Visited: Sunday 27 February 2011
Whenever anyone has asked me why I’ve chosen to live in Sheffield, I mention a few different things. It’s got a nice, laid-back sort of feel about it, which you don’t often find in major cities. I find the people friendlier than in many other places. It’s on the doorstep of the wonderful Peak District and quite close to my roots in north-east Lincolnshire. And…. you know where this is going, don’t you?
People think I’m kidding, or half kidding, when I add about moving to Sheffield for the bloody good pubs. But if you love pubs, and you discover one of the greatest pub cities there is, what could be more natural than wanting to live there? Back in Birmingham I more or less stopped going out because the pubs were so bad. In Sheffield I still haven’t got around to visiting all the bloody good pubs, six and a half years after I moved here.
It’s a chilly Sunday evening; spring is all set to take the stage but winter’s not quite ready to relinquish the spotlight. Dan and I have trudged up into town after band practice and called at Cara’s flat on the way. We’ve decided to go to Fagan’s. It will be my first visit.
Fagan’s is a place that is swathed in local legend. Sure, it has a reputation as a great unspoiled boozer of the old school. But like the Washington, it’s also associated strongly with certain notable figures from the city’s music scene. So readily, in fact, does the cherished Sheffield singer/songwriter Richard Hawley come to mind when you think about Fagan’s that you feel vaguely cheated not to behold a line of at least twelve Richard Hawleys propping up the bar.
But before we even get that far, the evening comes to a false start. Fagan’s is so traditional that it doesn’t open until seven o’clock on a Sunday night. We arrive too early and have to nip down the road to make a start at the Red Deer instead.
That false start completed, we find our way in at last. That ‘unspoiled’ reputation is justified: the place seems barely touched since the 1970s, to the extent that before long I’m looking round for Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt bursting through the door. It’s the brown that does it. Everything’s brown. I love the brown wooden panelling. It’s great. I swear I can almost inhale the ghost of pre-ban cigarette smoke.
But it’s empty, and I fear for a while that Fagan’s might be feeling the pinch. It perches awkwardly between the main drag of town and the real ale mile of Kelham Island and Shalesmoor. I forget it’s still very early though. Before long a handful becomes a throng, a throng becomes a crowd, and the place has filled up to bursting around us. The sound level, accordingly, has risen from whisper to a murmur to a great big cheery hubbub. Fagan’s is densely inhabited with smiling people, glad to be together with their friends and friendly strangers.
The big draw is quiz night – and an accompanying bonus. The emergence of free food at quiz nights is a development Get to the pub.com has noted with increasing approval and a happy tummy. There’ve been chip butties at the Red Deer, accompanied by sausages and stuff at the Princess Royal, but here at Fagan’s it’s perhaps the most lavish spread I’ve seen so far. Whacking great chunks of bread are piled high. Plates are loaded with a range of delicious cheeses. Oily stuffed peppers and vine leaves glisten under the soft light. There’s some meat as well, for those of you who eat that. It’s a right good spread.
At length our friend Jeremy rolls in, and Cara’s friend Kiri, who we’ve never met before, joins our quiz team (sorry if that’s misspelt, Kiri; you might need to correct me), and we set about the very serious business of losing heavily in a really quite easy quiz. A good pub quiz shouldn’t get in the way of a good night at the pub. A good quiz is just an excuse to drink pints and have a chat, rather than becoming an end in itself. This is a good quiz.
With Abbeydale’s Moonshine the only cask beer on tap, Fagan’s is unlikely to challenge those legendary nearby pubs of the Kelham Island area as the big draw for ale fans. (Oh, there’s Tetley bitter on tap as well. Is that technically cask? But more to the point, who would choose to drink it when there’s something actually half decent on the next pump?) And this would be fairly easy to sort out. They could add three or four pumps, order in some regulation class Yorkshire pint from, say, Bradfield, Acorn, Copper Dragon, Ossett, and watch the tickers roll in for a few en route to the Fat Cat.
But, you know, as much as I love all those beers, I wouldn’t actually want it to. That would change Fagan’s, and the whole point of Fagan’s is that it doesn’t change. It doesn’t try to be anything else. It offers something entirely distinctive, something that can’t be bottled, or pumped into a glass. In its own little way, Fagan’s represents the very essence of Sheffield, distilled into a few square yards. By this I mean it’s friendly, it has soul and spirit, and character, and it’s a bloody good pub.