Sunday 1 November 2009

(In Praise Of) Wetherspoons

This may come as a shocking admission but I used to ‘collect’ Wetherspoons. You see, when you are a student you drink a lot and go to the pub a lot, but no one has the money to be lavish and open the finest bottles in the most lovely establishments; you have to make do. With Wetherspoons we could more than happily make do.

Wetherspoons are berated for their lack of atmosphere, the salubrious clientele (hideous drunks, hideously drunken girls, hideous girls, old boggle-eyed chaps and their boggle-eyed mates with their carrier bags), dodgy carpets, a general all-round cheapness, that smell (what is it?), the marauding binge drinkers in fancy dress every Friday and Saturday from 9pm… but as a student none of the above bothered me, in fact, I went there specifically for those reasons (there’s nothing like fitting in). The people in the pub generally make it what it is, which means that the value-shoppers of Wetherspoons (if Tesco only sold their value range would you go in there? Who else would be in there?) and the disinterested staff create the pub atmosphere and this is probably why there are so many haters. Look beyond this and see what you are actually getting and it’s really not that bad (open those value baked beans and they taste the same as all the others).

Some of the pubs are really interesting, too. They aren’t just soulless, silent, smelly holes, there are also interesting, silent, smelly holes. Old cinemas, old banks, old opera houses, all of them different - unique in their shape and size, if not their content. And the beer – I rarely have impeccably kept pints in there but it’s rarer that I get a too-bad-to-drink pint. A lot are Cask Marqued too (if this means anything) and they feature heavily in the Good Beer Guide (if this means anything).

I’m guessing the ‘collecting’ thing come about one afternoon/evening when we were half-cut and looking at a listing of all the pubs around the UK and the lightbulb turned on – we could go to them all! This developed into a little bit of an obsession and we never left the house without ‘the bible’, otherwise known as the Wetherspoons Directory. One day, now affectionately known as W11, we visited 11 pubs in the chain, starting in Staines and on the train in to Waterloo and then halfway around London. That was quite a day. We planned a W15 but it never happened. Or, perhaps I should say, it hasn’t happened yet…

I have some great memories of Wetherspoonses (I can't get my head around the plural...): an Old Peculiar in Reading (I didn’t order it but wish I had), a few holes of pub golf which deteriorated drastically, playing the IT box every time, shots of stupid-strong rum, an in-and-out shot of tequila on the way to a Blink 182 gig just to scoop the pub, bottles of Kopparberg after beer festivals. I ate there a lot too. I know the food is far from gourmet but it ain’t all that bad either: the value menu is superb for the prices; curry night is £6 well spent (one time, I ordered my curry and it arrived before I had even sat back down at the table!!) and beer and a burger is a regular pit-stop on a pub crawl.

I’m not a student anymore but that hasn't affected the rose-tinted vision I have of the chain and I think Wetherspoons get a bad rap. Sure I can see why, but I think they equally deserve a lot of praise – they promote real ale and, more specifically, they very often feature local ales. And it’s not just one or two rotating casks, most of them have eight-plus handpumps with over half changing as regularly as they are drunk. That’s good. It’s a shame that in the last few years their fridges have changed from interesting bottles of world beer to Eastern European lager and super-sweet fruit ciders, but so what, I go there for a choice in real ale, I go there for ‘value’, I go because I’m strangely drawn to them every time I see one (habitually/fly-shit) and I go because I almost always know what I’m going to get. The rest is part of the ‘charm’.


  1. Despite all the awful things I've read about Weatherspoons on UK blogs, I'd love to visit some! Preferably with some moral support/protection :D

  2. Nice post Mark. You can't really beat Wetherspoons when it comes to value for money. Called in to my local one today to check out the beer festival. Some interesting beers on AND I didn't have to wait long to get served!

  3. A good mate of mine is the bar manager at Westgate Wetherspoons in Canterbury. The beer is always interesting and very well kept. Yes there are a fair few undesirables in there but it is a decent enough place to start for a few beers on an evening out.

    Although I'm not the world's biggest fan of Wetherspoons pubs, the arguement that they often undercut and outprice other local freehouses is a nonsense. I don't think your average Wetherspoons only lager drinker is the kind of drinker who would be interested in supporting local freehouses specialising in real ale.

  4. Mark, in praise of Wetherspoons? Have you lost your mind?......

    (Ours local one seems quite ok, strangely)

  5. When I was a Londoner the JDW places I had access to were pretty horrid formulaic venues. It was easy to despise them when there were great pubs left, right and centre.
    My concern was if these JDW pubs lifted their game a bit and kept their competitive pricing they would pull the business away from the other good pubs and eventually force their closure. This would limit my choice as a consumer. But again its the same argument of Tesco vs the local grocer, butcher, fruit shop etc.

    I should emphasise that the Wetherspoons in West London are pretty grim - actually depressing.

  6. In praise of Wetherspoons?? Keep it up Englanders, soon all your pubs will be in American dive bar theme.

  7. Barry, they seem almost universally panned yet everyone still drinks in them... they aren't all that bad and at least you know you can get a few handpulled ales, which is better than a lot of pubs!

    Paul, value for money indeed! And if your local in The Humphrey Bean then it's not a bad one to be in - I'm still popping in every day waiting for the few must-have beer festival scoops.

    Pete, I'm very familiar with the Canterbury branches are both are pretty good. You do get interesting choices of beer and there's generally always something different on. And I don't think they undercut other places, because, as you say, they attract different drinkers - you know what you are getting with a Wetherspoons.

    Dave, your dichotomy above is the essence of this post.

    Tim, formulaic, yes, but they are part of a large chain. I didn't go to many out west so can't comment on what they are like. I think JDWs are stops on the way - I wouldn't go and spend a whole evening in one, rarely have I had more than 2 pints in one visit and that's where they work best.

    Wurst, if only we had more cool dive bars!

  8. I’ve never had a good experience, every time I’ve been in with the family for lunch (because I can’t think of anywhere else with a kids menu & I can have a beer) I’ve walked out thinking fuck the beer should have stayed at home and made a sandwich. As for curry night, Mark you must have got someone else’s I ordered onion bargee one evening as a snack one hour later when I asked were it was I was told they had run out! That was in the Weatherspoons Pub of the year two months after they won it!

  9. They certainly do get a undeservedly bad rap. What about all the grim, tatty pubs other pubcos have with worse beer and worse food? None of the genuinely scary pubs I've ever been in were Wetherspoons.

  10. 'Spoons, for me, are the best alternative to other student-orientated venues - such as the SU and Scream pubs - being good value and ale-focused. I like to think that my visit count will drop after I graduate and enter the world of earning a salary, but there will always be that pull of cheap, relatively decent beer calling me back.

    I think you hit the nail on the head here, Mark. They serve a purpose. They don't pretend to be fancy, extravagant and upmarket they just get the job done. For that, I too commend them.

  11. They do get an undeserved rep. As I’ve said before, I feel a lot of it is just sheer snobbery. The problem is that they are easily identifiable, which is both one of their strengths and one of their weaknesses. As has been pointed out, you can’t always easily tell when you’re in an Enterprise pub etc so bad experiences in those won’t spring to mind so readily.

    I don’t think there’s much wrong (in theory, anyway) with a chain offering cheap real ale, food all day and (usually) decent toilets. Also, they’re fantastic for the disabled, with everything from wheelchair access to Braille menus. Agreed they’re not always places where you want to spend the night, but I find them very useful in London. And having said that, they’ve just spent £850,000 restoring a Grade 11 building near me and it’s smashing.

    On a purely grammatical note, isn’t the plural of Wetherspoons just, er, Wetherspoons. As in the singular is also the plural and not as in Joneses, which is how you’re treating it. Or so my editor says, anyway.

  12. I had two excellent experiences in JDW last week as I said in my blog. Tarring them all with the same brush is just sloppy.

  13. At uni Wetherspoon's was notorious for meeting the most hideous/drunken/interesting characters ever. The usual suspect that pounced on us unsuspecting students would generally be along the lines of a one-eyed veteran sailor/war veteran/ex-KGB operative with very politically incorrect views and a hideous stench.

    But that said I'd rather go a real JDW with a shining array of hand pumps and great prices than ever go near a Lloyds bar again in my life.

    JDW have their flaws - in Leeds we have three that I know of, which go through the full range of awful to excellent - and whilst they might not be where we end up for an evening they certainly have their uses for a cheeky pint or two and a cheap burger (cheaper than a sandwich from the fancy deli near my work!)

    And there are some great beers on across them all at the moment too!

  14. When I've been jollying off around the world in search of new pleasures the W at Heathrow T1 is a welcome staging post before my final flight home to Ireland.
    And the beer is usually varied and pretty good.
    The W has been a huge influence in keeping Real Ale alive in Britain and the beer snobs who diss it are doing a disservice as well.

  15. Barm, exactly. I'd go to 'Spoons with their handpumped ales over all of those other chains which pride themselves on having draught Bulmers in over-sized glasses to allow for ice in the pint. Ridiculous.

    Shaun, I stepped over to the working side and my visits are still regular (although not quite as regular as they were!)

    Tyson, well put. I do like how they restore buildings, so long as part of the old charm of the place can remain. And I didn't think Wetherspoonses was quite right ;)

    Mark, there's always a character to be found! There's a guy who pretty much lives in the Rochester Wetherspoons called Brian who has his own facebook following!!

    Showbiz, Wetherspoons do a great thing for real ale in Britain, that's very true. Plus there's something familiar about them which makes me want to return to them rather than try to find a boozer around the corner which could be really awful.

    Go Wetherspoons!!

  16. I have a love-hate relationship with Wetherspoons, and won't visit one for months and then spend what seems like a complete week in them.

    Jeff P bashed one of Newcastle's branches earlier this week which even vouchers and a beer festival cannot tempt me into usually; however, the need for the loo after the toilets in Central Station have shut can, so it was only fair I stayed for a quick half afterwards. The young barman that served me was fantastic, very polite and attentive, which does admittedly make a pleasant change. The beer was drinkable if a bit bland, but it was a good temperature (not freezing!) and had plenty of condition. And as Mark said in the OP, at least you're often in an interesting building.