Meet The Pensioner Who's Visited Over A Thousand Wetherspoons
One thing that stands out when you speak to 68-year-old Mags Thomson is her seemingly photographic memory of many of the pubs she has visited.
Somewhere in the middle of our hour-long conversation, I realise that we've taken a detour and have been discussing the merits of the various branches of JD Wetherspoon around Manchester city centre for the last five minutes.
The Paramount - "one of the nice ones." The Waterhouse - ruined by steep steps at the entrance. The Moon Under Water - "one of the most interesting buildings." Mags speaks with a knowledge of the area that belies the fact that her local, The NewYearField in Livingston, is some 200 miles to the north.
In total, she has now managed to visit 1012 of the company's pubs (just over 900 are currently open, so her list includes ones that have now closed) and 38 of its hotels - and although the scale of her task means she can't recall every one, over the course of our conversation she gives it a good shot.
It was in 1994 that she first stepped foot into one of the chain pubs, after she became bored during one of her husband Ian's visits to railway stations around the country. "He was a railway enthusiast," she says, after I ask how it all began. "I used to go with him, but I'd get fed up and cold waiting on railway platforms, so one day I went off to look for somewhere to eat and drink."
The pub she walked into was the 'Monks Retreat' in Reading. She wasn't aware it was a Wetherspoon pub at the time, but after her husband joined her and they learned it was part of the chain, the couple decided they would visit more as they travelled around the country.
At first they booked holidays and checked to see what pubs were in the local area, but as they visited more of the pubs, gradually it progressed so that they would build entire holiday schedules to maximise their potential visits to the chain - visiting up to ten in the space of a single day.
The two of them had aimed to visit every single Spoons in the country, but sadly Ian passed away in July 2010. For a while, Mags thought that their odyssey had come to an end at 708 branches, now reflecting that she 'lost confidence' and no longer wanted to travel without her husband.
Mags pictured with her husband Ian. Credit: Provided
"For the first two years after that I went out and about, but I didn't feel like going away too far on my own," she says. "But then I went to Newcastle for two nights on my own at a friend suggestion and after I did some Wetherspoons there, I got the buzz again."
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Mags began to travel across the country again and she is now believed to have visited more Spoons than anybody in the country, ticking off over 300 since Ian's death. Her mission has led to her becoming a minor celebrity, featured on the BBC website, as well regularly making appearances in Wetherspoon News, the chain's own magazine. "I've had a lot of people asking about me," she admits.
She attributes the accomplishment primarily to her organisational skills. "I'm a very organised person," she tells me. "I think you've got to be doing what I'm doing - once a week I'll go onto Wetherspoon's website and it tells you the ones that are opening in the future.
"When I make a trip I tend to have a note of the train times and a wad of paper with me, then I can decide how long I'll spend at one pub before moving onto the next."
Mags in the Wetherspoon News. Credit: JD Wetherspoon
Since her journey began, JD Wetherspoon has expanded to become a national institution - most of their establishments a far cry from the traditional 'old man' pubs she describes having visited at the beginning of her travels. Now a pensioner, her visits aren't so much about knocking back pints as taking in each pub's architecture; looking to see what they've done in terms of the lighting, the carpets and the refurbishing.
Sat in your local boozer, getting through six pints on a Wednesday night among the same people you see every week, it's easy to get stuck in the routine and imagine that to be how that pub has always been - and always will be. But Mags also describes how the culture around Spoons has changed as men have been discouraged from standing at the bar and dingy locals have been modernised.
"I noticed people are eating more than they used to - people used to go in for a drink and sit there quite a long time, myself included. But now it seems if they go in for a drink, it will be for one or two, then they're out, or otherwise they'll get something to eat."
Although some might decry the end of 'the pub' as we know it, with the smoking ban having come in over a decade ago and drinking rates steadily on the decline, Mags is largely a fan of the progress made during that time. "The modern [pubs] are really nice - where you get mixed seating, with arm chairs, high tables and booths," she says.
Credit: PA Images
"People have got away from standing at the bar now. It's never bothered me, going up, but sometimes it used to be awkward to get in because you didn't know whether men were queuing or just there enjoying their drink."
Considering how many branches Mags has visited, you might think she'd get bored with the chain, so often criticised by drinkers for its soullessness in comparison to independents. Before our conversation ends, I ask her what it is that makes Wetherspoons worth visiting time and time again. She pauses for a second, then replies: "Being on my own, I don't feel anxious or nervous going into them, they're very comfortable. You feel at ease."
And I suppose that, more than anything, is what everybody wants in a pub.
Featured Image Credit: JD Wetherspoon