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The Sir Titus Salt, former Wetherspoon pub in Bradford, credit Wikipedia

Front Loading,
by Bill Hartley

It’s not hard to find a Wetherspoon pub in our larger towns and cities. There are more than 800 of them in Britain and Ireland. Last year the company reported its largest ever volume of sales over the Easter weekend. The low price, large scale business model works well and the collapse of so many city centre enterprises has provided lots of premises for the company to choose from, when creating a new branch.

Wetherspoon is noted for breathing new life into buildings by adapting them for the licensed trade. In Liverpool, for example, there are three, the largest of which stands at the front of Lime Street Station and occupies the ground floor of the old North Western Hotel. This vast building was erected by a railway company back in the days of transatlantic steamer travel. Having stood empty for years, the upper stories became student accommodation, with a Wetherspoon below. People joke that it’s possible to complete a degree course without ever leaving the building: transport into the city, food, drink, accommodation, even employment, all being available in the same place.

What the company does is to seamlessly insert a branch into a town giving the impression that it’s always been there. In doing so it creates some significant contrasts. The product may be the same but the delivery points vary enormously. The North East provides some interesting examples.

Richmond in North Yorkshire has the Ralph Fitz Randal, named after an obscure medieval monk. The premises were formerly the post office building, which has since migrated to a big shed on a nearby trading estate. This Wetherspoon is a genteel establishment which caters for the over sixties market. Richmond is a popular destination amongst this age group. They move around the town window shopping, couples wearing the ubiquitous small rucksacks which seem indispensable to this age group. Come refreshment time they head for the Ralph Fitz Randal, which amidst the steep gradients lies conveniently on a flat bit of town. By mid morning the place takes on the air of a rest home where everything moves at a sedate pace. It is of course supposed to be a pub but there’s no scramble for attention. Instead, customers patiently form queues at the bar to order food or acquire coffee cups. The staff are attentive and kindly with a slightly patronising air, which suggests they may need to repeat themselves before being fully understood. Moving around the tables, they present more like care workers than waiters. Unfortunately the building lies close to the local Methodist church and the undertaker’s. Consequently the best dressed people in the place tend to be mourner’s looking for a pre funeral bracer, or the undertaker’s staff having just finished a job. A collection of black clad customers rather spoils the mood.

A few miles north of Richmond there are two branches in Darlington. The Tanner’s Hall is conveniently close to various bookmakers and is a gloomy no frills establishment, catering for what might politely be described as dedicated drinkers. These are people often of indeterminate age who can be found there throughout the day. Wetherspoon opens its premises early in the morning and this seems to be an arrangement particularly welcomed by the Tanner’s Hall clientele. Employment doesn’t appear to make any demands of this group and some are thoughtful enough to leave their mobility scooters at the door. Comments on the Tripadvisor website give as much an indication of what it must be like to work there, as about the standard of service. Here the staff have to deal with collapsing customers and some of the town’s stranger people. One reviewer complained that they were slow in rendering first aid to a customer; another suggested that a member of staff was drunk. There is the sense that a few hours into a shift the staff are rather less cheerful and accommodating than they were at the outset. Dissatisfied customers are prepared to use an online review to seek revenge, by identifying the individual whom they claim caused offence: ‘blonde, hair in a bun’.

If The Tanner’s Hall is a hardship posting for Wetherspoon staff, then a few minutes’ walk away is the William Thomas Stead where the customer base is much different. Named after a former editor of the Northern Echo [Editorial note, and the author of ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’], Mr Stead was unfortunate enough to have gone down with the Titanic. This is a family friendly establishment where the daytime drinking enthusiasts would definitely not fit in. Shoppers and those with young children can seek refreshment here, without sharing space with the ‘strange’ people in the sister establishment across town.

If the Tanner’s Hall has its own particular challenges then for sheer hard work the Milecastle may be the ultimate. Situated in Newcastle city centre, this vast building, which operates over three stories, has the look of a former insurance company premises. The name reflects the cities’ Roman heritage. Hadrian’s Wall is supposed to have run close by; at least until Mr Stephenson drove his railway through the district.

The enormous interior space is augmented by exterior facilities for those rare days in Newcastle when it is warm enough to sit outdoors. The unacclimatised visitor may be reluctant to use these facilities but for the locals a few rays of sunshine seem enough for them to don beach wear and enjoy al fresco drinking in the city centre.

Being on three floors the trade is stratified. The ground floor is the province of pensioners and shoppers. Above this level it is easy to discover why the staff can be worked very hard indeed. Newcastle is very much a party town and at any point in an afternoon the Milecastle may have to cope with a sudden surge. Downstairs life continues at a steady pace, up above there always seems to be a gathering in operation, gradually increasing in size as the afternoon wears on. It reflects a phenomenon known as ‘front loading’ and the staff have to learn how to cope with this. Obviously there are smarter places for the younger element to drink but these tend to be much more expensive. The Research Society on Alcoholism admits that the phenomenon is ‘not well studied’. Anyone from the society wishing to do some fieldwork would find the Milecastle a useful location. The idea is to fill up on cheaper Wetherspoon booze before moving on elsewhere in the early evening. An American study has found that this is a mostly female practise and the Milecastle would seem to bear this out.

With the staff being required to operate the bar and act as waiters it can be quite a challenge to manage both, particularly as the numbers swell and the demand for over the counter drinks increases. Staff have to cope with this, serve meals and move up and down three flights of stairs. It is quite a contrast with the homely atmosphere of the Richmond establishment, or serving the sometimes difficult but largely somnolent types in the Tanner’s Hall.

Wetherspoon is very adaptable and the positives go beyond just the reasonable prices. The company employs over 40,000 people and has brought back to life many large redundant buildings in town centres, which might otherwise have struggled to find a tenant.

William Hartley is a Social Historian

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