Fear and loathing in Kent

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells are venting their spleen on a brewer which plans to convert their opera house into one of the public variety. Still, at least the songs will improve

Royal Tunbridge Wells, the Kentish town famous for its disgust, is much exercised by the imminent arrival amid its purlieus and vistas of JD Wetherspoon, retailer of fine ales.

Not that the residents are averse to whistle-wetting – the town already has a number of public houses. One assumes local inhabitants patronise these establishments, though some may feel the need to wear false beards and turn up their coat collars before stepping over the threshold into iniquity. No, the cause of their unrest is the site chosen for the new enterprise.

Two weeks ago, a council planning sub-committee voted to allow JD Wetherspoon to convert the town’s Grade II listed opera house into a pub. The building, built in 1902, is in the centre of town and still boasts a few of its original features.

Reaching into his cellar and uncorking a vintage disgust peculiar to the region, Roger Temple, chairman of the Opera House Restoration Society, declaims: “Feelings are running extremely high in Tunbridge Wells about this.” No need to add that when feelings run high in the Royal town, the seismic shock can topple potentates and bring down empires.

“Not everyone is mad keen on theatre and opera,” he adds, “but there is total unanimity that this building should not become a monster pub. We are now taking legal advice.”

The urgency implicit in the word “now” is not a characteristic for which the Opera House Restoration Society is renowned. For the past 25 years the Opera House, Tunbridge Wells, has rung not to a diva’s aria nor to a thespian’s soliloquy but to cries of “Two fat ladies, eighty eight, and legs eleven.”

What was the Restoration Society doing during the two and a half decades when the object of its affection was used as a bingo hall? Biding its time? Has the society got minutes and records stretching back over a quarter of a century of plotted restoration? Or – one hardly knows how to frame the question – is the society something of a Johnny-come-lately?

How is it that the people of Tunbridge Wells endured a bingo hall for so long but cannot stomach the thought of another pub? Perhaps in that ancient corner of Kent they order and codify the vices sent to tempt man and place gambling far below alcoholic refreshment on the scale of evil. Perhaps, as anecdotal evidence suggests, Tunbridge Wells has an ageing population, and, it being well known that bingo is of particular appeal to the senescent mind, tolerated the changed use of the Opera House as a kind of community service.

Maybe the town is frightened of rowdyism. Pensioners leaving a bingo hall late at night seldom scream obscenities, throw bricks through windows, or fight in the gutters, whereas youths leaving public houses are known to do all those things and more.

I have news which, though it may not placate the members of the Opera House Restoration Society whose appetites are cultural rather than physical and therefore on a higher plane, should calm the fears of Tunbridge Wells citizenry who dread to lie abed at night while the streets outside echo to the sound of shattered glass.

JD Wetherspoon’s public houses are temples of civilised behaviour. The organisation has, almost single-handedly, reversed the barbarism wrought by the big brewers over the past 30 years or so. Their muddled thinking, bad management, and greed brought us theme pubs, plastic pubs, juke boxes, pool, karaoke, disco nites, and price rises well in excess of the rate of inflation. And still, even as sales fall, the brewers continue to put up the price of beer in the belief that increased revenue can consistently be maintained in the face of declining volume.

Taken to its extreme, the economic logic of that policy is that eventually one drinker will pay 21m for the last pint of beer and then put out the lights before leaving.

By concentrating on the retailing of beer and focusing on old-fashioned marketing, JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin reversed what had seemed an unstoppable tide of tackiness and decline. His pubs are comfortable and well-designed. They have no music, no pool, no gimmicks, and no trouble. They still attract a fair share of young people though not, it seems, the kind who round off their evening with a riot.

Still more remarkable, JD Wetherspoon sells at least one beer at an unbelievably low price. Currently a pint of Younger’s Scotch Ale costs 99p. For two months at the beginning of the year it was 79p.

The JD Wetherspoon formula has proved immensely popular. At the last count there were 105 pubs in the group and Martin’s ambition is to have an outlet in every major town and city in the country.

That policy inevitably entails converting buildings from their existing use into public houses. The Hamilton Hall in London’s Liverpool Street used to be a ballroom; at Wolverhampton, the Moon Under Water was formerly a Co-op store; in Derby, the Standing Order is being built on a disused NatWest bank; in Slough, the Moon and Spoon is being built in what used to be the Halifax Building Society; in Wimbledon, more than 1.5m is being invested in an empty Tesco; in North Cheam, a new pub is under construction in a disused freezer centre; and in Deansgate, Manchester, a derelict old cinema will soon rise as a new pub.

So the good folk of Tunbridge Wells have nothing to fear. JD Wetherspoon will not be a monster in their midst but a beacon of civilisation come to light their lives. What is it to be – Wagner at 30 a ticket, or real ale at 99p a pint?

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