'Shark in minnow pond': Ramsgate locals split on new Wetherspoon pub

JD Wetherspoon is opening its biggest UK pub in Ramsgate in a move that has divided opinion in the Kent seaside town.

The chain, which continues to expand despite pubs closing at a rate of 30 a week, has spent £4.5m refurbishing the Royal Victoria Pavilion ahead of the launch on Tuesday. The Grade II listed building, which opened in 1904, has been empty and become increasingly derelict since the Rank Leisure casino left in 2008.

Wetherspoon will occupy two-thirds of the pavilion’s 20,000 sq ft (1,858 sq m) interior, making it bigger than the company’s Velvet Coaster pub in Blackpool, which is believed to be Britain’s biggest boozer.

The building can seat up to 800 people with a total capacity of more than 1,400. Outside, there is an additional 6,500 sq ft sun terrace. The chain worked with local historians to recreate aspects of the interior from the pavilion’s heyday, including the bar and staircase.

The walls feature art capturing the history of the pavilion and the town, as well as modern works by local artists. Ahead of the opening, Chris Whitbourn, the pub’s joint manager, looked around the vast space with its mint walls and oak panelling. “You could probably land an aeroplane here,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

Whitbourn, a former area manager from Lincolnshire, said there was a lot of competition for the company’s flagship site. To spread the word, Wetherspoon handed out tickets to more than 4,000 people to have a free meal and drinks over the bank holiday weekend before the full opening.



The interior of the Royal Victoria Pavilion pub, which occupies two-thirds of the 20,000 sq ft building. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

The Pavilion will employ 150 staff, almost all of whom live locally. They will serve Wetherspoon’s familiar formula of cheap drinks and food, including fish and chips, pizza and curry.

Chris Wells, the Thanet district council leader, said only a company with Wetherspoon’s deep pockets could have restored the building, emphasising that the council did not have the money to do so. “It demonstrates faith in Ramsgate, it creates jobs and it will bring visitors to the town,” he said. “What’s not to like?”

But some local businesses are less keen. Miles Wiseman, who owns the Arch Bar by the harbour, said the town does not have enough custom to support the Pavilion. Most of the seafront is worried Wetherspoon’s low prices will take away business, he said: “It’s too big. It’s a shark in a minnow pond.”

Jon Zumeris, who lives in Ramsgate, is tucking into chicken tikka masala with colleagues from Fujifilm, which Wetherspoons invited to its preview as one of the area’s biggest employers. Zumeris said he will switch from local bars to the Pavilion. “I’m a family man and I will come here with my children. It’s a cheap place to eat and sit out,” he said.”

The Pavilion’s history mirrors Ramsgate’s rise and fall. The building opened as a concert hall and assembly rooms, and thrived in the first half of the 20th century as people came to enjoy the town’s seaside and royal harbour. But the arrival of overseas package tours in the 1960s sent Ramsgate into decline, along with many other seaside towns. Hotels became flats for families, often with social problems, from outside the town.

In 2013, the Centre for Social Justice thinktank described coastal towns as dumping grounds trapped in a cycle of economic decline. Ramsgate has some of the most deprived council wards in England. The pavilion declined, too. It became Peggy Sue’s nightclub, then Fifth Avenue, then a casino. Many of its original features were ripped out. The building was poorly maintained before the casino moved to Westwood Cross, a shopping development that locals blame for the town’s ailing high street. But there are signs of renewal.

People get stuck into curry night at the Royal Victoria Pavilion



People get stuck into curries at the Royal Victoria Pavilion. The pub chain is known for its low prices. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Like its better-known neighbour Margate, Ramsgate has attracted artists, musicians and other creatives. Brenda Blethyn, the Golden Globe-winning actor, grew up in the town and lives there. The DJ and producer Adamski moved in a few years ago, and Blur’s Graham Coxon has just bought a house there. New cafes, shops and galleries are springing up and property prices are on the rise. The HS1 rail link to London has cut commuting time from about two hours to little over an hour, bringing in more “down from Londons” (DFLs) seeking an affordable life by the sea.

Emma Irvine, an architect who moved to Ramsgate in 2009 and redeveloped the Albion House hotel, which she owns with her husband, wanted to turn the Pavilion into a venue based on London’s Borough Market. She said the council favoured finding a strong leaseholder over long-term regeneration.

“We had serious investors who had invested in the town before, but we were never going to beat Wetherspoon in a commercial property deal. The building has been refurbished, and providing something affordable and more family-friendly on the seafront is a good thing. It’s hard to know if there are going to be negative aspects until it’s open,” Irvine said.

Views in Ramsgate reflect wider divisions about Wetherspoon, with its near 1,000 branches regarded either as characterless boozehalls or beacons of value and reliability. In a town where Nigel Farage based his failed attempt to win South Thanet in 2015, some in Ramsgate also identify the chain with the support for Brexit of Wetherspoon’s founder, Tim Martin. Claire Dugue, a hurdy-gurdy maker who moved to Ramsgate in 2001, said: “I’m not sure a big, cheap boozer on the beach is what the town needs and I’m not keen on the owner’s views on Brexit. But if they are a good employer, then fair enough.”

Most Ramsgate bar managers said they welcomed Wetherspoon or would try to cope with the competition. But Wiseman claimed his fellow traders were putting on a brave face or deluding themselves on a busy bank holiday weekend. Wetherspoon, he insisted, is bad news.

“Come and see me in January when it’s freezing cold and there’s no one around,” he said. “People come here from London because it’s a quirky town with independent traders. The quirkiness will be diluted and the DFLs will say it’s not quite the place they thought it was, and they will stop coming.”

But Whitbourn said Wetherspoon needed the town as a whole to thrive for its big investment in Ramsgate to succeed. “There’s no point in us taking all the trade and everybody else closing. There have to be plenty of options for everyone. We want the whole town to be better,” he said.

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