Friday, 10 November 2017

See you in court

I’m sure many readers will remember the piece I wrote a week or so ago, about JD Wetherspoons’s and their charismatic founder and chief executive, Tim Martin. The piece centered on the pro-Brexit beer mats which Mr Martin was distributing throughout his tied estate, which were in the form of a brief manifesto, telling the government to get on with the job, and take the country out of the European Union.

Now I don’t want to re-open the argument which, somewhat predictably, ensued from the post, even though I strongly disagree with Tim’s pro-Brexit views. Instead I want to write about how I once met the Wetherspoon’s CEO, and the part I played in helping the chain’s Tonbridge outlet to obtain its license,  in the face of strong opposition.

Let’s go back a couple of decades, to when Wetherspoon’s weren’t nearly as common as they are now in Britain’s towns, and the Spoon’s name, and indeed brand, was not the household name it is today.

My involvement with CAMRA meant I was at least familiar with JDW, even though at the time, the company had no outlets in the part of Kent where I live. I think at the time, the nearest Spoons to West Kent, was either Maidstone, or one of their London pubs, so the news that Wetherspoons’s were planning to open an outlet in Sevenoaks, was welcome indeed.

As I turned out though, the news was not welcome in certain quarters, especially by Sevenoaks LVA (remember the Licensed Victuallers Association? Those cosy associations of local licensees, all looking out for each other). More seriously, the prospect of the chain opening in the town was not welcome by the local constabulary.  Both the Sevenoaks LVA and Kent Police launched an objection to the proposed opening, which ended with the matter being referred to the County Court in Maidstone.

A CAMRA friend of mine called Brian, who lived in Sevenoaks, attended the hearing and spoke on behalf of Wetherspoons, as did several other people. It’s a long time ago now, and I can’t remember if the case went to appeal, but the eventual outcome was the objections were thrown out, and Wetherspoon’s duly went ahead and opened an outlet in the town in a converted furniture shop. It was called the Sennockian, and is still trading today, although a few years ago it was on the list of pubs which JDW had been planning to sell off.

My friend, was probably 25 years or so older than me, and was a retired Chartered Surveyor. He was quite a character and spoke with a real air of authority. Sadly Brian is no longer with us, but I remember him saying that prior to the court case, he had met with both Tim Martin and Wetherspoon’s barrister, and how pleased they were that an ordinary member of the public had come along to speak on the company’s behalf. Therefore when a similar situation arose, a few years later, Brian again offered his support to JDW.

The case in question was even closer to home for me, as it involved an application from Wetherspoon’s, to convert the former Crown Post Office building in Tonbridge, into a pub, and once again the local LVA and police were objecting. I offered my support, as did a close friend of mine, who also lived in Tonbridge. Brian also said he would join us and, as he knew the ropes, so to speak, we allowed him to take care of the arrangements.

So, on the appointed day, we presented ourselves at the imposing Crown Court buildings on Maidstone’s riverfront, and were introduced to Tim Martin and the company’s barrister. We were also joined by a member of the Tonbridge Civic Society; an organisation keen not only to preserve the 1930’s Post Office building, but eager to see it being used for a purpose which would benefit the town as a whole. We also learned from JDW’s lawyer, that the LVA had dropped their objection, so it was now just the police who were contesting Wetherspoons’s application.

We were then ushered into the court. This was my first, and so far only time inside a court of law, and it was evident from the start that such places are designed to intimidate and overawe those who find themselves “up before the law”. Even for those like me and my two companions, they appear quite foreboding.

We didn’t have to wait long before the clerk of the court asked for us to “all be upstanding”, as the judge and the respective legal teams filed into the court. Now I mentioned earlier that the case took place some time ago, probably a couple of decades in fact, so I can’t remember the exact order of proceedings, but I do recall that almost from the outset they didn’t go too well for the barrister representing the police.

She was a Dawn French “look-alike”, but without the humour, and one particular remark she made really annoyed the judge, so much so that she was asked to withdraw it. The sole objection put forward by the police, was one of law and order, but the judge was quite dismissive of this argument. The Spoon’s barrister was also quick to point out the company’s good record in controlling their outlets and spotting any trouble before it got out of hand.

The Wetherspoon’s brief fared much better with the judge. He reminded me of Rumpole of the Bailey, and he certainly didn’t receive the same amount of scrutiny as the police barrister. He called the representative from the local civic society as a witness in support of the application, along with my two friends, but after I’d got myself all psyched up, and ready to take the stand, he didn’t call me. So denied my moment in court, I sat down and followed the rest of the proceedings with interest.

Once both sides had presented their evidence, the court adjourned for lunch. Now lunch is a very serious matter for the legal profession, and it is probably no exaggeration to say that in the past, the fate of many a condemned person, depended on whether the judge had a good, or a bad judge. These days, whilst we thankfully no longer hang people, the severity or indeed leniency of a sentence, might still depend on the quality of His Honour's lunch.

My companions and I also grabbed a spot of lunch, choosing the nearest Wetherspoon's pub of course!  This was the Muggleton Inn, across the River Medway and then up the High Street. It is one of two JDW outlets in Maidstone, and to my mind it is the best. The Muggleton is an imposing two-storey building which was once the offices for an insurance company. We made our way upstairs, grabbed a table and ordered ourselves a bite to eat.

We also had a beer each, but mindful that we might be considered "in contempt of court", were we to come back intoxicated, just had the one. We also wanted to ensure we were back in time for the resumption of the case. We all thought the case had gone well so far, so were quietly optimistic that the Tonbridge Spoons would be awarded its licence.

Back in court, the afternoon session passed quickly, with "His Honour" throwing out the objections lodged by the police. Costs were also awarded against Kent Constabulary,  but as a gesture of goodwill, the Spoon's brief said he would waiver the costs awarded to him, so as to not place too high a burden on the public purse; in this case the council tax payers of Kent.

After the case, Tim Martin came and thanked us all personally, and told us that plans for the Tonbridge pub could now continue apace. I'm pretty certain the three of us received an invitation to the official opening of the pub, which was named the Humphrey Bean, in honour of the landlord of a pub which once occupied the former Post Office site.

I didn't attend the official opening, probably because it clashed with something going on at work but when,  a few days later, I finally set foot in the Humphrey Bean, I was decidedly underwhelmed.
I'm not sure what I was expecting, but whilst it's fair to say the pub is not one of JDW's most imaginative conversions, the architects had a rather mish-mash of a building to work with, and consequently made the best of what was there. There is a smaller and quite cosy section at the front, and this is where the post office counters once were, but leading off to the rear, is a much larger section, which was formerly the town's sorting office. This area still maintains its shed-like appearance, and is where the bar is situated.

To be fair, it is bright and airy, with plenty of tables, and includes a raised area on the left-hand side. This section leads through to a large, attractive and well laid out garden, which looks out across the River Medway to Tonbridge's imposing 13th Century castle. This is without a doubt the Humphrey Bean's best feature.

So there we have it, the story of how I went along to play my part in ensuring that Tonbridge gained a Wetherspoon's  and whilst, in the end, my input was not needed, I am still glad that I turned up at court to offer my support.

The Humphrey Bean is now something of a Tonbridge institution, and it is hard to imagine what the town was like before Wetherspoon's came on the scene. So despite me being at odds with Tim Martin over his Brexit ideology, I am pleased that he brought the Spoon's brand to Tonbridge, and I am also pleased that I was able to give him my support.


Syd Differential said...

And here's Tim trying to return the favour ....
Hopefully beer will help bring both sides of the Brexit divide together when we're out of the EU.

Martin Taylor said...

In Tim's defence, he does at least allow equal space to both sides of the argument, and does a better job of stimulating the debate than a BBC and mainstream media obsessed with personalities. (Rant over).