Lymington: The town that's 'too posh for Argos' turns against JD Wetherspoon's pubs

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The Independent Online

It is not often you are greeted by a man in a top hat and waistcoat when alighting from a train. But perhaps it should be no surprise that the station master at Lymington is dressed as grandly as the Fat Controller. After all, this is the place with the reputation of being "too posh for Argos".

The attractive Hampshire harbour town drew plenty of headlines when residents saw off plans for the catalogue shop to open a store there. Now, local anger has defeated a potential new invader on the high street – the pub chain Wetherspoon's – leading to the question: is this the snootiest place in Britain, or just the most discerning?

Sitting on the Hampshire coast at the edge of the New Forest, with pastel-coloured Georgian houses and a cobbled street leading down to the marina, Lymington is not the sort of place associated with "booze Britain". Cream teas, perhaps. Bargain-basement pints of Stella? Not on your nelly.

So when it was proposed that a large furniture shop next to a church should become the latest addition to JD Wetherspoon's 775 pubs, resistance quickly took root in the most English of ways possible, a petition.

Few people in the town seem to have ever stepped inside one of the chain's almost ubiquitous premises. Nevertheless, they saw it as malign corporatisation and a binge-drinking threat. In the local broadsheet, the Lymington Times, Councillor Maureen Holding said: "We don't want our young people having loads of cheap booze and having an opportunity to get inebriated all over the place."

"We couldn't care less what the name of the pub is," Jonathan Hutchinson, a retired RAF officer, said. "What we are opposing is a drinking supermarket. It's not a town that lends itself to that sort of thing."

Even some younger residents are against it. Louise Carrington, 22, said it would bring a "mob atmosphere" to the "charismatic old town," adding: "It would attract the wrong kind of people."

They were therefore relieved when the New Forest council turned the planning application down last week.

Some town folk took umbrage at reports of their battle against Argos; they are not snobs, they insist. Mr Hutchinson said he just wants to ensure the town remains special for generations to come, while Dr Donald Mackenzie, a dentist and press secretary of the Lymington Society, was anxious that the town folk not be portrayed as "nimby fascists".

"Lymington does embrace the modern world," he said. "We're cosmopolitan, it's not an inward looking town at all. We're not against national chains that provide things the town wants."

Indeed, the town centre does now feature a 99p Store, albeit one that opened with a champagne reception to placate naysayers. There might not be a Starbucks yet – the café that caused similar uproar when it tried to open a branch in London's Primrose Hill in 2002 – but there is a Costa Coffee and a Café Nero.

A Wetherspoon's, however, is not welcome. "A lot of the pubs in Lymington are struggling, with high rents and falling sales. Without a doubt, if a big pub came, it would put enormous pressure on the others, and we would be likely to lose some of them. The worst part is the location. It is cheek by jowl with a beautiful church, and opposite an old-people's home. It's likely that there will be tension between crowds spilling out on to the pavement next door to a funeral or wedding. And, inevitably, people would be relieving themselves in the graveyard."

Dr Mackenzie said the town was facing an onslaught from developers who do not understand the character of the town. As well as "garden-grabbing," a block of 300 apartments – labelled a "Benidorm bolt-on" by Mr Hutchinson – is about to be built on the riverfront.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Terry Palfrey, the owner of the shop that was to be transformed, has wanted to retire for four years and the Wetherspoon's offer was his best chance to sell the building. Now he says it will most likely be knocked down by a developer to build flats or become a junk store. He said more people had stopped by to support the plan than to voice their disapproval. "Why should the people of Lymington be deprived of a cheap drink? It's expensive around here," said Mr Palfrey.

One recent graduate who visited a Wetherspoon's regularly while studying at Bournemouth University, just down the coast, also defended the idea. "They're scared it's more of a club," he said from beneath a blonde skateboarder's fringe. "They're actually really relaxed, laid-back." For now, he will have to travel to Bournemouth.

Chains undone by protest

*McDonald's, Hinchley Wood

In 2000, residents in Hinchley Wood, Surrey, defeated the fast-food chain's plan to replace the village's only pub with a restaurant – but only after maintaining one of the longest-ever sit-ins. Using two caravans in the pub car park, they kept vigil for more than 500 days. McDonald's did not need planning permission to convert the pub, but it did require approval for road widening, allowing the villagers to delay change with endless appeal hearings.

*Starbucks, Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill had a big advantage when the coffee chain tried to move in, and that was its celebrity residents. Actor Jude Law, author Jeanette Winterson, broadcaster Joan Bakewell, theatre director Nicholas Hytner, artist Patrick Caulfield, singer Neneh Cherry ... the 1,300 letters sent to Camden Council in protest in 2002 included some very famous names. They won.

*Tesco, Sheringham

It's been 14 years, and this one's still going on. The seaside town of Sheringham, in North Norfolk, is the scene of what must one of the longest-running of all disputes. A planning application was turned down in March, but Tesco has now submitted a new plan that will be put to a parish vote at the end of this month. Open only to registered electors, it is not legally binding but will give a formal indication of the opposition.