The writer who best captures the sense of a place is Jonathan Meades, mainly because he brings his own experience of a place into how he captures it. Meades’s writing and documentaries shows that you cannot know a place outside of your subjective understanding of it.
I always thought that if you wanted to know a place in Britain, the best way to start is by visiting its pubs. Pubs reflect the complex web of class, community, politics, history and people that make a town or suburb distinctive.
With this in mind, I headed down to Ramsgate on the Kent coast to visit Britain’s largest pub, the so called “Mega Spoons”, and to see what it can teach me about British’s small coastal town.
The Ramsgate pub scene is dominated by The Royal Pavilion, which was built in 1904 and is now a Wetherspoons. Its presence looms from the front of town, despite it being a low squat building, and all drinkers in the town feel its pull wherever they are.
On the waterfront
The waterfront is lined with beautiful Georgian buildings, which are nice as anything found in Bath or Islington. I was staying in the Royal Temple Yacht club, which is a charming hotel that appears as if time stopped in the early 1960s. It stocks a good range of local ales and was decorated with oil paintings and small models of ships, which should be mandatory for coastal pubs.
The Yacht club very much represented the old world of Ramsgate. It’s thick carpet and polished brass handrails belong to a different age from the shabby chic of London’s Antic pubs. It is a place that is much alive, set next to a row of seafront restaurants and bars that hummed with activity in the late afternoon. As did the Queen Charlotte, a bohemian pub a few streets away that boasted a wide selection of beers from popular breweries.
Then to the Mega Spoons, a welcoming an airy pub, which is impressive given its size and dominance over the town. The sea front terrace is an excellent in the warm summer early evening. It’s a shame to think of this beautiful building standing empty and I’m glad that it has found a use worthy of its former royal status.
The Mega Spoons is the epitome of Spoons, and Spoons is the epitome of the modern pub experience. It is a social leveller, bringing together people from all aspects of Ramsgate life, boasts a wide selection of cask ale and craft beer and wholesome food. I ordered food and drink via their app and enjoyed libations late into the night. The only issue was that in an inebriated state I struggled to open the door to my room at the Yacht club.
The bus to Broadstairs
The next morning I took the bus to Broadstairs, further along the Kent coast. As the bus wound its way through the back streets of Thanet I noticed it was a different story to sunny seafront I had visited the night before. Only a few streets away from the Mega spoons and the poverty became apparent. The back streets of Thanet were reminiscent of Skerton or other poor places in the North of England. Not somewhere that was supposedly gentrifying due to people being displaced to Kent by London’s housing crisis. The wealth of London is not spreading through the South East.
This is mirrored in the pub situation across the country. Pubs in London are going from strength to strength. So many are opening that old shops, cinemas, working men’s clubs and even a former Job Centre are turning into pubs. Micro breweries are springing up everywhere.
Across the rest of the country pubs are closing at two a week and many rural communities are left without a pub. Wetherspoons continues to expand and the centre of Britain’s large cities still have many pubs, but the future for the estate pub outside of the wealthier suburbs looks bleak. The causes of this are myriad and reflect the current unequal economic state of the country.
In the back streets of Thanet my bus passed a pub called the Brown Jug (complete with a giant brown ceramic jug on the front porch), which was closed and boarded up. It looks like it was once a much loved local that had fallen on hard times. Tourists may be patronising the Mega Spoons or seafront pubs, but a few streets away pubs can’t stay open.
This shows the fundamental divisions in British society. Thanet is an area split between wealthy former Londoners (or wealthy Londoners visiting the Mega Spoons) and suburbs of the “left behind”. Thanet is represented in the European Parliament by Nigel Farage and voted heavily for Brexit. I can’t help but feel that this division between the patrons of bohemian craft beer pubs and people whose locals are closing is part of the divide that was opened up in British society since the referendum.
The state of our pubs shows the emotional underpinning of the divisions in Britain. Some people see their lives getting worse, their communities declining and their pubs closing and want it to stop. Some people never leave their microbreweries and craft beer pubs and can’t see why anyone else thinks differently to them. Some people don’t understand shabby chic, exposed pipes, e-sports bars or board game cafes, and feel that the patrons of such places have contempt for the old fashioned boozer.
Even if the government paid for the Brown Jug to reopen I don’t think this would help the situation. We need solution that brings everyone into a prosperous future, whether they drink in sports bars, Spoons or Antic pubs. How we achieve this is a question too big to find the solution to in one weekend by the sea.