Pick ‘n’ mixed grill: the ex-Woolworths that are now Wetherspoons
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As well as covering the long-gone Woolworths stores in Harrow Station Road and Sudbury Hill, another intriguing post on Stuart Kew’s new Forgotten London Woolworths blog tells the story of store #430 at 256-258 West Hendon Broadway – one I’ve yet to visit, and that was a very early closure in 1970.
Interestingly, Stuart notes that one of its subsequent uses was as a Wetherspoon pub – apparently called the White Lion of Mortimer – which itself closed in 1998. As such, it has the distinction of being among the relatively small pool of 105 former Wetherspoon locations; in contrast, there are 870 (and rising) Wetherspoon pubs that are trading today, including quite a few in former Woolworths premises. So, I thought it might be fun to pull together the ex-Woolworths Wetherspoons that I’ve come across on my travels to date.
Of those I’ve visited, only one – in Prestwick, in Ayrshire – occupies a Woolworths site that became vacant following the retailer’s 2008 collapse. Opened as Woolies on 7 May 1937 (store #694), the property at 87 Main Street has the five-bay symmetry of a purpose-built 1930s Woolworths, though you’d never know its history from the inside – Wetherspoon undertook the comprehensive transformation that you’d expect to create ‘The Prestwick Pioneer’ last year, with the framed Woolies memorabilia on the way to the loos at least giving a flavour of the building’s past.
The building’s Woolworths origins are also mentioned in a plaque attached to its frontage, which is a nice touch, even if the reference to ‘1935’ is a couple of years wide of the mark.
In Burton upon Trent, in Staffordshire, the town’s original Woolworths on the High Street is one that I’ve blogged about before, with the space now divided in half between a Wetherspoon pub called The Lord Burton and another bar called The Park.
Here too there was some confusion over Wetherspoon’s dates, with the company website wrongly suggesting that the premises had traded as Woolworths immediately prior to Wetherspoon taking them over. There was, in fact, a 14-year-gap: Woolworths relocated to the Coopers Square shopping centre on 21 November 1983, and the old store was used as a discount warehouse and an indoor market before Wetherspoon took it over in 1997.
Another Wetherspoon pub that opened in an ex-Woolies at about the same time is J.J. Moon’s at 12 Victoria Road in Ruislip Manor, London. Opened as Woolworths store #985, its store number points to an October 1957 opening, while a Woolworths closure list from 1989 confirms that it shut on 28 January 1984. It opened as a Wetherspoon pub on 12 November 1990 – almost seven years later – but I’m not clear whether the building had any other use in the intervening period.
As at Prestwick, however, there’s little clue inside to the building’s past, though the exterior is fairly typical of the types of store that Woolworths was opening in the 1950s.
In Blackpool, Wetherspoon’s The Albert and The Lion pub occupies part of one of the most iconic Woolworths buildings of all: the six-storey Art Deco store #66 on the corner of the Promenade and Bank Hey Street, at the foot of Blackpool Tower, which became the largest Woolworths in the world following its celebrated 1937 rebuilding.
Kingfisher controversially sold the still-profitable store to a developer in 1983, after which it became Price Busters. a large indoor market, in April 1985. That in turn closed in 2007, with the space being carved up between Sports Direct, a short-lived Peacocks (closed down when I visited last May), and the Wetherspoon pub, opened on 2 July 2010, occupying the section facing the Promenade.
Happily, Wetherspoon’s investment has helped to make the building look better than it has at any point since Woolworths’ departure. While the Price Busters store was loved in some quarters as much as Woolworths, its garish signage was never really in keeping with such a handsome building; Wetherspoon’s, in contrast, has vaguely played up the Art Deco heritage with its modern signage on an understated fascia.
Another formerly large Woolworths site that Wetherspoon now occupies a part of is the one in Reading (#111). After trading since 1922, the large Reading store closed for redevelopment on 17 June 1989, reopening on a smaller footprint facing Broad Street – where the present-day Clas Ohlson is – as store #1180 on 5 November 1992. Meanwhile, The Hope Tap Wetherspoon pub, which opened on 25 June 1997, trades from a modern building that sits where Woolworths’ pre-redevelopment Friar Street frontage was.
Finally, we have a Wetherspoon pub that isn’t open yet, but is set to occupy the former YMCA shop at 63 Shields Road in Byker – formerly home to the second incarnation of Woolworths’ store #276, between its relation in 1954 and its closure on 1 June 1985. Though there’s no opening date yet, a newspaper report earlier this week indicated that work was now underway, and that the pub would be open sometime before the end of the year.
It won’t be the last new Wetherspoon pub in an ex-Woolworths either, with John Adams’ excellent and comprehensive ‘JD Wetherspoon Pubs’ list reporting that the former Woolies in Blairgowrie and Dumbarton are both at one stage or another of being converted over. There are still others that have already opened, like the one in Holywell in Flintshire, that I need to work into my itinerary.
What’s particularly interesting is that many of the locations where Wetherspoon pubs are now opening – whether in ex-Woolworths or not – are in smaller towns that could certainly use a high street boost. In Seaham, for example, the new Wetherspoon pub opening on 26 March will occupy the site of the town’s former M&Co, and should provide a welcome footfall boost to a Church Street that has been struggling since the Byron Place shopping centre opened down the road.
The joy of the Wetherspoon model, of course, is that it’s not all about evening drinking – food and hot drinks are a huge part of the offer, and its pubs are really successful at attracting a mixed clientele that includes plenty of women and families throughout the day. In many cases – like in Seaham or Byker – Wetherspoon’s arrival is providing a family-friendly place to eat and drink where none has existed before.
With the future of the high street increasingly likely to be based around leisure as well as retail, Wetherspoon’s continued investment – both in helping to build high street destinations, and in bringing abandoned retail properties back into active and viable use – is welcome indeed.
My retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, provides bespoke place- and sector-specific market intelligence, including coverage of ex-Woolworths locations nationwide. It also works with retailers to improve their stores, customer communications and market knowledge. For more information, visit www.cannyinsights.com, drop me an email, or give me a call on (0191) 461 0361.