspoon busy because the pubs nearby are dead?
A few weeks ago we got into a conversation about pub closures with Ray’s brother who is a data scientist.
As tends to happen, he started firing off suggestions for factors that might be measured to help us understand why more pubs close in some neighbourhoods than others.
One suggestion was proximity to a branch of Wetherspoon, the budget pub chain that dominates Britain’s high streets.
We’d considered this before, thinking specifically about how big these ‘superpubs’ tend to be.
What is reportedly the biggest ’Spoons in the country has 551 tables, with seating for about 2,000 people.
Down in Penzance, where we lived for six years, the Wetherspoon pub was three or four times bigger than most others in town.
If there are only a limited number of people to serve, and pints to sell, the opening of Wetherspoon is like several new pubs competitors opening at once.
Anecdotal evidence from the Bristol suburbs
On Saturday, we went for a wander aiming to advance our mission to visit every pub in Bristol. As part of that, one three-pub run seemed especially interesting:
- a recently refurbished Victorian pub
- an average-sized Wetherspoon
- another Victorian pub
The first and third were, frankly, desolate. In each we counted three customers other than ourselves.
The first was completely, eerily silent, except when the jukebox fired up every now and then with a promotional free play.
The drinkers, all older men, were sat as far apart from each other as possible, on their own, staring into space.
The third was notably cold and damp, with slug trails on the bench seating.
The atmosphere was more lively, thanks to a chatty chap at the bar, but it still felt as if it was in a state of decay.
Both looked, from the outside, like the kind of pubs less intrepid pubgoers might read as ‘rough’, though they didn’t feel it once the threshold had been crossed.
By comparison, the Wetherspoon felt like the Rio Carnival. There were hardly any free seats and a crowd standing around the bar. And the bar staff were rushing to serve a never-ending queue of drinkers.
From our corner, we watched meals, desserts, cocktails, shots and pints being ferried back and forth.
There was a warm pub hubbub, too, with drinkers of all ages, couples, groups of women, children, students, dogs…
We drank Thornbridge Jaipur (5.9%) and Oakham Winter Wisp (4.2%), both at £2.55 a pint. If we’d been on a tighter budget, we could have had Greene King IPA at £1.77.
The two more traditional pubs nearby were serving pints at around the £4 mark which is competitive for 2023 – but still feels pricey compared to ’Spoons.
The question we asked ourselves was this:
Is the ’Spoons stealing all the local trade, or picking up customers who would never have visited the other pubs anyway?
It’s hard to imagine that if the ’Spoons closed the clientele would decamp to the two nearest pubs, with their quite different vibe.
But perhaps enough drinkers would do so to bring them back to life.
On a Saturday evening in December, they’d probably rather have, say, eight customers than three.
Counterpoint: the Redfield retreat
What was our nearest Wetherspoon, The St George’s Hall on Church Road, Redfield, closed down in 2021.
Since then, at least one previously quiet local pub, The George & Dragon, has come back to life. And The nearby Old Stillage has been extended with more seating.
Our observation would be that neither pub has particularly gentrified, and both remain drinkers’ pubs, with no food offer.
In fact, the Old Stillage has replaced a former dining area with more boozing space.
Did ’Spoons disappearing release enough regulars into the wild to give Church Road a shot in the arm?
Or were the existing pubs strong and distinctive enough to see off the apex predator?
It would be good to move beyond anecdotal evidence and gut feeling.
What we’d love is to crunch some numbers. Jess is quite handy with a spreadsheet and with the right data sources we could easily identify patterns.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has a data set on pub closures between 2017 and 2022.
If we can find a similar set of stats for when and where branches of Wetherspoon opened, some correlation might emerge.
We have a limited number of copies of 20th Century Pub, now out of print, available for £12, including UK postage and packing.
It includes an entire chapter on the history and meaning Wetherspoon and the superpub craze of the 1980s and 90s.
We’re also including a free copy of Pierre van Klomp says “No.” with each copy.
Get your order in (by Friday 15 December if you want it before Christmas) by emailing email@example.com