Pews to pints: Pub chain JD Wetherspoon buys landmark Methodist church in south Belfast
A church is set to replace pews and Bibles with pints and barstools as it is resurrected as a pub. The red brick Methodist church in south Belfast survived the bombs of both the Blitz and the Troubles – but dwindling congregation numbers led to its demise.
Now it has been snapped up by budget pub chain JD Wetherspoon for £800,000 – twice the original asking price.
Wetherspoon's chairman and founder Tim Martin told the Belfast Telegraph that it was part of a major expansion in Northern Ireland, and revealed the company had been doing very well here since opening in Belfast in 2000.
It now has nine pubs across the region, but after a particularly good performance over the last two years, Wetherspoon has advanced plans to expand.
It is understood the chain is also in negotiations to buy the building formerly occupied by JD Sports on Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre.
Mr Martin – who is originally from Holywood, Co Down – revealed the company was also looking at opening in a number of other major towns including Armagh, Newry and Omagh.
"We are doing very, very well at the Bridge House and that gives us confidence to have a look at a few more areas," he said.
"In all of Northern Ireland we have had a good improvement in trade in the last two or three years.
"I think it's because we have a lot of people who have been working for us now for a long time, and they are very good.
"So I think they have made the trade. The company has become better known and the people working in the pubs have helped us."
A spokesman said the Lombard-Venetian-Romanesque-style church on University Street will be one pub, but will be no bigger than the Bridge House on Bedford Street.
"It will be a decent-sized pub. It won't be massive because obviously a church looks huge, that is how they are designed," he said.
The company is meeting next week to discuss how it plans to develop the property.
Outside of Belfast the company also has expansion plans.
"We are looking at a few locations but none has come to fruition," the spokesman said.
"We are hoping that a few more might develop in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland," he said. "It will be in the biggest towns – we are interested in Omagh, Armagh, Newry and towns of that ilk."
This is not the first landmark building the pub chain has snapped up in Northern Ireland.
The Wetherspoons pub in Coleraine is housed in the old court house, while in Ballymena it occupies a former spinning mill. In Enniskillen, JD Wetherspoon occupies a former linen hall.
The pattern is similar across the rest of the UK where Wetherspoons occupies a former swimming pool in Sheffield, a former theatre in Cardiff and a former bank in Leeds.