Context 138 - March 2015

18 C O N T E X T 1 3 8 : M A R C H 2 0 1 5 NIGEL CROWE The Wetherspoon collection Over the past 36 years the pub chain J D Wetherspoon has bought and repurposed an astonishing collection of often unloved but significant historic buildings across the UK. If you arrived by train in a town you had not visited before the chances are you could soon find aWetherspoon pub. The successful pub chain is renowned for good value, real ale and developing quirky historic buildings in town centres the length and breadth of the UK. J DWetherspoon owns 936 pubs and 31 hotels scat- tered across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Before long, the chain is aiming to own 30 pubs in the Republic of Ireland. Six newWetherspoon’s have opened in 2015 already. One of the latest is the White Horse in Brigg, Lincolnshire, a former pub dating from around 1800 on the edge of a conservation area in this small town of some 6,000 people. Often referred to in the press as a ‘pub giant’ (although several other chains are far bigger),Wetherspoon owns less than two per cent of the UK’s 55,000 or so pubs. Like any high street brand (andWetherspoon’s branding is more subtle than some others), it occasionally divides opinion, but probably no other pub chain has invested so much in so many unconventional listed buildings. The Wetherspoon portfolio represents an eclectic collection of British architectural styles and building types.They range from timber-framed inns to Edwardian banks, art deco cinemas, classical corn exchanges, gothic revival churches, along with theatres, shops, snooker halls, courts and, incredibly, a still-functioning opera house. According to Wetherspoon, typical redevelop- ment costs are around £1.5 million for each property, although the company recently spent £2.44 million developing the handsome Grade B listed Saltoun Inn in Fraserburgh, Scotland. The story began in 1979 whenTimMartin, a barrister and real ale buff, decided to open the firstWetherspoon pub in Muswell Hill, London.That has been sold on and the oldest survivingWetherspoon is now the Rochester Castle in Stoke Newington, owned since 1983. Tim Martin’s philosophy was: why buy up pubs that other brewery companies don’t want? It stuck. Although Wetherspoon does acquire existing pubs, it has gone out of its way to collect a large number of interesting properties in key locations which have been developed to optimise its business. In the early daysWetherspoon’s property people drove up and down the UK’s high streets looking for promising sites. Nowadays agents and councils are likely to seek out the company, such is the recognition of Wetherspoon’s success at restoring and maintaining buildings that were often redundant and had no obvious future use. A browse through its free magazine ( WetherspoonNews, Winter 14/15) reveals a genuine pride in its achieve- ments.There is a ‘Dear Tim’ letter from a local history society suggesting a ‘look behind the scenes’ at some of Wetherspoon’s historic buildings (a Heritage Open day opportunity, perhaps?); a feature on the unveiling of a Transport Trust Red Wheel plaque on a former car factory (now a Wetherspoon pub, of course); and The former Avion Cinema,Waldridge,West Midlands. Designed in a provincial art deco style in 1938 by Birmingham- based architect Roland Satchwell, it was acquired byWetherspoon in 2013. (Photo: Gillian Evans)