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JD Wetherspoon restores Ramsgate's old pavillion

PUBLISHED: 15:04 19 March 2018 | UPDATED: 15:04 19 March 2018

The restored pavilion glimpsed across Ramsgate's Royal Harbour (photo: Manu Palomeque)

The restored pavilion glimpsed across Ramsgate's Royal Harbour (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Kent Life discovers how J D Wetherspoon has given Ramsgate back its architectural gem with a mixed-use development worthy of a 21st-century audience

Kent is blessed with its very own ‘Royal’ harbour but for years Ramsgate’s magnificent seafront has been missing a vital piece in its jigsaw.

The Grade II listed former pavilion had fallen into dilapidation and become one of the UK’s most at-risk Victorian/Edwardian buildings. Built in 1902 and opened as a concert hall and assembly rooms two years later, it was designed by architect Stanley Davenport Adshead and based on the style of a Robert Adam orangery with an interior derived from the Little Theatre at Versailles.

Simplified in the 1930s, after being a nightclub and then a casino, it closed in 2008. It was going to take a brave company to come to the rescue, and who better than JD Wetherspoon with its admirable history of taking on old buildings and restoring them to become a feature for the town that both honours the past but looks to the future at the same time.

However, the pavilion was a project literally on another scale. At just over 15,000 sq ft this has become the largest pub in the Wetherspoon estate and needed a £4.5m investment to rescue it. It’s more than twice the size of The Moggleton Inn in Maidstone, which had previously been the county’s largest ‘Spoons.

The pavilion in its heyday, courtesy of Kent History and Library Centre, MaidstoneThe pavilion in its heyday, courtesy of Kent History and Library Centre, Maidstone

I am sitting over coffee with area manager Mark Powell, the pub’s manager Chris Whitbourn and David Carrington of architectural and design company KDPA, who have worked with JD Wetherspoon for more than 15 years.

I ask David if the scale of the project had been off putting. He smiles: “When you see something like this, the feeling is pure excitement – if it’s daunting, it’s not going to be a good result.”

Mark reveals how the company had been looking at opportunities in Ramsgate for the last decade and that the casino came to their attention about five years ago, when discussions with the local council first began.

The process was a very thorough one, as David explains: “We were in close liaison throughout with the council, who were very supportive but obviously had a lot of serious questions to ask.

During the construction processDuring the construction process

“This is a heritage building of great significance to the people of Ramsgate and they wanted to ensure that whoever took this building on and developed it was going to do so in a sympathetic manner.

“In our series of public presentations we allayed their fears and if anything heightened their excitement at the prospect of this all coming to fruition. We researched all the original drawings, we had to go to RIBA’s archives and were lucky enough to find some of the few surviving original architects’ drawings, more than 100 years old, of the exterior.”

This meant that at least the architects knew how the building had been constructed and were able to restore features that had been gone for a long time, such as the delightful arched dormer windows in the roofspace.

The interior, however, was a very different story and that’s when Ramsgate’s people stepped in, with local historians offering black and white photographs and many residents giving as much information as they could about the building and its history. Invaluable as that local feedback was, there was really nothing left inside to go on so everything had to be created from scratch. Local expectation that the finished result would be a treasure trove of Victorian architecture couldn’t be further from the truth.

The roof terrace looking towards sea and beach below (photo: Manu Palomeque)The roof terrace looking towards sea and beach below (photo: Manu Palomeque)

The balcony railings, for example, are inspired by the fact that this was originally a theatre and assembly rooms, the sweeping staircase is a glamorous addition to an elegant building, the modern chandeliers are David’s own design based on the original light fittings, the wall colour is a fresh mint green that works so well with the upholstery. It’s bold but sympathetic.

David explains: “The way you tackle a building of this size and stature is to go back to the original – it’s that which gives it its authenticity. Otherwise you’re just creating a pastiche, and we’re not about that.

“We want to create memorable, authentic buildings. Wetherspoon have a key interest in pub values so it’s combining those values with the authenticity of the building we are putting together that is the key.”

And the result is genuinely breathtaking, from the moment you walk down the hill towards the harbour and spot the distinctive signage gracing the gently domed roof.

Chris Whitbourn, Mark Powell and David Carrington (photo: Manu Palomeque)Chris Whitbourn, Mark Powell and David Carrington (photo: Manu Palomeque)

David tells me that this is one of his favourite aspects of the design: “It is actually based on 1950s/60s signage but it had just the look we wanted; timeless but legible from a distance. It ‘speaks’ to Ramsgate and suits the grand scale of the building.”

He adds: “The pavilion is based on a Robert Adam orangery and that shape is why it dominates the skyline as much as it does – there’s a real romanticism to the building and that lies in its clean lines. It’s iconic, it’s elegant and it has a timeless appeal.

“How lucky are we to have the royal connection too, so it’s simply Royal Victoria Pavilion – the original name. Wetherspoon will always honour the past and the history of the building, including the name.

“I’ve worked on large-scale projects before but this was something special because of the sheer scale and the heritage involved. It’s the restoration of a local icon and at the same time it’s creating a timeless quality that makes it fit for the 21st century.”

Opened on 29 August 2017 – just after the Bank Holiday – the contractors were on site just nine months, which is extraordinary when you hear about what greeted them when they inherited the building.

“You could see sky through what was left of the roof, pigeons flying in and out, a lot of water damage, it was in a very poor state and that was all part of the challenge,” says David, with admirable understatement.

One of the biggest tasks was replacing the entire roof and at the time it was not only the largest zinc roofing project in Europe, but also had to all to be done by hand. With only three specialist businesses in the UK able to deal with this scale of building, in the end it was a small independent father and son company who took on the huge job. At its peak there were around 200 people working on the building.

Mark tells me that all-important local response has been “fantastic, very positive. People have come from all over the UK to see it, not just Kent.”

And indeed as we sit in our snug booth (there’s a mix of intimate and ‘party’ areas, for larger groups), it’s easy to see how the building itself guides the flow of customers and invites you in.

We watch people literally stop in their tracks to gaze in wonder. Others, clearly regulars, make for their favourite spot and, on this crisp but blessedly bright morning, upstairs and out onto the roof terrace is a favourite destination. Facing the sea and beach below, with the harbour to your right and the wind in your hair, it’s not hard to see why summer trade was “amazing,” in the words of manager Chris.

He’s worked with JD Wetherspoon for 10 years but this is his first new opening and he has now made the area his home. He says: “When we opened it was so good for the people in Ramsgate pour in to see the old pavilion that had sat derelict for 10 years brought back to life.”

A capacity for 400 on the roof terrace, with 128 tables outside, means there’s room for everyone. And there have been plenty of local employment opportunities too, with 150 to 200 staff working here in the height of the season and the early and late shifts suiting a whole range of demographics.

Even the loos are amazing – practically the size of a small flat and decidedly opulent. So put any preconceived ideas about this particular pub chain to one side and get yourself to Ramsgate to marvel at what has been achieved from an architectural and business perspective. As David says: “We’ve not built a museum, but we have restored an historic building that is now going forward.”

Royal Victoria Pavilion - JD Wetherspoon, 96 Harbour Parade, Ramsgate CT11 8LP. 01843 854420

Did you know?

Founded in 1979 by Tim Martin, who opened his first pub in Muswell Hill, north London, the name of the business originates from JD, a character in The Dukes of Hazzard, and Wetherspoon, the name of one of Tim’s teachers in New Zealand. He has been quoted as saying: “I decided to call it Wetherspoon’s after a former teacher – not because the teacher in question at my primary school in New Zealand had said I would never make it, as some people think, but because he was too nice a fellow to be running our particular class and he couldn’t control it. So I thought: I can’t control the pub, he couldn’t control the class, so I’ll name it after him.”

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