Out with the old, in with the corporate new

 

 

Over Christmas and New Year I was back in Peebles, my hometown in Scotland.  I was pleased to see that two of the town’s landmark buildings that in recent years had been derelict – and had become depressingly rundown – now have new occupants and are looking spruce again.  Well, I was sort of pleased.  It’s great that both buildings are up and running again, but I have mixed feelings about the new businesses operating in them.

 

Firstly, someone has at last done something with the corner house at the junction of Northgate and the High Street.  For more than a century this building was home to the outfitters Veitch’s, which according to my well-thumbed copy of History of Peebles 1850–1990 was “started in 1884 by Robert Veitch and his wife, Helen Binnie Peden” and run by four generations of the same family after that.  Although the store finally closed in 2007, its distinctive logo – originally designed, it’s said, on the back of an envelope by a mate of its second-generation proprietor, Robert Bishop Veitch, while the pair of them were serving in the trenches of World War I – still hangs proudly between the building’s first and second floors on its High Street and Northgate sides.  But during the last eight years it’s been dispiriting to see the old place empty and getting progressively scruffier.

 

In recent weeks the ground floor of the building has been bustling again because it now contains a coffee shop.  This isn’t any old coffee shop, however.  It’s one of the 3080 outlets run by the world’s second-largest coffee-house chain, Costa.

 

 

It’s highly debatable whether Peebles needs another venue selling coffee.  A while back, I heard that when you counted all the coffee shops, cafés, restaurants, hotels and pubs in the town where you could buy a cup of the stuff, the total number was somewhere in the forties.  And the arrival of a giant chain like Costa hardly bodes well for the fortunes of the smaller, privately owned cafés.  Plus, as Peebles has been bragging lately about it having the highest proportion of independent retailers of any town in Scotland, it seems a bit disingenuous to suddenly welcome in a big corporate player onto its high street.  What next?  McDonalds, Subway and KFC?

 

http://www.peeblescommunity.org/peebles/independent-high-street

 

Then again, the existing coffee shops all seem to close down at the end of the afternoon.  Come five o’clock or five-thirty, if you fancy a caffeine fix, you have to enter a pub or hotel – not quite the right environment for doing other coffee-shop things like reading a book, using a laptop or munching a chocolate-chip cookie.  The new Costa, open until seven most evenings, will at least fill that gap in the market.

 

Incidentally, Costa’s arrival in the town was unfortunately timed.  Just as it was bringing Veitch’s corner house back to life, three other premises closed down nearby – two shops on the corner facing it and a charity shop on its other side.  So the derelict Veitch’s building is no longer an eyesore; but the junction of the High Street and Northgate is still an eyesore, alas.

 

Furthermore, its opening coincided with the publication of a survey by the campaign group Action on Sugar, which identified the unhealthiest drinks on sale in Britain’s coffee chains.  Costa wasn’t the worst offender – Starbucks had that (dis)honour – but its chai latte was still slammed for containing the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar.  So if you’re a Peebles man / woman who fancies trying the new local Costa but doesn’t want to develop type 2 diabetes, give that chai latte a wide berth.

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35593007

 

Meanwhile, a minute’s walk along the Northgate, the Cross Keys Hotel – a former coaching inn that dates back to the 17th century – has been doing business again for the past year.  This follows a long period of closure during which the building became alarmingly dilapidated.  The pub chain JD Wetherspoon acquired it in 2013 and spent three million pounds on its refurbishment.

 

 

Oldsters like me will remember the hotel’s big L-shaped ground-floor room as having pool tables at one end, a bar-counter near the central corner and a space at the other end where bands and singers (including the Enid, Budgie, the Groundhogs and the late, legendary John Martyn) performed at weekends.  Now the whole room is a seating-and-eating area.  To get served, you go to a counter that’s located in what had previously been the King’s Orchard Restaurant next door – the wall between them has been removed.  I’ve written about the Cross Keys and the coming of JD Wetherspoon before, here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=2623

 

Like most people who enjoy pubs and who enjoy having an alcoholic beverage or two (or ten), I have conflicting emotions about JD Wetherspoon.  On one hand, I appreciate the fact that, big chain though it is, it sells a variety of real ales and ciders that you often don’t find in the brewery-owned pubs.  Its prices are affordable and its new Peebles operation deserves credit for maintaining the Cross Keys as a hotel – there are seven rooms available upstairs – when they could easily just have turned the building into a giant pub.

 

On the other hand, I don’t like JD Wetherspoon’s business-ὔberalles mentality, which has its bar-staff serving at all times and not yakking to the customers, so that its bar areas are banter-free zones and its pubs generally are devoid of atmosphere.  Then again, this policy will probably ensure that Peebles’ traditional pubs, like the Crown, Trust, Green Tree, Neidpath and Central, won’t haemorrhage too many customers to it.  Their regular clientele go to them more for the craic than for the bevy (though I’m sure they all like the bevy too).  And craic is something they won’t get at the new corporate hostelry on the Northgate.  In fact, I suspect the existing pub that will suffer most is the one that’s closest in style to JD Wetherspoon already, the big Belhaven-owned County Inn on the High Street.

 

I’m still also sore at JD Wetherspoon for taking over the old HMV Picture House on Lothian Road in Edinburgh, thus depriving the centre of that city of its only medium-sized live music venue.  What are they doing with that place by the way?  They closed it down at the end of 2013 and it still hasn’t reopened, as a pub or as anything else.

 

Anyway, I can’t say the new, corporate Cross Keys is much cop as a pub – a pub as I’d define one, at least.  My problem with it is that, most times I’ve been in, lots of families have been eating pub-meals and their noisy little kids have been using the floor as a playground or athletics track or wrestling ring.

 

Not the sort of place I’d pop into for a quiet, meditative pint, in other words.  And I doubt if the ghost of John Martyn would approve, either.

 

 

From Keys to Spoon’s

 

 

The pictures accompanying this entry show one of the sorriest sights at the moment in the Scottish Borders town of Peebles, where my family live and where I’ve spent the past month.  The Cross Keys Hotel stands on the Northgate, a half-minute’s walk away from the High Street, and dates back to the 17th century – I’ve heard 1693 mentioned as the year when it opened for business.  A couple of years ago the Keys stopped trading and the empty building quickly started to deteriorate.  Weeds have sprouted along its walls, its paintwork has flaked away and its fenced-off front courtyard has become a notorious eyesore in the town centre.  (Though not the worst eyesore – the derelict premises of Veitch’s corner-store where the Northgate joins the High Street take that honour.)

 

Back in my dissolute Peebles-based youth, I wouldn’t have believed it if I’d been told that thirty years later the Cross Keys Hotel would be out of business.  Every weekend in the early 1980s the Keys’ public bar seemed to be crammed to its four walls.  There were nights when the scrum of bodies inside was so dense that you could barely get across its threshold.

 

Part of its success in those days was no doubt due to the fact that the hotel was the place to hear live rock and roll music in Peebles.  During the 1980s the Keys was host to some notable acts, including progressive rockers the Enid, Welsh heavy metallers Budgie, revered guitarist and singer-songwriter John Martyn and those gritty blues-rockers the Groundhogs, who in the 1960s had performed and recorded with Detroit blues god John Lee Hooker.  (By the time the Groundhogs played Peebles, they’d come down in the world.  An acquaintance recalls them arriving at the Keys and the band’s lead-guitarist and vocalist Tony McPhee lugging in and setting up the equipment himself – they couldn’t afford a roadie.)  Local legend has it that Alan Bone, the Keys’ proprietor at the time, told one up-and-coming young Glasgow band where to go when they demanded a performing fee that was a few pounds more than what he reckoned they were worth.  Supposedly, that band was Simple Minds.

 

Unfortunately, later managements were unable to keep the money rolling into the Keys’ coffers – and considering the age of the place, the cost of maintaining it must’ve been high.  A dozen years ago, I remember arriving back in Peebles with my parents after spending a day at Loch Lomond.  Having had a few drinks just before we embarked on the journey home, my Dad and I were both in desperate need of a pee by then and we stopped off at the Keys to visit its toilets.  When we entered, the sizeable public bar didn’t have a single customer in it – if it hadn’t been for the presence of one forlorn-looking barmaid, it could’ve passed for the interior of the Mary Celeste.  My Dad and I felt extremely guilty as we crossed the room, used the toilets and crossed the room again to the door, all the time the barmaid looking across the countertop at us with big, sad eyes, as if saying, “Won’t you please stay and buy a drink?”

 

As well as live music, the Keys was – and still is – notable for being home to Peebles’ most famous ghost.  It’s said that one of its hotel rooms is haunted by the spirit of Marion Ritchie, the daughter of the hotel’s second owner, who became its first landlady and reputedly inspired the character of Meg Dodds in Sir Walter Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Well.  Room number 5 is allegedly the source of Marion’s ghostly activities, which have included strange noises and voices and poltergeist-like incidents where glasses have been knocked off shelves and vacuum cleaners thrown through the air.  The ghost has a mischievous fondness for electrical appliances, which get inexplicably switched on and off in the room’s vicinity.  In 2007, a journalist spent the night in Room 5 and reported its television switching itself on, a bathroom tap turning itself on, mysterious red fingerprints being imprinted on the bathroom door and his belongings shifting mysteriously from one place to another.  That journalist worked for Scotland’s number-one, cheap-and-cheerful tabloid the Daily Record, so obviously it must all be true.

 

A while back it was announced that JD Wetherspoon, the ubiquitous pub chain, had acquired the Cross Keys with a view to turning it into one of their low-price, hangar-like drinking-and-eating establishments.  This would necessitate considerable changes being made to the building’s interior.  Interviewed in a recent article in our esteemed local newspaper the Peeblesshire News, a spokesman for the architects involved in the renovation, Harrison Ince, blathered about creating, “(c)omfortable, efficient and ergonomic dining facilities… complimented by ‘wow’ factors, such as feature fireplaces to give a sense of warmth and comfort and bespoke-designed sculptures to reflect the essence and character of the overall aesthetics.”

 

I’d be happier if those ‘wow’ factors had more to do with providing a good selection of whiskies and traditional real ales and creating an atmosphere where customers can relax, socialise and participate in meaningful human communication (as opposed to standing around glaikitly and being bombarded by deafening music, whooping and whirring games-machine noises and Sky Sports commentaries issuing from a dozen TV screens).  In fact, I’d be happier still if the spokesman hadn’t talked about ‘wow’ factors at all – it’s a horrible f***ing phrase.

 

Incidentally, the Cross Keys in its new JD Wetherspoon incarnation will not only be a pub.  It will still, supposedly, function as a hotel – for the redevelopment plans that the company has submitted to the Scottish Borders Council include proposals for seven bedrooms.  Let’s hope they don’t tamper too much with Room 5, because otherwise the ghost of Marion Ritchie might be making her displeasure known – wreaking poltergeist-style havoc as she tosses those bespoke-designed sculptures around the comfortable, efficient and ergonomic dining facilities.  Now that would be a ‘wow’ factor indeed.