At 8am last Tuesday a crowd gathered on Ramsgate seafront to witness an opening ceremony performed by the town’s Mayor. But this was no ordinary opening ceremony, this one was to re-open the splendid Royal Victoria Pavilion (RVP) – as a pub. And this was no ordinary pub, for this pub is The Biggest Spoons in the World.
‘I formally declare this Wetherspoon open for business!’ announced the Mayor, before adding, ‘I’ll take a large breakfast, extra black pudding and a bottle of the house red. One glass, please love.’
‘That’ll be £2.49,’ came the reply. Probably.
I wasn’t there, I admit it. 8am is pretty much the middle of the night for me. But later that day I binned off a planned kickabout in the park, picked up Half-life from Denmark Hill station and we hit the A2 for a couple of days in Ramsgate to immerse ourselves in the talk of planet Thanet.
My whinging about Wetherspoon pubs has been recorded elsewhere on these pagesand I prefer to dwell on the positives. The beer is well-kept. The prices are very reasonable, providing a place in London that the poor and the young can frequent without forking out an hour’s wages for a couple of beers. Many of the locations have something wonderful to savour, like the garden at the Fox on the Hill or the interiors of the The Capitol at Forest Hill.
Despite this, there’s no getting round that nagging feeling that they’re not real pubs. A sign in my local Spoons, for example, grimly forbids you to stand at the bar once served. No lingering wanted here, no chatting, no getting to know folk, no laughing.
They are less about lingering and more about returning to your table to wait for your food. They are, in short, not so much pubs as cafeterias. Licensed cafeterias, sure, but cafeterias all the same.
And then there is bombastic founder and chairman, Tim Martin, a vociferous Brexiteer, who used his pub magazine (and half a million beer mats) to persuade punters to vote Leave, and who has threatened to boycott European booze unless the EU stops ‘bullying us’. He alone is reason for some never to set foot inside a Spoons.
Our drive down was pleasant enough, even if I did have to listen to Half-life’s lurid recounting of the time he had sex on a roundabout near Sittingbourne. As we walked around Ramsgate’s pretty marina and onto Harbour Parade, the restored zinc roof of the Pavilion winked at us in the afternoon sunlight.
‘It’s like going to fucking church,’ said Half-life of the stream of people heading towards this modern day booze cathedral, though what he knows about attending church remains unclear. We were greeted at the door by smiling, uniformed staff and headed into the cavernous interior.
The first thing that struck us was the noise. I’ve never seen so many people in a boozer and excited chatter rang around the place like a Victorian mad house. And this was on a Tuesday. The second thing we noticed was the luxurious nature of the Art Deco inspired fixtures and fittings. This Spoons, as promised, was no ordinary Spoons.
The third thing we noticed was the carpet; like all Spoons’ carpets, unique and specially commissioned.
‘Lovely deep shag,’ I said.
‘Yeah. The only one you’re gonna get tonight,’ said Half-life, on cue, and we headed up to the terrace.
The terrace, wrapped around three sides of the building, is the pièce de résistance, with views of the sandy beach and the ocean on one side, the marina with its working boatyard on another, and the Regency and Victorian buildings of the town from the front. It is a glorious vantage point from which to appreciate Ramsgate, and a view that only improves with each pint.
At £2.65 for a cask cask ale, it’s more expensive than many Spoons’, even the ones in London. Perhaps we’re paying for that view. And then there’s the cost of the refurbishment. Wetherspoon has spent £4.5m refurbishing the RVP, a building that has lain empty for 10 years and was borderline derelict. Yes, there is an enormous neon Wetherspoon sign on the side, probably visible from France, but that seems a reasonable price to pay for having such a landmark building back in commission. And perhaps the marketing department chipped in to the budget.
We bumped into friends and acquaintances, including a couple from London who had come down for a second honeymoon, or ‘honeyspoon’. After dinner up the road (the food at Spoons, we figured, will just be the food at Spoons) we even returned for a moonlit night cap on the terrace.
Not everyone was as keen as us. One friend from Westgate arrived and left in a hurry while we were eating.
‘This place sucks a bit!’ he texted. ‘I’m not used to waiting for a pint. I’m used to micropubs where they’re grateful to fetch you one.’
It was busy, I concede, and the new staff – mainly young women featuring extraordinary eyebrows – were struggling to cope with demand at times, but it was the first night, to be fair. And it’s liable to be quieter on a wet Wednesday in February, which I’ve already pencilled in.
Day two: The return
In the interests of thoroughness we returned the next morning for a fry-up. The sun was out, the food was incredible value and the coffee came with free refills. I daydreamed about moving in. When Half-life went for a fag I toyed with an outline for a thriller novella, one that would require me to hole up in the RVP for a while in the name of research: My Year in a Spoons. A man, on the run from mysterious forces – work or personal admin, perhaps – is taken in by a charismatic benefactor and forced to exist on real ale and 2-4-1 deals.
A tall, vaguely familiar shaggy-haired figure was ambling towards me, dressed – as I was – in shorts and sunnies, a light jumper over his shoulder and a notebook in his hand. He smiled and held out his hand. I stood to shake it.
‘Tim?’ I breathed, for it was he.
‘Yes,’ said Mr Martin, smiling. ‘Welcome, welcome. What’s your name?’
Tim Martin, down to inspect his company’s handiwork, is one of those businessmen that sets great store on learning and remembering people’s first names. And as he took me on a personal tour of the RVP, it was instructive to see the positive effect this had on his awestruck staff, as he tossed out a ‘Hello, Emma’ here and ‘Good to see you again, Jane’ there.
We chatted as we walked and he asked for my impressions of the place. I told him my thoughts, including my idea for the novella. He laughed loudly, slapped me on the back and invited me to take up residency.
He really was most amiable company – curious, funny, interesting. Though to be fair, we didn’t touch on Brexit. Nor my contention that Wetherspoon is too important to be left in the hands of the private sector and should be nationalised, by force if necessary.
‘Who was that bird you were with?’ said Half-life when I returned to our table.
‘Yeah, with the white hair.’
‘That is my new friend, Tim, chairman of Wetherspoon,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ said Half-life, unimpressed. ’I thought it were a bird.’
One persistent criticism of the RVP is that it will take business away from local pubs. We felt it our duty to visit some and see if this was the case.
Both the Queen’s Head on Harbour Parade and The Hovelling Boat Inn micropub round the corner reported increased trade and were in favour of the RVP development. The mood in The Conqueror, up on Ramsgate’s West Cliff, was more buoyant still.
‘It’s one in the eye for the Dark Side, innit,’ one punter told me.
‘The Dark Side?’ I said.
‘Yeah, Margate. They can stuff their Turner Contemporary up their arse. We’ve got Britain’s biggest Spoons.’
Our meticulous research suggested that this attraction would make Ramsgate itself a destination, as opposed to just the RVP, and that the town as a whole – once one of the great British seaside resorts – would benefit. The pubs will be OK, since they are, after all, pubs. Of more concern might be the effect on local cafes. The RVP has 550 tables, most offering unrivalled sea views, and all offering famously low prices. Plus, of course, the chance to supplement your lunch with boozes.
‘It may be a cafeteria,’ said Half-life, later, on his second pitcher of Porn Star Martini and gazing out to sea, ‘But it’s the finest cafeteria in the world.’