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?
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.
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:
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.