Have you ever heard about the “Transpennine Real Ale Trail”? If you are from the South Pennines area you probably know about it. If not, you might remember the programme “Oz and James drink to Britain” on BBC in which Oz Clarke and James May went around Britain trying to find out more about British alcoholic drinks. In one episode, they actually try out this ale trail on train. And yes, I have done it too! I would say it was a great experience and is definitely an item to tick on a “must do before” list. I’ll try to recall the adventure as much as I can but bear with me because it’s a bit blurry as you can imagine.
It all started when a friend I recently met (I’ll call him “Mr. R”) asked me if I wanted to join him for a pint one day. It wasn’t long before he came back to me and suggested we’d meet with some other friends of his for a booze trip. “R” didn’t mess about, soon everything was sorted and we were asked to be at the train station at 4.50pm on that Wednesday night. Four of us were to meet at the station – “Mr. R”, “Mr. J”, “Mr. P” and me. After buying our return tickets to Stalybridge, which is on the other side of the border (Lancashire), our gang was finally ready to go. We boarded the train on time and everything went according to plan. The aim was to meet our last member “Mr. D” in Stalybridge and start the trail backwards from Stalybridge to Huddersfield. Here is how it went:
- 6.18pm (ish): our gang arrived in Stalybridge. I must point out that none of us knew the place or enquired about the location of the pub before setting off. “Mr. D” was the man with the knowledge. We were looking for a pub near the station. We followed the crowd like sheep and went outside. Looked around but no pub! What’s going on! Suddenly I noticed some barrels in a back alley behind the station and we followed this clue to realise that the pub was actually on the platform! How civilised and a true reminder of a bygone age when there were no commuters but travellers waiting for their train with a pint at the station buffet. Well the pub is simply called the Station Buffet Bar! No fuss here Anyway we went in and after deliberating on what to drink, we finally sat down waiting for “Mr. D”. The pub was great and its landlord was really friendly so we soon started to relax after this train journey packed with commuters. Looking ahead at the long journey that was still waiting for us though, we decided wisely to order something to eat. However the landlord was really sorry to let us know that his kitchen was closed that night! What a shame. We had to move on and hope that food won’t be as scarce in the next establishment. Finally “Mr. D” arrived and he only had time to order and drink up his pint because our train was arriving soon. When the landlord saw us leaving he said he had felt sorry for us and had put some crumpets on for us! How nice. Unfortunately we had to refuse his generous offer as the train was now arriving on the platform and half of us were already boarding. To this day I still wonder if it was a genuine offer or just a joke.
- 6.42pm: we had to board that train otherwise we would have been “stuck” in Stalybridge for an other hour and would have probably renounced moving on because the landlord, the ale and the place were so nice. The aim was to go back home tonight after all Next stop was Marsden where we arrived at 6.59pm. Thank god “Mr. D” was finally with us because darkness had struck and we didn’t know where to go really. He told us we had to walk all the way down to the village centre where we would find a place that should serve both food and real ale, “The Riverhead Brewery Tap and Dining Room”. And what a place! Located right next to the river, this place is owned by the Osset Brewery and as well as the brewery’s own ale, you can also order beer made on site from this micro-brewery. So we were up for a treat! They also have a restaurant on the first floor. I’ve been told it’s usually packed full but on that night it was rather quiet. We all ordered one of their own beers brewed on site and headed straight to the first floor. We sat on a big table and soon ordered some food. Everything sounded great and I think we all had something cooked with beer. Once the food arrived we all tucked in and were really thankful that they served such delicious meals. Unfortunately we felt so comfy that we missed our next train. Instead of staying in for another drink, we felt like it would be a good idea to visit another place in the village. So we headed for the one opposite the river, “The Swan“. It was let’s say eeer… dead! Well that wasn’t bad after all because we had the all place to ourselves. “Mr. P” broke from the ranks though and ordered a lager, while we carried on with some local real ale. We sat next to their old dartboard and had a go at it while waiting for the train. But soon we got bored, finished up our drinks and made our way to the station. There we waited for ages on that freezing platform. To entertain us, “Mr. R” got his smartphone out of his pocket and showed us the stars on his phone thanks to one of his apps. The only problem was that the sky was full of clouds and it was therefore less interesting. Good effort from “Mr. R” though. But suddenly all our senses were turned on when a freight train full of rubbish and vile stuff got out of the tunnel and cruised along the tracks. What a smell! No wonder the train was late. The driver was probably trying to stay as far as possible from this. Finally we saw our train arriving and we could board and appreciate the relative comfort of a warm carriage.
- 8.59pm (supposedly): We leave Marsden for Slaithwaite where we arrived a few minutes later, almost missing the stop as we couldn’t believe it was so close. Anyway this time we headed to “The Commercial“, down the road from the station. The place was quite lively and there was nowhere to sit – what a change from “The Swan”. So we stood at the bar and again tried out some local ale. Then a lady came next to us with a microphone and some paper, obviously she was getting ready for a pub quiz. No wonder the place was full! But first we had the chance to play “card bingo”. Rules are simple, buy a deck of card for a quid and wait for your cards to be called. Once all your card have been called shout “Bingo” and you win the jackpot. None of us won Shame that would have paid for the trip! Then came the quiz, which we didn’t play just in case it would drag on for too long and we had to miss our train. We did the right thing anyway ’cause the questions were really hard. We couldn’t stay too long though and made sure that we caught the next train otherwise we’d be stuck in Slaithwaite for the night! So we headed up to the station and I can tell you at this stage that the slope felt really long.
- 10.04pm: Thankfully we all boarded the only train we couldn’t afford to miss that night. We alighted in Huddersfield for our final stop on this ale trail. As in Stalybridge, the pub we went to is conveniently located on the platform and is called “The Head Of Steam“. We couldn’t stay too long as we had only 20 mins before the next train that would take us all home. Well that was more than enough for a quick pint anyway. Once there, I looked at their board and its impressive long list of beer available on tap, and one thing instantly struck me: there is a beer which is 10.5%! I had to have it. Fortunately I wasn’t that foolish and only ordered a half. I didn’t have time to appreciate it though as we had to rush for our next train towards Leeds. We didn’t miss it and, got our connection in Leeds and we all went back home. I must apologise to “Mr. J” though who sat opposite me and had to suffer my nonsense talking all the way home! That’s probably the side effect of that strong beer. What a night to remember anyway!
When writing this post, I actually found the “Transpennine Real Ale Trail” website: www.realaletrail.net. Although interesting, it’s not a great website and I find it limited as only one pub per stop is available.
Update 12 December 2011: Some serious concerns about the safety of rail passengers and rail workers on this real ale trail “Rowdy drinkers following a real ale trail across the Pennines could be banned from the rail network, British Transport Police (BTP) has warned.”