There's a unique atmosphere in Wetherspoons on weekday mornings. Without music or the bustle of a busy evening, the pub I'm in feels remarkably still, the silence only broken by the occasional plod of pint glass on table.
I'm not here for a pint, though, or a reasonably priced chicken korma. I'm at The Mossy Well in Muswell Hill to speak to Mags Thomson, a 67-year-old from Livingston, Scotland, who at the time of our meeting has visited 992 JD Wetherspoon branches, including 80 that have since closed down. It's her ambition, and intention, to visit every single 'Spoons in the UK.
I drop into a sofa opposite Mags and her friend Evelyn, who's joining her on this trip. "Aye, I've not been to this one before," she says. "It only opened back in October, but it's lovely!"
The most pressing question, as far as I see it, is just how you go about visiting every Wetherspoons in the country; new branches open up seemingly every fortnight, the majority of them hundreds of miles from Mags' home. "Well, I'm retired now," Mags explains, "which is good, because this is basically a full-time job. But before I retired I was a personal secretary, and I organised trips for my bosses, so I suppose that helps. To make a trip worthwhile, I need to visit at least seven Wetherspoons."
There's a red plastic folder and a pamphlet titled "Wetherspoons Directory" on the table in front of Mags; the directory contains just under 1,000 pubs. "The ones highlighted in green are the ones I've been to," she says. Scanning the list, which contains Wetherspoons from Leicester to Llandudno, I can't find one that hasn't been marked.
When I ask what's in the folder, Mags pulls out extensive printed maps of London and Windsor, where her and Evelyn are off to tomorrow for the second day of their south coast 'Spoons tour. "That's nothing," laughs Evelyn, pointing to the pile of maps, "it's normally a much fatter stack."
There's something classically eccentric about Mags' mission. It's the "and finally" segment at the end of the local news – the little boxout on the cover of Take a Break! But sitting opposite Mags, it quickly becomes clear that this isn't going to be a conversation of wry smiles and ironic remarks about the curry club. When she tells me about the The Waterend Barn in St Albans, or the raised standard of the toilets in the recently-restored pubs, I feel surprisingly involved. These trips to Wetherspoons seem to make her genuinely, profoundly happy, and the more we talk – and the more one name continues to crop up – I begin to understand why.
"My late husband Ian was a railway enthusiast," says Mags. "I used to stand on platforms with him, but it got quite boring, so I went for wander down Reading high street. I saw this pub and just thought it looked quite nice. I went in and phoned Ian to tell him where I was."
Ian came to meet her, they drank a few glasses of beer together, and as they left Mags noticed the words under the pub sign: JD Wetherspoon. She had found her answer to Ian's trainspotting hobby. "At first we'd go on holiday, and wherever we went we'd look for Wetherspoons pubs," she says. "But then we turned it round – we looked to see where the Wetherspoons pubs were and hooked the holiday around that."
For the best part of 16 years, Mags and Ian Thomson travelled the country together, one chasing trains, the other 'Spoons. Then, in July of 2010, Ian died.
"Initially I was terrified of being in the house on my own, so I had to deal with that first," says Mags. "Then there was going into the centre of Livingston, getting motivated to get up, get ready and go into town. You lose all your confidence when something like that happens."
Mags spent two years in Livingston, hardly leaving the house, let alone visiting pubs. However, while she'd taken a break, the ever-expanding 'Spoons empire hadn't; between 2010 and 2012, 13 new branches opened up in Scotland alone. Mags knew she wanted to hit the Wetherspoons trail again, but it was only when a friend suggested she try a visit to Newcastle – a short train ride away from Livingston – that she felt confident enough to take that first trip away on her own. "There were times on that train journey that I thought, 'I can't do this,' but I put that to the back of my mind," she says.
Happily, the mini-break worked. "As soon as I got back I couldn't wait to get away again," says Mags. The Wetherspoons tour was back on.
There's clearly something poignant in all of this, how a pastime Mags enjoyed with her late husband has now become a tribute to his memory. But as a means of coping with grief, it's also an admirably head-on tactic. Mags is not distracting herself with these visits. Her trips are unequivocally a celebration of her late husband – a lived expression of their friendship, played out alone over half pints of cider in pubs up and down the country. It allows Mags to both mourn and move on. "I'm finding now that, in many Wetherspoons I go to, I have my memories from when I visited with Ian, alongside new memories of my own," she says.
We rarely choose the places that matter to us. Perhaps, if we could, we'd opt for iconic landmarks, or beauty spots, or sites of cultural significance. Put simply: we probably wouldn't choose Wetherspoons. But we don't get to choose. We stumble in somewhere to get out of the rain, or because our car's broken down, or because our husband's out photographing trains. And only later, once time has passed, do we realise exactly what some fuzzy patterned carpet and sticky brown tables actually mean to us.
"I met a photographer once for the Wetherspoon News [magazine], who suggested we meet at the North Western in Liverpool," says Mags. "I didn't realise before I arrived that it was the pub on Lime Street station concourse, a pub I'd visited with Ian when it was a steam rail bar, long before it was a Wetherspoons."
Mags recalls entering the new Wetherspoons and the moment that connection suddenly dawned on her. "They'd kept all the railway stuff – all the way up the stairwell were these pictures of trains," she says. "I was nearly in tears."
I ask Mags if she felt like her husband was with her. "Aye," she responds, "and my late son; he was a railway enthusiast as well." She explains that her son died from a sudden pulmonary embolism 18 years ago, aged 26. "His name was Brian," she adds. "It should have been spelt with a 'Y', but Ian forgot and spelt it wrong."
As a window into the state of a nation, you could do worse than visiting every Wetherspoons in the country; they're absolutely everywhere. Mags can't pick a favourite, though, because, she says, the people in each one she's visited have all been equally warm and hospitable. "I couldn't say I have a favourite part of the country, because people talk to me wherever I go – whether they compliment my earrings, or just ask if I'm alright on my own," she says. "They give me space, but are just letting me know they know I'm there."
Before we get up to leave, Mags and Evelyn eager to continue their tour of north London's 'Spoons, I ask Mags exactly what it is about the first Wetherspoons that stuck with her. She stops for a second and thinks. "I just felt at ease," she says. "I always feel that way in Wetherspoons."
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