The wonder (?) of Wetherspoon

Chain’s real ale festival runs from October 20-31 and features 20 real ales

Finding myself at a loose end in the Bletchley area of Milton Keynes recently, I rediscovered one of the advantages of Wetherspoons. Needing to rest up for a while before the 40-mile drive home, I used an app – not the Wetherspoon one but CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide – to find a suitable place to spend half an hour or so. The nearest independent pub listed wasn’t open at that time of the afternoon, but it directed me instead to a Wetherspoon which I knew would be open. It rejoiced in the name of Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party.

Leaving aside what the locals call it – Ridley’s? The ‘Party’? – I was immediately attracted. My recent experiences of Wetherspoon pubs haven’t been all that good as – like most pubs – they have struggled to return to anything like their full range of guest beers, with some having had no guest ales at all but only the dreary regulars of Greene King IPA and Abbot, Ruddles and Doom Bar. But Captain Ridley’s, as I will call it, was a revelation. No fewer than six guest ales were all present and correct, and my pint of Woodforde’s Wherry was excellent. No wonder the local CAMRA branch holds this pub in such high esteem.

Unusually for Wetherspoon, Captain Ridley’s is not converted from another use or a new build, but had a previous life as a pub, the Bletchley Arms, dating from the 1930s. In the 1980s it was run by professional wrestler Johnny Kincaid as Kincaid’s, and became a Wetherspoon in 1997. But what of the name? As in all Wetherspoon pubs with a story to tell, an information panel told me all. Nearby is Bletchley Park, where World War 2 codebreakers including Alan Turing did vital work which may even have shortened the war. When the Secret Service came to visit in 1938, seeking a suitable spot for the operation, the area was partly rural and they called themselves Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party so not to arouse suspicion.

With an excellent pint of Wherry and newly gained knowledge about what had seemed rather boring Milton Keynes, I was well pleased with my short visit. What was there not to like? Well, there are some things about Wetherspoon that put me off, and most of them relate to boss Tim Martin’s war with the media, MPs and others who stand accused of getting their facts wrong. As a professional journalist myself I’m well aware of the need for accuracy, but as in all fields of endeavour mistakes do happen, and reputable media outlets are happy to put the record straight. When I saw in the national newspaper I read (I’m not telling you which!) that Wetherspoon was hoping to buy up small pubs on the cheap during the pandemic, I knew that couldn’t be right as it is only interested in large premises. The newspaper in question duly printed a correction. Often it is the choice of material to publish rather than the virtues of the story itself that determines what gets in, and I doubt whether any large, consumer facing organisation would want to be ignored by the media. All publicity is good publicity, as the people who run them often realise.

The Wetherspoon News magazine left on tables – have I ever picked up a copy that wasn’t sticky and dog-eared? – has for long carried challenges to published articles and the corrections that have been issued, but Tim Martin has now taken this a step forward by producing a “special edition” of Wetherspoon News emblazoned with, DOES TRUTH MATTER? Apologies and/or corrections are listed from most national newspapers, Sky News and others in this 20-page publication, which signs off with a page by right-wing columnist Toby Young headlined, It’s time to stand up for free speech.

The diatribes in this special edition certainly make a change from the usual news of pub openings and staff awards, but I wonder how many people actually read it? I suspect that the vast majority of Wetherspoon customers, enjoying their very cheap drinks and food, couldn’t care less about its owner’s political views, on Brexit, free speech or other subjects, but perhaps I’m wrong. Tim Martin is not the first corporate boss to court controversy – just look at Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. A high media profile linked to low prices and wide availability puts many bums on seats.

I like lots of other things about Wetherspoon – its support for real ale and independent breweries, good value breakfasts and menus with calorie counts by every item, for example. And I always appreciate its efforts to restore historic buildings and put them back in the heart of a community – just look at “palaces” like the Royal Victoria Pavilion in Ramsgate. But I can also be put off by some things and, as stated earlier, everyone makes mistakes. Summer 2020’s Sunak’s Specials posters in support of the Chancellor were a low point for me, with the claim: “Rishi Sunak, legend: the man who instigated tax equality between supermarkets and pubs”. In fact that equality, or at least a fairer balance, is still the subject of campaigns today. CAMRA and independent brewers association SIBA issued media clarification saying that VAT had been reduced only on  food, not drinks, and if beer prices had been cut because of the VAT cut this was due to food sales subsidising the cost of drinks.

But away from the detail, I don’t want to see posters of politicians of any party in a pub, which gives me the impression that stuff (apart from beer, of course) is being pushed down my throat. Most independent publicans are wise enough to keep their politics to themselves, although you can often guess, as they want to attract a broad “congregation”. But at the end of the day, I suppose, a good old row with respect for others’ points of view is part of the fabric of pub life.

So you will see me down at Wetherspoon during the real ale festival, and I won’t be shy of clutching my CAMRA 50p discount vouchers as I reckon that if you can spend on special editions of magazines, you can afford to sell a pint of quality real ale for £1.49, as with my pint of Wherry at Captain Ridley’s.

For a full list of festival beers – 16 of which have never been featured in the festival before, and available for order on the app – see here. The two Wetherspoon pubs in Oxford city centre, the Four Candles and Swan and Castle, both plan to have five guest ales available with no duplication between sites. Vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free beers are featured, and third pint glasses are available with a taster paddle of three third pints costing the same as a festival pint. Well-known names such as Purity and Salopian will appear, but also lesser known names such as Conwy from Wales, Bru from Ireland and Elgood’s from Fenland, with a range of styles.

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