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.