Swedes dream of the British pub

Sweden may have given us Ikea, but in return, one Yorkshire antiques dealer is giving Scandinavia traditional British pub style. Helen Leavey meets Robin Wetherill. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.

Antique dealer Robin Wetherill's shop in York
Antique dealer Robin Wetherill's shop in York

At the end of the working day in Stockholm’s financial district, Sweden’s smartly dressed bankers are ready for a drink.

But instead of downing a traditional glass of the vodka-like beverage akvavit, many head off for a pint of Fuller’s London Pride at the nearby British-themed pub, the Bull and Bear Inn.

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With its wood-panelled walls, complete with a picture of Winston Churchill, the pub is a world away from the sleek modern bars you would expect to find in Scandinavia.

Antique dealer Robin Wetherill's shop in York

But the Bull and Bear has been serving cask-conditioned ales, malt whiskies and fish and chips in a traditional British atmosphere for 22 years.

The inspiration behind this small piece of Britain comes from an unlikely source – an antiques dealer, Robin Wetherill, who sells his wares from a small, cramped shop in the shadow of York’s medieval walls.

It is the kind of place where passers-by stand with their noses pressed to the glass window, marvelling at the many strange items inside. They would not guess that many of the pieces end up in Sweden, where Robin has been involved with kitting out almost 70 British-themed venues, mainly bars, pubs and restaurants.

He spends weeks collecting items together, which are then shipped over to Gothenburg from Hull.

Antique dealer Robin Wetherill's shop in York

His shipments can include everything to furnish a room, from large items such as tables to knick-knacks; coronation mugs, fading pictures and lights. One shipment was worth £18,000.

Robin, 70, said: “I’ve done three jobs in Sweden since October. Sometimes it’s eight projects a year, sometimes just one. It certainly got easier to work out what they wanted after the first few.”

His Sweden-related work has become one of the most lucrative aspects of his business.

One pub he helped refit is called The Queen’s Head, dedicated to Queen Alexandra, the Dane who married the British monarch Edward VII. “That was quite swish,” said Robin.

There was also a project in a big law firm. “I put in a mix of pictures of Victorian gentlemen of the day. There were judges, interiors of the Old Bailey and convicts on a treadmill.”

Robin said he had also furnished the reception areas of Swedish solicitors’ offices so they look like stately homes.

He showed me an invoice for one batch of items recently shipped to Gothenburg. It included mirrors, tankards, Toby jugs, cast iron tables from the 1930s, “signs” from Harry Potter’s school Hogwarts, and pictures of cricket scenes and the Queen.

Not everything goes to plan. Robin used to send full tables over to Sweden, but then he realised that the air in Britain is not the same. “When we first sent bar tables the wood would warp as the air is dryer over there,” he said. Now he just sends the cast iron legs. When he starts a new project he does it from a distance, working from photographs of the buildings that are sent to him.

He has never even been to Sweden. “It’s too expensive,” said Robin, revealing a dedication to thrift that would make many Yorkshire people proud.

Sweden is more used to exporting its own furniture – think Ikea – so why does Robin think Swedish people enjoy drinking in dark, British-themed pubs?

“When they visit the UK they enjoy our pubs and the atmosphere. It’s a compliment that they copy us,” he said.

Swedes are also fascinated with World War Two, which is why Robin often includes pictures of Britain’s wartime prime minister in Sweden-bound shipments.

One Swede who is familiar with British pubs is Cornelia Rudh, a 40-something marketing professional who lives just outside Stockholm. She said the pubs are popular partly because of the popularity of the English Premiership in Sweden.

“These football fans want to pretend that they are English – or even in England. If they can’t afford to fly over there, the nearest thing is to go to a British pub,” she said.

When I visit Robin’s shop on York’s Bishopthorpe Road it is jam-packed with antiques and, not unexpectedly, a wide range of unusual items.

There is an assortment of pictures, furniture and crockery, and scores of other bits and pieces: an advertising sign for Guinness, a framed front-page of a newspaper from the 1800s, and several phrenology heads, model heads popular in the 19th century that were used to help the study of the brain.

Robin’s prices range from a fiver to several hundred pounds and he gets most of his stock from auctions and people popping in. One day recently, a man shuffled into the shop and from a plastic bag pulled out a decorated plate wrapped in newspaper. Did Robin want it?

The antiques man took a quick look then dug into his pocket, pulled out £5 and handed it over. “That will do for the next shipment to Sweden,” he said.

Robin’s work in Sweden started by chance when Stockholm-based interior designer Anders Hemberg was looking for British antiques for the Bull and Bear Inn.

He popped into the York shop after his hotel recommended Robin’s Aladdin-like cave. Anders is now 69 and still visits York a couple of times a year to look for more items.

Robin was brought up in Knaresborough, the son of an electrical engineer and a mother who was a tailor.

He left school – where he met his future wife – at 15, initially working as a trainee salesman.

In 1965, Robin began managing the shop he now owns, on Bishopthorpe Road. He said it was then a bit like the discount store Poundstretcher.

He described himself at that time as not unlike “Del Boy” from the TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses, but stressed the store was “a legitimate business, selling all kinds of things”.

He chuckled as he remembered how the shop once bought 20,000 pairs of nylons for 2p each and sold them for sixpence.

Girls from the Terry’s chocolate factory would come into the shop and insist on trying them on before buying them. Robin could not believe his luck.

His move into antiques came about partly because he and his wife liked quality furniture, so when they bought the shop in 1973 they decided to sell antiques.

Now he looks as though he was born to the job. His conversation is friendly, polite and knowledgeable, as he details each item in his shop. With his neat shirt and tie he looks like someone who can persuade customers to part with their money.

Robin clearly relishes his work – it’s never boring, he said – and has had to learn a lot about antiques, mostly by reading up on them.

His customers have included royalty, rock legends and wealthy Brits who told him tales of their drunken lives on country estates.

Over the years, he has sold to many other countries around the world.

Before the Internet had been invented and when mass travel was less popular than it is now, he sold to ordinary people and traders from Germany, Holland and France.

Other customers have included Americans, Japanese, New Zealanders and Chinese.

Robin has had to get up to speed with exchange rates because he often lets customers pay in their own currency.

“Make it as easy as you can for them,” he said, revealing a zeal for selling that is probably the secret of his success.

Not surprisingly, Robin has many anecdotes, including one about a famous Norwegian who popped into his shop one day.

He realised instantly that the man walking in was important because he arrived with two bodyguards in tow. When the man went for a look round upstairs, one of the guards whispered to Robin 
that their boss was a member of Norway’s royal family.

Robin sold him an old-fashioned telephone and then decided to get his own back for the destruction caused by the Vikings in York more than a millennium ago.

“I said to him, ‘last time you lot came up our river you caused a lot of bother, I hope you are going to behave yourself this time.’ The man just burst out laughing,” said Robin.

A few months later the antique seller was flicking through a copy of Hello! magazine and spotted the man’s wedding between the pages. He turned out to be Norway’s crown prince.

Although Robin recently downsized his shop, he says he has no plans to retire. With such an interesting life, I do not blame him.

After all, who knows who, or what, might cross his path next? And there are still many more Swedish towns and cities to conquer.