Everyone knows JD Wetherspoon has opened hundreds of pubs in the UK – but it’s shut down a load, too. If a pub isn’t a success, it’s quickly dispensed with.
At the time of writing, the chain has closed 148 pubs, with 65 former high street sites in London alone, according to Spoons-watcher John Adams, whose website is a vital source of information for anyone trying to find out more about the company.
The large number of closed Spoons in London reflects the chain’s origins in the north of the capital – particularly in and around the borough of Haringey. JD Wetherspoon has opened and closed seven pubs in Tottenham, of which two have been knocked down and two are now shops.
The first pub opened in Colney Hatch Lane, Muswell Hill, in 1979; the the company’s first headquarters was above the Dog on the Archway Road. Both were sold on many years ago, and remain in business. The longest surviving pub still in Spoons hands is the Rochester Castle in Stoke Newington.
In south-east London, this honour falls to the Banker’s Draft in Eltham, which opened its doors in 1993. It’s reputedly the smallest Wetherspoon pub in the country – since then, the chain has favoured far bigger premises, but the Banker’s Draft has survived.
There are far fewer former Spoons in south-east London – just four. So we thought we’d go on a Dead Spoons Pub Crawl – or an educational study tour. We start in Southend – but don’t bring your bucket and spade.
The Tiger’s Head, Catford (closed 2006, demolished)
350 Bromley Road, SE6 2RZ
Founded as The George in the early 18th century, the Tiger’s Head was at the centre of what used to be known as Southend village – an area later swallowed up by Catford. It was rebuilt in 1901, then rebuilt again after being destroyed by a flying bomb in 1944. It was a huge brick boozing palace on the Bromley Road, built to cater for the huge Bellingham and Downham housing estates that were springing up around it.
During the 1960s, it was a popular music venue, hosting acts such as the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Marmalade and Love Affair. But it later fell into decline. We don’t know when it became a Wetherspoon, but even Spoons founder Tim Martin is said to have expressed frustration at not being able to stop the rot. A fair distance from Catford town centre, this would never fit into the Wetherspoon estate today.
The pub shut suddenly in the summer of 2006, was demolished in 2010, and a block of 36 flats now sits on the site. Its near neighbour, The Green Man, closed a couple of years beforehand and was also knocked down to be replaced by the Green Man Community Hub. Your best bet for a drink in the area is to walk half a mile to the Fellowship Inn – soon to be revamped to provide a community cinema. Or you could get a couple of cans in the Co-op over the road, and contemplate when this was a thriving musical venue.
Hop on a 54 bus from here to Beckenham Junction, leg it over to the station, and take a tram to Harrington Road. Walk left along Harrington Road itself, take the second right into Albert Road, right at Portland Road under the railway bridge (pausing to mourn the shut Portmanor pub), and left into South Norwood High Street. Keep an eye out on your right for…
The William Stanley (closed 2016, now the Shelverdine Goathouse)
7-9 High Street SE25 6EP
World of Spoons was never meant to head this far towards Croydon, but we couldn’t resist seeing what happened when Antic – purveyors of fine ales and shabby chic – got hold of a classic high street Spoons.
The William Stanley opened in December 1998, as a typical shop conversion. But it shut in March 2016, as JD Wetherspoon sought to trim its estate.
It’s not hard to see why the pub didn’t last – South Norwood High Street looks as battered as ever. Crystal Palace Football Club may be wallowing in Premier League riches, but all the local high street has to show for is a garish red-and-blue paint job on another pub, The Albion.
Down the road, local worthies seem to have prepared for another closure, with a plaque commemorating “the site of the Jolly Sailor”, even though that pub seems to be clinging to life.
But Antic can clearly see something in SE25, so the firm that specialises in opening pubs in up-and-coming areas took on the William Stanley, reopening it in October 2016 as the Shelverdine Goathouse – a nod to a previous pub in the area, and the historic use of this land before the area was built up.
It’s light, airy, with plenty of exposed brickwork and ironwork – do they bash it up a bit? – while some of the Spoons furniture seems to have stayed on. There’s even a piano, should you fancy tinkling the ivories. It reminds us of Antic’s Brockley bar, Jam Circus.
The pub’s quiet when we arrive (it’s Boxing Day), but there’s still a mixed crowd enjoying a quiet drink. The beer (By The Horns’ Stiff Upper Lip) and wine are fabulous. Over the road, we can see someone leaning out of a flat window to smoke a fag. South Norwood, you are being spoilt with this lovely pub.
Downstairs, though, is the Wetherspoons equivalent of visiting the disused part of a Tube station. Head to the toilets, peer around an open door, and you can see a familiar-looking carpet and red-painted walls, with a bland bit of artwork on the wall. A little bit of the William Stanley lives on as a staff access route to the kitchen.
Delighted at finding this little time capsule, we move on.
Take a 197 bus from Clifford Road (go back to Portland Road, then take first right after the railway bridge) to Sydenham, The Woodman. Walk back down the hill a bit, and across the road, you’ll find the sad remains of…
The Windmill, Sydenham (sold c.2001, closed 2014)
125-133 Kirkdale SE26 4DJ
This is a sad story. As far as we can gather, The Windmill was purpose-built by JD Wetherspoon, but was sold around the time The Capitol in Forest Hill opened. The pub continued in business, but you only need to look at it on Google Streetview to track its decline, with it looking more and more shabby as the years go by.
“The lager still remains flat as a pancake – just like its customers, lifeless,” one 2010 review noted.
It was put on the market, with a sale document suggesting potential buyers “visit the property casually during normal opening hours without discussing the disposal with the staff or patrons”. It was finally boarded up in 2014.
Sadly, whether this site really does have a future as a pub is a tricky question. While Sydenham nearer the station seems to be showing signs of new life, Kirkdale is still struggling, with the shops next to the Windmill also derelict.
The neighbouring Woodman became an estate agent, while developer Purelake illegally demolished the Greyhound at the bottom of the hill – Lewisham Council forced the firm to rebuild it, although the site remains unoccupied. The Fox and Hounds – now Fox’s – clings on.
You can peer inside The Windmill through holes in the hoardings – it’s been stripped and wrecked inside. The future looks bleak. Time to grab a drink and cheer ourselves up.
Walk up Kirkdale, and turn left into Dartmouth Road. Head past the cosy-looking Bricklayer’s Arms, and continue up into Forest Hill. On your right, you will find…
The Bird in Hand (sold 2001, still open)
35 Dartmouth Road SE23 3HN
The Bird in Hand is a long-established pub, and was Forest Hill’s first Wetherspoon. One of the World of Spoons team dimly remembers visiting in the late 1990s. It was sold when the company opened the Capitol in 2001, and remains in fine form today. It’s showing every sign of outlasting its successor, which remains under threat of closure.
Like many London Spoons of the 1990s, it’s a fairly small pub – you can see why moving up to the Capitol was so tempting as the company started to concentrate on larger premises.
But the Bird in Hand is a proper local, with friendly bar staff, pool at the back and the football results coming in two of the screens, while two others are showing the racing. One immaculately turned-out chap, with a rolled-up newspaper in his pocket, is studying the form, while betting slips sit in a rack by the bar.
The MOR music’s a tad too loud, but it’s soon replaced with the room-filling noise from the Hull City v Manchester City match. There’s a crib league on Mondays, and the side wall has wallpaper depicting bookshelves.
It’s a mixed crowd – mainly men, but with mixed groups out for Christmas drinks, with ages ranging from youthful to frail. The Harvey’s Best Bitter is great, the house wine is fine. This is a beautifully-kept pub. Indeed, is that a well-kept bit of old Spoons carpet on the floor?
We pop in the Capitol on the way back, and there are about as many people in there as there are in the Bird in Hand, even though it’s five times bigger – a world away from our Saturday night visit a few months back.
With the Capitol up for sale, it’s sadly likely the Dead Spoons crawl will grow to five locations sooner or later.
The Bird in Hand was too small, but the Tiger’s Head, William Stanley and Windmill were in struggling locations.
None of them fitted in with the Wetherspoon formula for success – most of its pubs in our part of the capital are in (reasonably) healthy local centres, or at the very least somewhere well-connected enough to draw a crowd. There are very few places in south-east London that fit this description and don’t have a Spoons.
The Edmund Halley at Lee is also likely to close in the next couple of years as the Leegate site is being redeveloped. As Lee Green is hardly thriving, we suspect Wetherspoon won’t return. That said, it’s a company that likes to surprise, so you never can tell. Perhaps it might like to take on the New Tiger’s Head…
But if you want to learn about Wetherspoon pubs, it’s worth visiting the ones that have shut as well as the ones that have opened. Because if the conditions are right, there really can be life after Spoons.
Photos of The Tiger’s Head in 2008, William Stanley in 2011, Windmill in 2009 and Bird in Hand in 2008 all by Ewan Munro and used under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0.