A tale of (half) a trail of real ale
As I head into March with a half marathon looming into view for the second year running, I’ve looked back to last year and decided that probably one of the biggest factors that affected me (other than the weirdly stifling heat on the day) is the fact that right up until the week before the run I was still drinking here and there. I remember posting the pre-race blog for Silverstone while working my way through two glasses of wine with only a couple of days to go and sadly I don’t think I can count it as carb-loading, or claim the grapes are one of my five-a-day. So this time around I made a conscious decision to, as with the marathon, have a few weeks off in the buildup to the race and give myself the best possible chance of hitting my target on the day.
So, with that in mind, what better way to say goodbye to the booze but with a railway journey across the Pennines, stopping at some of the oldest and best pubs in the North West as part of the Transpennine Real Ale Trail. Everything seemed to fall into place for it to happen on Sunday 17th February; it was exactly a month until the run, Huddersfield were at home to Premier League opposition in the FA Cup with tickets for a tenner, and most importantly, the weather was absolutely brilliant after a month of cold, depressing sleety greyness. I’ve wanted to have a bash at this for a while, and although I wouldn’t be able to manage the whole thing due to predictable rail replacement buses shagging up my schedule, it would mean I had more time to spend in the early pubs on the trip and hopefully longer to sample more delicious local ales I’d never tried before.
The first pub on the trip was one of the strangest, and yet probably the most special, all at the same time. Built into the station platform itself, the Stalybridge Buffet Bar is nearly 130 years old, yet still has the original bar from when it was first built, along with many of the original fittings and stuff. It is widely renowned as a true ale-drinker’s paradise, and standing outside I ran through in my head the traditional image of a station pub; garish, full of fruit machines and with warm Fosters on sale for £4 a pint, and I wished they all could be more like this one. Before realising I’d probably never reach my intended destination if that were the case.
Unfortunately, it was the scene for the first cock up of the day as I arrived a full half hour before opening and was forced to stand like Paul Gascoigne, waiting for the pub to open on a Sunday morning. Depressing. Luckily the weather was probably the best it had been so far this year and so sat on the platform gazing out over the hills, I felt pretty content with life. And I hadn’t even had the first beer of the day yet.
Shortly before opening, a couple joined me and I felt a little better about myself, before we piled in and the ale trail was officially on, kicked off with a Liverpool Organic IPA (6.5%) and an egg and bacon muffin. I felt the muffin would atone for the 6%+ opening salvo. And then, all of a sudden, within half an hour of the pub opening it was heaving. This well-trodden route has become increasingly popular over the years, apparently more so since 2009 when it appeared on BBC TV. Before setting off, I’d read a fair bit about the large groups that now frequent the route, and all the locals complaining of hordes of people in fancy dress, swigging cans and pissing over platforms and in front gardens, meaning plenty of Old Bill everywhere and pubs serving you in plastic pint pots. Here though was just a bustling Sunday lunchtime, and it was enormously pleasant. After a swift second, a rather odd cloudy, smoky effort from Outstanding Beers (White, 5%) it was onto Greenfield.
The Railway Inn stands a minute’s walk from tiny Greenfield station, and walking in I was greeted with the unfortunate pairing of a totally empty pub and Chelsea battering Brentford in the FA Cup, rounded off with John Terry of all people knocking in the fourth and final goal. An inauspicious start, but a very pleasant boozer all in all, with a fine selection of ales and especially ciders. Coupled with the fantastic beer terrace on the edge of a cliff with a view down into the valley, this would make a cracking destination for summer drinking. One of the great British pleasures for me is sitting out in a beer garden, whiling away the afternoon with a pint or two. It’s such a rarity getting a chance to do it, especially in the North West, so you when the opportunity presents itself, you grab it with both hands. I will be back.
The beers themselves were good – a slightly disappointing Theakston’s Lightfoot (4.1%) followed by an absolutely stunning Millstone Tiger Rut (4%), a big fruity, refreshing summer ale. Probably in my top three for the day, and light enough for a lengthy session in the garden. Apparently they do shit hot pork pies as well, but on this occasion it was not to be, as an apologetic barman informed me they were sold out, and “not to rub it in, but they’re amazing“. So, beginning to feel a little lightheaded already, I headed on my way, but not before knocking one of the carefully placed vases of daffodils over and spilling water over my entire corner of the pub.
Stumbling off the train at Marsden, I hit the first real snag of the day: no mobile data reception, and right in the middle of the first place of the day where I had no idea where the correct pub was for the trail. Sure, there was one across the road, and it would have probably been a perfectly good hostelry, but I was after the big gun: The Riverhead Brewery and Tap Dining Room, a microbrewery serving around five of their own beers and a similar number of guest efforts. So I did the natural thing and just followed gravity, down a massive hill and into the centre of Marsden. And there, shining like a beacon, it was.
Now I don’t know if it was just the increasing levels of real ale flowing through my veins, but each pub seemed to be better than the one that preceded it, and so it proved again here. This place was fantastic, with far, far too much choice of what to order. The natural starting point was the Riverhead Premium (5.5%). Anything with “premium” in the name’s gotta be good, right? It certainly was in this case, rich and sweet with a lovely aftertaste, swiftly followed by their March Haigh (4.6%). Then, aware time was running out I necked a Rat Brewery Rattus Rattus (I am not making this up! 4.3%) which was a delicious wheat beer, and it was time to bid Marsden a hazy farewell.
With kick off fast approaching I was forced to skip the next stop, Slaithwaite, and I headed straight to Huddersfield which would mean exactly half the ale trail would be done today. Talk about unfinished business, you can expect another one of these blogs later in 2013. Unbelievably, Huddersfield station goes one better than Stalybridge and actually has two pubs built into it, both proper boozers as well with a scarcely believable range of ales and ciders. But there was no time for that now – I scurried off to John Smith Stadium for a serving of fairly terrible football and even worse pies. I’m serious – Huddersfield served me the worst football pie I have ever had. They actually ran out over half time (unforgivable) and when I finally got one after dashing back down on 50 minutes it was flavourless and overcooked so badly I could flip it upsidedown to eat it, using its own lid as a sort of plate. Absolute rubbish. One of the key factors when judging an away day is the quality of the football pie, and Huddersfield FC erred badly here. Sadly the result of the football was never really in doubt either, as Wigan easily passed Huddersfield off the pitch and romped home 1-4; there would be no giant-killing here.
Feeling a bit deflated, it was time to hit the last three pubs of the day; the two at the station and another recommended to me, The Sportsman. This place was bloody brilliant, and absolutely heaving with it being on the main route back from the ground into town. An outrageous selection of beers, as well as separate pie and cheese menus, I was genuinely gutted to leave after just one. Luckily it was a good one, and possibly the best of the day – Redwillow Soulless (7.2%). A dark IPA, served in a chalice, it was rich and decadent, and just the thing to banish the memory of the dreadful attempt at a football pie back at the stadium.
Next up, The Kings Head was the sort of place I could spend a whole evening in easily; a menu of beers running into double figures, good prices and live music. I timed it so the live music had just finished, which about summed up a lot of my luck on the day, but the beer was diverse and interesting; first up Yorkshire Dales “High Sleets” (4.5%) and then a bizarre white stout from Durham Brewery (7.2%) which to be honest didn’t taste (or look) like a stout to me. It was extremely enjoyable though and a lot lighter than its “stout” moniker would suggest. There’s a good chance my tastebuds were fucked at this point though as it was all going distinctly hazy. A final stop in The Head of Steam for a McGrath’s Stout (4.3%) which was a big, proper stout, served with a bag of pork scratchings, and that was it. No more booze until March 17th.
It was a strong finish to the day, and I can safely say that I did not have one beer that didn’t have something to offer. There were a couple of slightly bland efforts, but generally it was day of weird and wonderful ales, many local, and many like nothing I had ever drank before. Nothing was quite as it seemed; white stouts, dark IPAs, smoky wheat beers and huge, rich ales. And now a few new names of breweries to look for on the taps in future.
It was also a very “British” day out, travelling over lush, rolling, fells, drinking in timeless boozers and watching the oldest cup competition in the footballing world. It’s days like this that remind me how much this country has to offer. Living in the North West, and working in Ardwick in particular, it’s easy to become disillusioned with England and yearn for sunnier climes. Walking to work past patches of desolate wasteland through the soaking drizzle. Out training in 40mph winds and freezing sleet. One good sunny weekend per year where there’s an opportunity to actually sit out and enjoy a beer garden or have a kickabout with your mates in the park. But where else in the world could you take such a scenic journey, stopping off every 10 minutes to visit a drinking establishment older than anyone alive on this earth and pick from a menu of over 10 beers that you’d never seen before?
There’s something deeply comforting about a truly great pub, and to the best of my knowledge it’s not something that you can ever get anywhere else other than the UK & Ireland, other than crap, overpriced themed bars in most capital cities the world over. I love going abroad, exploring new cultures and (Iceland excepted) enjoying the weather. But I would always long to come back and spend an afternoon in the pub with a few ales and good company, and I suppose as I get older, that’s unlikely to ever change. Long may it continue.