Visited: Wednesday 9 December 2009
Station pubs can be pretty miserable places. Of course, it doesn’t help when they’re in stations that are pretty miserable places in themselves: some of the most mournful drinking I’ve ever done has been in the boozers of London Victoria and Birmingham New Street stations. But the fundamental problem they face is that, unlike most pubs, their punters would rather be somewhere else. They’re not there because they’ve decided to go to the pub: they’re there because they’ve missed a train. And so the station pub usually amounts to little more than a waiting room with beer. The station pub. Unloved and functional, it’s nobody’s local.
It doesn’t have to be like that. A few months back I travelled over with a group of mates to check out the station pubs at Dewsbury, Huddersfield and Stalybridge (after we saw them on the telly in Oz and James Drink to Britain): the evidence of both our taste buds and the sheer numbers of people on the same trip as us showed that a station pub conceived and managed with love can extend beyond the remit of time-killing for waiting passengers and become a place that people will actively seek out. (This crawl even has its own name – the Transpennine Rail Ale Trail – with an excellent website into the bargain. Any readers who’d like to recommend any other good station pubs, please do shout up in the comments.)
If anywhere can prove the case in favour of the station pub, you’d suspect, it must be Sheffield, a city with a real ale culture that’s arguably unmatched anywhere in England. But it’s only with the opening of the Sheffield Tap on 5 December 2009 that my city actually gets a station pub at all, good, bad or indifferent. At least since 1976 anyway, when they closed down the ‘refreshment room’ (a charming phrase, as Victorian as the station architecture) whose space the Tap now occupies, at the north end of the station between platform 1B and the roaring of Sheaf Street outside.
With some difficulty I’ve waited four days for a first visit. Tonight is my pretend work Christmas do (you don’t need to know, really) and I’m meeting a group of mates after work (oh, alright – being self-employed, I don’t have a real work Christmas night out type thing, so my friends and I invented one and it became an annual fixture). Half past five, and I stroll from the platform 1B side into the main room of the pub. It looks immaculate.
A long, polished bar offers eight Thornbridge ales with a load of other stuff like proper lager and proper cider, and behind it a row of fridges is packed with dozens of varieties of Belgian beers (which everyone says are amazing but I can’t get past the cold and fizz). A graceful ceiling arches high above. The walls are lined with tiles. Brass fittings gleam sumptuously. In an open fireplace, no fire, but three big candles burning. Dan is in a smaller room to the side of the bar, which leads back out onto the road. With the sort of serendipity you experience on a good public transport day, the table nearest the door is vacated just as my pint is served; I beckon Dan through so we can watch the rattly purple Northern Rail trains come and go to Huddersfield and Leeds while we sup up and wait for everyone else to arrive.
We can’t believe our luck.
A lot of good things have been said about the Sheffield Tap and they’re right. If there’s anything less than perfect right now about the place (the name is to imply that it’s the brewery tap for the whole of Sheffield, which is so presumptuous that it’s cute and I approve), its overwhelming newness gives it a slightly stiff feel, like a new pair of shoes. The toilets almost buzz with a whiteness that verges on ferocity. But some of the tiles are reassuringly chipped, so the walls must be unchanged from the room’s three and a half decades as a junk heap. And just as new shoes are broken in, so the Tap will soften and grow comfier with a little age.
In any case, this is fault-finding almost for its own sake. A second room adjoins this one, as lovingly decorated as the rest of the pub but in dark wooden panels, and allows drinkers to enter from the street without having to come through the station (how would this have been compatible with East Midlands Trains’ deplorable plans to install ticket barriers, which failed last month?). Half a dozen more friends arrive and we plan to stay until seven before jumping on a tram up to Shalesmoor for more beer in the Wellington, but nobody wants to leave and we’re more than an hour late. There’s still something of the station pub’s air of transience here, as people come and go. But they seem in much more of a hurry to come than to go. Next time I’m cutting it fine to catch a train here, I suspect I might not dash for the platform with quite the same urgency as before.
I’ve said before that I think Sheffield (which is no slouch in the good pubs department, generally speaking) lacks what many other large(r) cities have: an Edwardian or posh Victorian bar, say like some of the bars in Edinburgh or Liverpool or The Crown Posada in Newcastle or Victoria Family and Commercial in Leeds. I think that the original Marples Hotel in Fitzalan Square was something like that, but it was seen off by the Luftwaffe in the 40s (with the punters still inside, tragically). For me, the Tap is a nice surprise because it has uncovered something which was there all along and has some of the feel of these other places. I mean: you couldn’t make something like that from scratch could you? It makes you think though, what else might be ‘lost’ in Sheffield? I’ve got a book of defunct Sheffield pubs and there were loads of them in the city centre in places that are mobile phone shops and hairdressers and stuff now.
Thanks Moopind! I completely agree about the ‘woh, it was there all along’ factor with the Tap. What’s the book?
Which features would you say tend to distinguish those Edwardian and posh Victorian bars? Not knowing a great deal about this sort of thing, I’d been thinking the Tap was unusual in Sheffield for its high ceiling and tiled interior, which I seem to associate more with the pubs of Leeds and Manchester.
As you say: high ceilings and tiles. That clock behind the bar, the dark wood and the mirrors. The suspended lights and the brass and white glass lights too. Some of these features can be seen in Bennet’s Bar in Edinburgh, in the Marble Arch in Manchester, the Crown Posada in Newcastle or in places in Liverpool like The Fly In The Loaf (not sure if that’s as truly original) or the Philharmonic (though that goes a bit further in its opulence). None of these pubs are as cold as the Sheffield Tap, mind. The Crown Posada has a big long pipe running along it which is always hot. That’s great, that is. Especially if you’ve got cold or wet feet. Whitelocks in Leeds has a touch of that feel, though it doesn’t have the high ceiling.
The book is called ‘Time Gentlemen, please’. It makes you wince when you see some of the lost pubs, but also when you see that they didn’t use a copy editor or proof reader before they had it printed.
Ow do Pete? I have no idea why you would be there, but there is a cracker of a pub on Codsall station (its actually on the platform)
Codsall, eh? Mental note duly made – ta. Maybe one day!
I was in the Victoria & Commercial this week and I see what Moopind is on about. I think I prefer the cosy-front-room feel of Sheffield pubs on the whole, but then I shan’t pretend to be unbiased on that count.
It looks amazing. I can’t wait to have a drink there. Sadly it looks like it’ll be a while until I’m in Sheffield again.
Shame you won’t be there this weekend, Barm – they’re having a BrewDog festival. Your favourite new brewery, right? Haven’t tried any of theirs yet so I’ll have to try and drop in. Again.
They had some great beers before Christmas. One was 8.5% ABV and the other was 10.5% ABV. I forget what beers they were. Also the Thornbridge beers are great.