20th Century Pub pubs

Is there a Wetherspoon effect?

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:

  1. a recently refurbished Victorian pub
  2. an average-sized Wetherspoon
  3. 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?

Pending data

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.

Our book 20th Century Pub plus the zine Pierre van Klomp says now for £12 together.

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


What’s going on at Wetherspoon?

After a long stretch without, we visited three Wetherspoon pubs over the weekend. Does any other type of pub prompt such strong feelings or such debate?

As we said on Twitter a few weeks ago, after a run of dismal experiences in Wetherspoon pubs in 2018-19, we struck them off the go-to list.

There were various problems.

For a good run, even at the once impressive flagship central Bristol pub, we just couldn’t get a decent pint. Beers we knew were good tasted bland, and beers we didn’t know tasted rotten.

The fallback option of a bottle from the fridge became less appealing with things like Tucher Weissbier disappearing from the menu.

Even the cheap-and-cheerful food began to seem like bad value, with miserable chips counted out onto the plate, or meals served cold.

The buildings began to feel tatty, too, as if a round of maintenance had been skipped to save money.

And the weird, all-pervasive Brexit propaganda posters and magazines didn’t help the vibe. Why were these pubs so angry?

Then the pandemic came. As our pub trips became fewer and further between, other pubs naturally took priority.

So, what did we find this weekend?

Jess visited The Robert Fitzharding in Bedminster with the local CAMRA women’s group. “Try before you buy!” was the advice the group gave her: “Some of the ale tastes like vinegar.”

She ended up drinking Ruddles, the default option in most Wetherspoon pubs for years now, and…

“Do I like Ruddles now? Has the beer changed or have I?”

Like its Greene King stablemate, Ruddles seems lighter and cleaner these days with a refreshing bitter finish. It still has that hot rubber, ripe apple thing going on, but with the power of good condition behind it, is a satisfying traditional pint.

And when it’s 99p a pint, you do feel like you’ve pulled off a heist.

The pub had the now customary sticky tables and slightly chaotic atmosphere, as if operating with about two-thirds of the necessary staff, and the clientele was a mixture of students in large groups and old men on their own.

Meanwhile, across town, Ray was at The V-Shed, a ‘Spoons in a converted industrial building on the harbourside.

This was never a favourite of ours among Bristol’s various Wetherspoon branches. It’s part of a waterside crawl popular with stags and hens and lacks the essentially pubby feel of The Commercial Rooms or The Berkeley.

Ray also found sticky tables, ketchup under his elbow, and staff who looked on the verge of breakdown. Saturday afternoon, though, is bound to be like this.

His pint of Butcombe Citra, at £2.49, was fine, if a bit warm.

“This feels more like a pub than the last place,” said Ray’s mum. “It’s got a carpet and you can hear each other speak.”

Acoustics are a thing they invariably get right, and which hanging out with people in their seventies really makes important.

Finally, on Sunday, we wandered to the village-suburb of Hanham where we ‘ticked’ The Jolly Sailor for our #EveryPubInBristol challenge.

The Jolly Sailor is one of those mid-period ‘Spoons pubs, the kind we remember drinking in as students and after university, with blue livery and gold script on the sign.

It was busy but peaceful with mostly older drinkers chatting in groups as diffuse sunlight warmed them through big windows.

Ruddles was, again, surprisingly, delightful, this time at £1.49.

Adnams’s Ghost Ship (£2.10) was good, too – a reminder of what a great beer this can be, full of citrus zest.

The tables were spotless and polished and the in-house mag sat there looking harmless, with a cover feature about Curry Club rather than, say, DOES TRUTH MATTER? We didn’t dare look inside, though.

Among many strange, fascinating things about JDW pubs is the status they’ve acquired in the stupid culture war.

As we’ve said before, love them or hate them, they’re now an established part of the pub landscape.

They serve different communities in different ways but right now, especially, offer a way for people to enjoy a session in the pub for less than a tenner.

If you’re competing with Wetherspoon, that’s no doubt frustrating, but that’s not a problem the majority of drinkers are currently in a position to do much about.

At the same time, they have, on the whole, got worse. Standards have slipped.

And those prices can only now be achieved and maintained by reaching beyond efficient, into stingy.

In the current touchy climate, that feels as if it might be a controversial statement, but we can only speak as we find.

We wrote at length about the history and significance of the Wetherspoon chain in our book 20th Century Pub. Do check it out if you haven’t already.

20th Century Pub pubs

Wetherspoons as public forum

We think about Wetherspoon pubs a lot. You can’t be British and do otherwise, really – they’re an institution, on almost every high street.

Lately, we’ve been consistently disappointed by the experience of drinking in them. They seem tatty, the quality of the offer declining, presumably as they struggle to retain the all important bargain prices as the cost of products go up.

But every now and then we’re reminded why they’re so popular: as truly public spaces, ordinary pubs and working class cafés disappear, Spoons fills the gap.

A week to so ago we found ourselves in a branch in east London with a few hours to kill, beginning at breakfast time.

It was quiet, you might almost say tranquil, full of natural light and the smell of ground coffee.

One man was there before us, and left after, leaning on a posing table, steadily downing pints of lager, conducting business on his phone: “I got a box of them Fred Perry’s coming in next week, and another load of them summer shirts – yeah, yeah, perfect for out and about in the day, nice fit for an older bloke.”

Another man came in, ordered coffee and a bacon roll, and then worked his way around the pub showing off a watch in cellophane, part of a new line. We couldn’t hear his patter, just the responses: “Lovely. How much? How many can you do? Alright, mate, I’ll give you a call Tuesday.”

An elderly man ordered his breakfast and a mug of tea using the phone app and when a member of staff brought it over, adopted a mock-posh accent to say, “I say, what what, jolly good, Jeeves! Any messages for me with the porter?” The waiter-barman laughed politely.

A gang of construction workers arrived, head to toe in orange, and apparently exhausted. They ordered full English breakfasts, teas and energy drinks, and colonised a corner.

A student bought a fruit tea and took an hour to drink it as she worked on her laptop.

A party in suits came in just before lunch, ordered lagers and wines, and rehearsed a sales pitch complete with slide deck.

People charged their phones, read newspapers and books, used the toilet, and generally treated the place as if it were a library or community centre.

The manager didn’t seem to object to the relatively small amount of money going over the counter. In fact, they made a point of reminding us that a £1.60 cup of coffee was bottomless.

What’s the idea here? To send a message, we suppose: if in doubt, go to Spoons. Whatever the occasion, whatever you want to eat or drink, whatever the time of day, wherever in the country you are, go to Spoons. You won’t be hassled or judged or, indeed, paid much attention at all.

It’s clever, that. Other pubs – proper pubs – might learn something from that.


News, Nuggets & Longreads 15 December 2018: Slavery, Philosophy, Wetherspoon Museum

Here’s everything that grabbed us in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from American history to donkeys in pubs.

First, picking up on the topic of the day, the BBC’s Chris Baraniuk has investigated the question of cashless pubs and bars in some detail. This line seems like the key to understanding the trend:

Ikea found that so few people – 1.2 in every 1,000 – insisted on paying in cash that it was financially justifiable to offer them free food in the shop cafeteria instead.

Monticello by Martin Falbisoner | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

For Good Beer Hunting Dr J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham has written an absorbing piece about Peter Hemings, the enslaved man who actually did the brewing with which President Thomas Jefferson is sometimes credited:

With several years of experience, Peter Hemings came into his own as a maltster and brewer, and may have taught these trades to other enslaved men in Virginia. On April 11, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “Our brewing for the use of the present year has been some time over. About the last of Oct. or beginning of Nov. we begin for the ensuing year and malt and brew three, 60-gallon casks successively which will give so many successive lessons to the person you send… I will give you notice in the fall when we are to commence malting and our malter and brewer is uncommonly intelligent and capable of giving instruction if your pupil is as ready at comprehending it.”

The Beach Bar

Martyn Cornell has attempted to tackle the world’s thorniest philosophical conundrum: what’s the difference between a pub and bar?

In the New Town where I grew up, all the estate pubs had been built to look like New Town homes on steroids, following the ‘pub as a home from home’ idea, but their newness stripped them of any of the ‘sense of permanence and continuity’ that all the pubs in the Old Town had dripping from every brick and beam, and they felt like zombie pubs, lifeless and without character. A bar, in contrast, never feels ‘homey’: indeed, I’d suggest that the slightest pinch, jot or iota of ‘a home-like character’ turns a bar into either a pub or a teashop.

Warpigs in Copenhagen.
SOURCE: The Beer Nut.

We were intrigued by the Beer Nut’s observation that Copenhagen has become ‘Mikkeller World’:

Last time I was in town, the brewer’s retail outlets consisted solely of the little basement bar on Viktoriagade; now there are over a dozen premises in Copenhagen alone, with more worldwide.

And that’s not all – even flights in are awash with the stuff.

A side order of nuggets

Victorian illustration of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters.
Classics corner: Charles Dickens’s ‘dropsical’ inn

We promised to flag some famous bits of beer and pub writing and this week’s piece – one of Jess’s absolute favourites – is the description of a London riverside pub that appears at the start of Chapter 6 of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend:

The bar of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters was a bar to soften the human breast. The available space in it was not much larger than a hackney-coach; but no one could have wished the bar bigger, that space was so girt in by corpulent little casks, and by cordial-bottles radiant with fictitious grapes in bunches, and by lemons in nets, and by biscuits in baskets, and by the polite beer-pulls that made low bows when customers were served with beer, and by the cheese in a snug corner, and by the landlady’s own small table in a snugger corner near the fire, with the cloth everlastingly laid. This haven was divided from the rough world by a glass partition and a half-door, with a leaden sill upon it for the convenience of resting your liquor; but, over this half-door the bar’s snugness so gushed forth that, albeit customers drank there standing, in a dark and draughty passage where they were shouldered by other customers passing in and out, they always appeared to drink under an enchanting delusion that they were in the bar itself.

Finally, here’s an old Tweet that’s new to us:

If you want more, check out Alan’s Thursday ‘beery notes’ and (thankfully back after a hiatus) Stan’s Monday links.


News, Nuggets & Longreads 6 January 2018: There’s a New Year for That

So it’s 2018 and apparently we’re still doing this every Saturday morning: rounding up all the news and commentary on pubs and beer that’s caught our attention in the past week so you can digest the very best with your weekend brekkers.

First, a bit of news, as broken by Will Hawkes for Imbibe: the industry-funded ‘There’s a Beer For That’ campaign is morphing into something else, abandoning consumer advice and engagement in favour of hard-nosed anti-beer-duty campaigning. From where we’re sitting this move makes sense: TABFT never quite came together, and bringing down the price of a pint seems to us to be about the only thing the beer industry might realistically campaign for that could increase pub-going across the board.

Wetherspoon pub sign, Penzance.

This next piece was actually published last summer but passed us by until it was included in a year-end round-up from At the Table and thus went mildly viral. In it Megan Nolan looks back on how, heartbroken and broke after the end of an intense relationship, she fell into the arms of that notorious seducer J.D. Wetherspoon:

On weeks when I wasn’t working, I went to a Wetherspoons near my house to apply for jobs. Limitless refill coffee saw me through to lunchtime, and then a soup and half baguette for £2.30. The pub had the atmosphere of a barely-maintained care home mid-morning. I stared in appalled awe at the elderly Irish men who congregated each day, faces livid with booze. I remembered stories my dad had told me about men in his hometown who had moved to London and failed to find regular work. They lived in abject poverty in shared bedsits, but when they came home for a visit to Ireland would scrape together enough to buy drinks for everyone at the bar – they so badly wanted to pretend they had made it. What was going to happen to me?

Fuller's Vintage Ale 2016.

We’ve been without fully functioning internet for almost a week (it’s back now) which meant we missed the window to turn a casual Tweet from New Year’s Eve into a quick blog post. Fortunately, Alan McLeod did the heavy lifting instead, reflecting on whether the high prices being asked for old bottles of Fuller’s Vintage Ale in any way reflect it’s value:

On beer trading marketplace, if it truly had that value I should be able to sell it back to Fullers or at least my government retailer for something expressing the wholesale current value. It’s been kept in a cool dark cellar and subject to optimum protection. As usual, my claims to provenance were impeccable. If I go back through my tax records I would likely be able to find the receipt for buying it. I expect it would say I spent something like $6.95 CND. Yet… the box was gone and the label encrusted with a bit of mould. Who would want that? I couldn’t sell my Captain Scarlet Dinkie toys in that condition – and I wouldn’t anyway so stop asking.

FWIW, all we wanted to do was make sure our friends knew that the bottle of beer they were about to sling into the bathtub full of ice for general consumption during the evening’s debauch might deserve a little more ceremony in its consumption. Which, we guess, is part of the marketing value for Fuller’s of putting those seemingly mad price-tags on the beer. That and, as Alan suggests, encouraging people to buy twelve of the new batch rather than the usual three, just in case they might one day pay for a house.

Illustration: Testosterone.

We really didn’t know whether to link to this last piece from Bryan Roth for Good Beer Hunting or not. When we bookmarked it for inclusion it had yet to acquire any baggage — we just liked that it highlighted a different, less pointed idea of exclusion in the beer industry, which is to say not active harassment or directed prejudice but rather a constant background blokeishness that might be quietly off-putting to anyone other than a certain type of blokey bloke. That’s something we recognise in the UK industry, too, though of course it takes a slightly different form here.

Since then, however, the article has generated an enormous amount of drama and criticism, ranging from nitpicking complaints about journalistic protocol and structure (it is a bit of a ramble), to the now obligatory outrage over supposed ‘political correctness’, spiced with accusations of hypocrisy.

But let’s keep this simple: we read the article, we found it interesting, it is an attempt to prompt people to do the right thing, and we admire Mr Roth’s discovery of a new angle. It’s up to you whether you wish to engage in the wider soap opera but, as an article in its own right, it’s worth seven minutes of anyone’s time.

Marble Brewery beer mat.

Manchester brewery Marble is engaged in a dispute over a lovely but confusing beer called Pint which it sells not only as a cask ale but also in 500ml cans. Jim at Beers Manchester offers a heartfelt, understandably partisan summary of the situation:

Because a product – a beer – has a name “Pint”, it would appear that it would be ill advised to sell it in 1/2 litre cans. Because ONE PERSON reported it as being potentially misleading. Because its name was in bold – and the measurement information was in the same size as most other canned beers… So. Change size or rename an iconic Mancunian Pale Ale? … [If] it’s the latter, I’d like the numpty who reported this to Trading Standards to reveal him/herself. And explain the thought process that leads to a small business having to change something so special to me – and many many others.

(Much as we understand the frustration, as with the Tiny Rebel situation before Christmas, we find ourselves out of step with the general mood here. For one thing, we’ve always found Pint a pain in the arse to order in a pub — “Pint and a half of Pint, please” is vaguely amusing the first time but quickly palls — and, for another, can’t imagine anyone expecting Trading Standards, which after all has yer actual legislation to enforce, to give AB-InBev a pass in the same situation.)

The Session, that venerable institution that some say predates the invention of the internet itself, is in a spot of bother this month as the intended host didn’t get round to organising a topic due to a small matter of California wildfires. But at the last minute one of the co-founders, Jay Brooks, has stepped in with an emergency topic for Session #131, or rather three short topics. If you have a beer blog, or want to, now’s your chance to join in. We’ll be posting something later today.

We’re going to wrap up with one of our own Tweets — a poll, in fact, to which more than 700 people responded. For now we’re not going to offer commentary other than to say that this is a reminder of how dominant pessimistic voices can seem, and how unpersuasive they apparently are.