David Whitley discovers the station-pubs where boutique brews have beer lovers hoping for a train delay.
The platform at Stalybridge station is a picture of northern English bleakness. A spiteful wind brewed in the foothills of the Pennines turns mild drizzle into sleet. Refuge in the station bar seems appropriate. Elsewhere in Britain, this would be a reluctant withdrawal because the country's station pubs are often sorry affairs with dog-eared carpet and mass-market beer. Not so in Stalybridge, east of Manchester. Its Buffet Bar crackles with personality.
Dating to 1885, the bar is a relic of the golden age of steam, its walls covered in railway memorabilia. It's the kind of pub locals and travellers choose to frequent. The key ingredient is the beer: nine hand-pulled taps contain cask-conditioned ales from small breweries across the north of England. Unfamiliar names such as Maiden's Cross, Titanic Mild and Ostlers SPA form a beery beauty pageant. It's an invitation to try something new, then abandon better judgment by missing the next train to work through the rest.
Stalybridge is the first stop on an informal rail ale trail on the slow route across the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds. These railway pubs form a heroic defence against homogeny. Nine towns on the route have dedicated ale pubs either in or near the station. No designated drivers are required for this pub crawl.
Of the pubs inside the stations, the West Riding Refreshment Rooms in Dewsbury is the most pleasant surprise. Dewsbury isn't the sort of town that usually attracts tourists, but the pub looks to be straight from a well-to-do Home Counties village. The outer walls are covered in ivy; the smart wooden interior has upmarket gastropub polish.
Old clocks, beer mats and station signs adorn the walls, but the key information is chalked on a blackboard. "You drank 3354.5 pints last week," it says. "And that's just the real ale."
It's a little early for the 7.2 per cent Durham Brewery White Stout, so I ask the barman for something from the nearest brewery to the pub. Partners Ghost, it turns out, is brewed in Dewsbury. It's a tasty, slightly bitter concoction. One of my fellow patrons approaches the bar for perhaps his fourth pint of Partners Ghost. "Sod it. I'll catch the next train," he says as he orders.
Huddersfield should be the highlight of this meander along country tracks, with two pubs inside the station confines. The sign of the King's Head bears an incongruous image of Jimi Hendrix, but it's less rock'n'roll inside. Huddersfield gets the beers right - a long list of guest ales is scrawled on a chalkboard, and the bar staff are happy to suggest which will suit individual tastes - but the vibe is bleak. The Head of Steam at the other end of the platform has richer pickings. Within it are three bars and a restaurant, with a railway museum tacked on. Fresh pub fare is served and the beer list includes a selection of bottled Belgian beers among offerings from breweries I've never heard of.
Taking a slow train through pretty Yorkshire villages from Huddersfield brings passengers to Sheffield, where a new breed of quality station pub has its poster child. The Sheffield Tap has 11 rotating cask ales cherry-picked from new breweries across Britain, as well as eight American-style craft beers in kegs and six Czech lagers. That's before you peruse the 196-strong list of bottled beers. They're sourced from around the world, but there are strong representations from the top breweries in Belgium and the US. The owner of the Sheffield Tap, Jamie Hawksworth, says he aimed to open a truly great craft-beer bar, and the station location was a happy accident. "Naively, we hadn't grasped the benefits," he says. "There's the footfall we could get by selling any old rubbish, but people get the train to Sheffield just to come here."
When the Sheffield Tap opened in November 2009, it was a huge gamble. The abandoned refreshment rooms on platform one had been closed since 1967. A complete gutting was required, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. But the interest was immediate. The Sheffield Tap sold 55 barrels in the first two weeks, triggering an unexpected problem: the beer didn't have enough time to settle. Hawksworth has since opened the Euston Tap in London, and the York Tap in York. They have been similarly successful.
Train arrivals slow to a trickle at Sheffield after 8pm, but the Tap has standing room only. Travellers stay until the last departure, and bar staff are happy to offer advice and pour free tasting samples for the indecisive. The next step is to take the railway beer scene to another level - plans are under way to install a microbrewery inside Sheffield station's former first-class dining rooms.
The golden age of rail travel is long gone, but alight at the right stations and the golden ale of rail travel is doing well.
Emirates has a fare from Sydney and Melbourne to Manchester for about $2039 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Manchester (7hr 50min). See emirates.com. A one-day South Pennines Day Ranger train ticket covers Manchester, Stalybridge, Huddersfield, Dewsbury and Sheffield and costs £20.50 ($25).
The Buffet Bar is at Stalybridge Railway Station. See buffetbar.org.
The Railway is at 11 Shaw Hall Bank Road, Greenfield, opposite Greenfield Station.
The Riverhead Brewery Tap and Dining Room is on Peel Street, Marsden.
The Commercial is on Carr Lane, Slaithwaite. See commercial-slaithwaite.co.uk.
King's Head is at Huddersfield Railway Station. See the-kings-head-huddersfield.co.uk.
Head of Steam is also at Huddersfield Railway Station. See theheadofsteam.co.uk/huddersfield.
Navigation Inn is at 6 Station Road, Mirfield.
West Riding Refreshment Rooms are at Dewsbury Railway Station. See imissedthetrain.com.
The Cellar Bar is on Station Road, Batley. See thecellarbar.weebly.com.
The Brewery Tap is on New Station Street, Leeds. See brewerytapleeds.co.uk.
The Sheffield Tap is at Sheffield Railway Station. See sheffieldtap.com.
The York Tap is at York Railway Station. See yorktap.com.
The Transpennine Real Ale Trail comprises eight pubs in or near stations. See realaletrail.net.
The Hilton Manchester Deansgate has rooms costing from £71 a night. See hilton.co.uk.
In Sheffield, the Rutland Hotel occupies character Victorian-era buildings. Rooms from £70. See rutlandhotel-sheffield.com.