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British Airport Pubs Are Most Alive Before Dawn

British airport pubs exist in a strange, liminal bubble. They don't operate within real time. But when you have to cater for those who want to get shit-faced on cheap Pinot before their 6AM flight to Costa Del Sol, there's no other option.
August 5, 2014, 12:08pm

August is peak season for smug Instagrams of holiday villas, "hotdog" legs by pools, foreign beers and, of course, the classic British tradition of checking in on Facebook at The Red Lion pub in Gatwick's North Terminal. Right now, on my timeline, there are three identical pictures of blue-labelled BrewDog bottles sitting on a dirty, too-small table in Gatwick's airside branch of J D Wetherspoon.

Look, I'm not judging. Before a holiday (to, among other places of cultural interest, Magaluf) last year, I downed a Coldwater Creek Pinot Grigio and tweeted my 4 AM wine shame. I say shame. I didn't give a shit. 175ml of wine was nothing compared to my fellow travellers, crowding pint glasses full of bright red Koppaberg cider off the sticky brown tables, getting wasted while tucking into fried breakfasts in various, reassuring shades of beige.

I've drunk Teresa Rizzi prosecco at 8 AM in that very same bar with six over-excited friends, talking about the brain-piercing hangovers we'd have on the way back from Dublin. I've discovered that, if I've got up at 3 AM to get the train to Gatwick, a salt beef sandwich and a large glass of red wine does weird things to my digestive system.

Most recently, I've watched a seven-year-old child carry a large white wine across the "outdoor" bit of the Red Lion (that's the seating area on the floor of the main terminal, the bit I can remember all the smokers sitting in, pre-smoking ban), encouraged by her parents, who were shouting, "hold the glass at the top! That's right, good girl".

For me, a pre-flight wine burning into my empty, confused, pre-5 AM stomach and the sicky hot flush that follows it is as much part of my holiday as spending £40 on small bottles of shampoo or my annual battle with Easyjet's hand baggage allowance. It signals the start of my sunny adventure.

I wouldn't say I've ever actually enjoyed a drink there—I'm not quite far enough into my functioning alcoholism to truly like the taste of alcohol before lunchtime—but I've spent money there, and I've taken up valuable table space, staring at the other customers, enjoying not the sharp wine but the experience of doing the number one thing society (and my mum) tells you not to do: drink first thing in the morning.

There's something so ridiculously British about having a JD Wetherspoon pub in an airport, and it creates such class distinction it's almost cartoon-like. It's almost as if, by passing through security, you're suddenly in a fluorescent-lit, 2014 version of Downton Abbey. When your only options are a £12 glass of champagne (in a plastic glass) at the Caviar House, a craft beer at the Union Jacks bar in Jamie's Italian or a pint of slightly-more-expensive-than-the-high-street Tuborg at The Red Lion, it feels like you're being ordered to pick your tribe.

Are you working class? Don't be fooled by Jamie Oliver's banter, or the signs promising "beer and crisps". You're not welcome here. Go, literally downstairs, to The Red Lion, winner of "Best Worldwide Airport Bar" at the Airport Food and Beverage Awards, held last year in Dubai. Let's just have a think about that awards ceremony and what it'd be like.

Sadly, even though downing as much alcohol as I can stomach before getting on a dehydrating flight where there is, on average, one toilet to every 175 people, is fun for me, it's not quite so good if you work there. As one Gatwick employee, who didn't want to be named, told me, "The English are the worst, I'll be honest. We get a lot of stag and hen dos come through here and you'd think it'd be the lads [getting rowdy], but it's the girls. It's a real eye-opener". He wouldn't elaborate, but having been one of those horrifyingly loud, red wine-mouthed idiots, I can probably guess what he'd been through. In fact, before chatting to him before my last flight, I'd wager I'd probably ruined his day at least once before already.

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Gatwick's finest: a half-English and a pint of JD & Coke at 4AM. Photo via Flickr user Rhonda Oglesby.

My new friend added that the pub's big rush hour was, perversely, before most non-holidaying people in the UK had got out of bed, as the early flights are the destinations hen and stag parties normally travel to. "The problem is that we get a lot of flights to Malaga [for Marbella] and Palma [for Magaluf] early in the morning, so people are drinking at 7 AM," added the employee (who works for the airport, not the pub chain). "The lads are going to Amsterdam or, late at night, Ibiza. People can't get too drunk, or we won't let them on the planes, but the other day I saw a lad who was looking really bad, so I spoke to the bar staff and said 'Don't serve the whole group'. They got snippy with me, but I explained: 'I can't let you buy him a drink'.

"The worst problem is underage drinking," he tells me, looking down at one of the sticky tables. "We have lads who've finished school, like The Inbetweeners, and are heading out, lads on tour, booze cruise-type thing. Even worse, though, are the ones on holiday with their parents."

What? "Yeah, we've had lads as young as 14 trying to buy drinks. The parents get annoyed but you say, 'Where's your passport?' and they say, 'My mum's got it', and then we're, like, 'OK, we'll hold onto your drink until you've got it then'. They can't claim not to have ID, because if you're in here, you've got your passport. Sometimes the parents get annoyed, but once you explain we could all get fined or lose our jobs, they're like, 'Oh'."

He added that there's no formal security employed by JD Wetherspoon, but there's always a member of airport staff "to keep an eye out". When I mentioned the seven-year-old wine waitress I'd spotted, he sighed. "That's not ok. But we can't be everywhere at once."

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Guinness crusaders at Stansted Airport. Almost certainly at the crack of dawn. Photo via Flickr user Marco Chiesa.

Despite this hand-wringing, the opening hours target that unique group of people who want to get their drinking in early (let's be honest, if you wanted a meal, there are a lot of other places to buy better, cheaper food). In summer, The Red Lion opens at 3 AM, and shuts after the last flight, normally around 10:30 PM or 11 PM, making it one of the only Wetherspoons I've been to where the atmosphere is more rowdy at 5 AM than it is at 10 PM, when the pub's lights dim slightly (to "reflect the shift in mood"), and everyone is more tired than excited.

Of course, there's always one last chance for a drink before you have to pay seven quid for a vodka and mini can of lemonade on the Easyjet flight you're about to board. On my last trip through Gatwick North Terminal, The Red Lion's tiny, one-till based offshoot, The Flying Horse (the "express" bar, between gates 101 and 113), was packed—every table taken—at 5 AM. At the bar, a slightly creased British woman with sunglasses optimistically perched on her head had already started her holiday—possibly about five drinks back—and was telling her life story to the manager, a tired-looking woman who nodded sympathetically as her new friend slurred. "I've got three boys, but I've always wanted a girl. Maybe it's too late now, you know..."

Never change, Britain. Never change.