Visited: Sunday 25 January 2009
A lot of the pubs I like, although they are very fine pubs, might justly be described as trying a bit hard. This is an observation, not a criticism: a very fine pub that tries a bit hard is infinitely better, of course, than a mediocre pub that doesn’t care at all. But sometimes it can be nicer to find yourself in a pub whose worthiness has a less planned and more homely sort of quality. A pub that has become a very fine one organically, left to its own devices; not because of its management but because of its culture.
Let us consider the Sheaf View at Heeley. There is not a drinker in Sheffield, me included, who would suggest that it is anything less than an excellent pub. Eight or ten superbly kept real ales from the UK and a long list of good European beers. Nice décor, clean, with lots of natural light, mirrors, old signs and stuff. Lots of different rooms and a garden with a pretty view. Tasty prices as well: the ales are often well under two quid a pint. And yet, while most of the bar staff are lovely, one or two seem to have just a hint of haughtiness about them, just the trace of a sneer or at least an inattentiveness that borders on belittling. (Maybe they know their pub is excellent and maybe they think it’s better than you.) And despite the punky, dog-trailing allotment keepers who populate the area around the main entrance, it just doesn’t quite have the character of the Hallamshire House.
Walking up Commonside is one of those moments, quite common in Sheffield, when, enveloped in leafy hush, you quite forget you’re in a city of half a million people. The Closed Shop and the Hallamshire House face each other covertly across the lane, warm and welcoming, very slightly ramshackle, full of charm and for all the world like two sweet old country pubs at the end of a long walk in the hills. I had that moment the other day, walking up Commonside for the first time, just a day or two after moving across the city to Walkley. I made a mental note to visit these pubs at the first opportunity. And the first opportunity was a day or two later, on Meriel’s birthday. A curry at the Rajput and then beers at the Hallamshire House.
And I liked the Hallamshire House very much because it is handsome, because it is full of character, because of the nice, smiling lass who served me, because of the good ale, and because it doesn’t try too hard. It’s bigger than you think it’ll be. There are tiled walls and different rooms, careful lighting, and a huge pool table at the back which looked like a full-size snooker table. There was a tremendous view from the back window where we sat – a big post-curry birthday group, supping Kelham Island Bitter – framed in the foreground by near gables of the winding, dipping streets below, dwindling off into ribbons of streetlights stretched across the contours of the city. For a first-timer the Hallamshire was hard not to love – as it may be even if you’ve been there loads of times and never noticed the beautiful stained glass windows in the ceiling, as Peter admitted he hadn’t when I remarked on them.
This was a Sunday night and when we got there it wasn’t too busy. It filled up a little as the evening wound on but I’d like to revisit and sample the atmosphere when folk don’t have to be up for work in the morning. Because while pubs like the Sheaf View attract middle-class ale enthusiasts from all over the city (I have nothing at all against them: I’ve been an ale enthusiast for years and if I haven’t already become middle-class then it’s sure to happen any day now), a great ale pub in a fine building which retains the best aspects of a working people’s local has got just about everything right. Other Sheffield pubs like the Harlequin and the Wellington seem well on their way. If the Hallamshire House can command the loyalty of many regulars – and at first glance it quite deserves to – then it should be following them down this happy path of public house virtue. But these are hard times for pubs and one as big as this can’t be cheap to run, so it would be dangerous as well as daft to take the Hallamshire for granted.