At 8.30am, the fog hangs low over Beaconsfield services, about 25 miles north-west of London, and cars are arriving from the M40 at a painstaking crawl. Road conditions are not ideal. All the same, if motorists squint as they turn into the car park, they will dimly perceive the words “the Hope and Champion” looming out of the fog. And, they may reflect, at least they’ve arrived in time to avoid an early encounter with a new automotive danger: the first drinkers to head back out on the roads after a session at a motorway branch of Wetherspoon’s.
The pub, which can fit 336 people over two floors, is nestled in a roadside retail paradise between Ibis Budget Beaconsfield and Starbucks. By yesterday’s grand opening, it was already the subject of controversy. “It’s a serious concern,” Richard Coteau, of the road-safety charity Brake, said. “It is vitally important that drivers know it’s not OK to stop off for a quick drink on the way home.”
If they do, though, where more charming than the Hope and Champion? Featuring tasteful faux-oak panels on the walls, imitation marble tabletops and a carpet as yet unsullied by vomit, it is significantly shinier than your average Spoon’s. It opens for its first day’s business at 4am, but no one involved in the enterprise is so crazy as to think that it’s a good idea to start serving alcohol on a motorway at that hour. Accordingly, you can’t get a pint until the far more sensible time of 9am.
As the big moment approaches, there are not, it must be said, an awful lot of prospective boozers waiting to get their orders in. Instead, a huddle of photographers forms around the bar. At about 8.58am, a reverential hush descends.
The hour ticks past and a man in a camouflage jacket with an earring approaches. He deliberates over a menu, quite oblivious to the history that hangs on his order, and asks for some breakfast. Anything to drink with that, he is asked? 16 varieties of lager and ale are on offer, as well as wine, a range of spirits and something called a Funkin Cocktail Mixer. “Just a coffee, thanks,” he says. The disappointed exhalation is audible.
At 9.20am, still nothing. Then a hearty-looking chap with a big grin and a tweed jacket strides in and plants himself in front of the pumps. “Are you having a pint?” someone asks. “Yes I am,” he replies. It is 9.21am, his name is Tom and his tipple, let history record, is a London Pride.
It’s still pretty early to be getting on it and an awkward question hangs in the air over whether Tom might be a problem drinker. He has, he says, driven here. Is he worried about heading back out on the road?
“After one little pint?” he scoffs. “I’m only doing it ’cause I heard about it on Radio Four. I just thought if I got here early, I might be the first to have a pint. Something to tell the guys about in the office.” At this point, he looks uneasily at his audience, and his eyes swivel back to his drink. A swift mental calculation seems to take place. “I wasn’t expecting you lot,” he says.
If the first hour is anything to go by, the M40 is unlikely to be clogged with double-visioned drunkards as a result of Wetherspoon’s innovation. The company estimates that sales of alcohol will amount to 25 per cent of business here, as opposed to 65 per cent in town centre branches. Soft drinks will be sold at a discount.
And the pub’s PR man, Eddie Gershon, is eager to point out that in the Marks & Spencer next door you can buy as much wine or beer as you like with no fuss at all. Over the next few hours, the number of (uniformly male) punters ordering alcohol swells considerably. William Arnold, who has driven 20 miles from Greenford in Middlesex to mark the occasion, is on his second pint; his wife Brenda, who is driving back, sticks to soft drinks.
“Yes, you’re going to get the odd idiot, three or four pints and then driving, we all know that,” he says. “But even if it wasn’t here, two minutes away there’s a pub.” Guy Taylor, who has also handed driving duties to his wife, admits that “it does seem a bit odd to have a drink in the service station. But it’s all about personal responsibility”.
Mr Gershon agrees. “There seems to be this idea that people are going to come in off the motorway and have 10 pints of lager – it’s just not reality,” he says, with remarkable energy for a man who has been patrolling the premises since 4am. “If people fancy a drink, they don’t fancy 10 drinks! It’s not Armageddon!”
It’s hard not to note a sneaky shift in terms here: after all, as the LCD screen on the till reminds you as you pay for your beer, “Just the one could be too much – you can’t calculate your alcohol limit. Don’t drink and drive.” So, are staff told to police excessive drinking more sternly than their counterparts in a pedestrianised town centre? No. “The same principles apply as in any pub,” Miles Slade, the chain’s deputy operations director, says. “We cannot manage that from behind the bar.”
If the chain is right that three-quarters of its business will come from food and soft drinks, there may not be a problem. But this is an experiment, so what will it do if it turns out to be wrong and customers are lining up the beers on an empty stomach? “Yeah, it’s a good point,” Mr Gershon says. “Um, I think it’s to be honest not a question I can necessarily answer. Generally Wetherspoon’s is very innovative, and very responsible.”
Innovative it is. Certainly customers are still adjusting. After a few gulps, that other pioneer, Tom with the London Pride, has thought a little better of his adventure. When the photographers ask him to hold the beer in his other hand so they can better picture his face, he loses a little of his natural ruddiness and puts the pint down on the counter. It is not half drunk.
“Aren’t you going to finish it?” someone asks, as he beats a hasty retreat back to the car park. “No!” he shouts over his shoulder. “I’m driving!”