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So what's this Rail Ale Trail really like?

Last year I wrote a post about the now infamous Rail Ale Trail running along the trans-pennine line that is local to me. The designed pub route flows between Batley and Stalybridge with people taking in as many stops as they choose. There are supposedly designated pubs to visit for each station that you are supposedly supposed to visit on the basis of trying the supposedly great real ale. The issue has been, of course, that this has become a piss up and day out for big groups of thugs, stag and hen parties and people with no interest in what alcohol they pour down their throat only to childlishly sick it up later.
But then it is intrinsic to believe that this is no longer a fun day out for anyone who isn’t a hooligan who deserves to be locked away in a darkened room with Professor Stephen Hawkings trying to teach them about the wonders of the Universe over a soundtrack of Brahms and Schubert.  I called those who hold such an attitude snobs in my last post and part of me still stands by that. Yet the proof is in the cream soaked, melt-in-your-mouth, sticky pudding as Nigella Lawson might say so I went on the Rail Ale Trail for the first time in around two years to see if it has become as terrorising as people would have us believe.
In true experimental style, I dragged some of my work colleagues and girlfriend on this day out to get the broadest range of opinions and attitudes to this day. I was the only real ale drinker to be participating. The only other who came close will drink the stuff but can’t stand anything with the slightest of hop bitterness to it. One is a whiskey drinker and said he would be trying to get in the spirit of the day by ordering a different one at each stop. One is a cheap, commercial, pointless lager boy. The other two in the group were ladies of the stereotypical flavoured cider variety who wouldn’t be touching a drop of real ale either. Minus myself, you could argue our group was everything people have complained about. Surely at least one of us is going to relieve ourselves in a Slaithwaite garden….
Our day started with a hearty Stalybridge Wetherspoons breakfast and a pint of on-form Greenfield Copper Caskade before moving on to the first stop of Stalybridge Buffet Bar. The buffet bar has suffered more than most on the ale trail route, being the starting point for a large portion of the parties and a finishing point for even more. It was also where James May spent a sufficient amount of his time supping in the now infamous programme. The pub has now had a few sanctions placed upon them and others they’ve voluntarily introduced. The decision to not let people drink on the station platform now, enforced by public transport police,  is a disappointment, but perhaps sensible. The decision to serve all drinks in disposable plastic glasses all day Saturday, whether to familiar customer or not, is less welcome. Just who I’m supposed to glass in the face at noon I’m not sure, but my pint of Red Willow Directionless was considerably less flavoursome for it. The pub wasn’t uncomfortably busy at this time and is still always a place worth visiting.
We jumped on the express to Huddersfield at this point, which can be busy on a Saturday, but aren’t most trains? We departed and entered the Head of Steam, the lesser of Huddersfield’s two station pubs, but the one more frequented by Ale Trailers. I know the place well and avoid it due to its questionable ale on occasion. It didn’t disappoint on that front with my friend’s pint of Wylam Rocket tasting like soiled bath water and my pint of unmemorable rubbish tasting like the shower gel next to the tub. The lady’s enjoyed Rekorderlig on tap and the whiskey boy enjoyed some Highland Park, but even at stop number two, I was already bored of the natural Ale Trail format.
 That was why I insisted we took the opportunity whilst in Huddersfield to visit the Grove. I took full advantage, ending with a Brewdog AB:04 after hearing of Huddersfield Town avoiding relegation (in your face Peterborough), and seeing the other’s try alternate beverages and snacks in the true spirit of the day. I knew that the day was likely to go downhill from this point onwards and the truth is you’d have a much greater day out just sat in the Grove.
Still, continue we did, but I won’t go into detail about each individual stop to bore you. This was a day out to see if the Rail Ale Trail was a thug fuelled mess of an activity rather than a quiet enthusiast’s dream. The truth is somewhere in between. Whilst it has always been obvious that the majority of merry makers don’t give the cask pumps in any of the pubs a second glance, I didn’t see a single scuffle, moment of idiocy or even behaviour that made these cynical eyes frown. Slaithwaite and Marsden use the transport police to great effect to police behaviour on the platform. Greenfield and Mossley don’t seem to care but this didn’t seem to cause anything sinister. I, once again, was subjected to the horrendous ideal of groups of people, both old and young, going on a day out and having a good time. Not all of them cared about real ale – who really gives a flying dog?
I mentioned in the last post about how the Rail Ale Trail has encouraged many pubs in these villages to take full advantage and start experimenting with cask pumps. This still holds true and most are doing it with success. I also mentioned the idea that business and economy in the designated stops must be hugely boosted, not only in the pubs, but surrounding entities too such as shops and takeaways. This is definitely true (as I can vouch for by the line for Marsden’s chippy.)

Yes, I have heard stories of fights, scuffles and people throwing chairs around because one pub had sold out pies. Yet aren’t these the actions of idiots who could enter any pub sozzled on any weekend night? Locals and publicans have called for some action against this Rail Ale Trail but how do you put a stop to a pub crawl? I still don’t understand, 9 months on, why this day out causes such a hoo-ha.
I will end though by recommending an alternative to those who live near the trans-pennine line and fancy a similar day out. I mentioned in my post in August that I was planning a different Rail Ale Trail through the Calder Vale. I completed this journey in November, taking the train from Manchester to Huddersfield and stopping at great pubs in Rochdale, Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Sowerby Bridge and Halifax on the way. It was hassle free and a great day out. If you want to try a Rail Trail in this area without the crowds, try that.
And to those who aren’t local to our line, like the lads from Nottingham I chatted too in Stalybridge Buffet Bar recently, or those from Suffolk I met on the train, I still don’t see why you are travelling all this way to do an activity you could do closer to home. Do your local research first! Honestly….


Anonymous said…
I've been meaning to do the trans-pennine rail ale trail for a while now, but I have to admit I've been put off my tales of arseholes on the line. Good tip to avoid the Head of Steam, ta.

Also: Abstrakt:04, eh? That must have set you back a penny or two :)
Mark Johnson said…
It's still a good day out but if you can manage to do it on a week day you'll probably have a much more enjopyable experience. You'll at least avoid plastic glasses! We were lucky with the weather so could stand outside, but I imagine on a colder, wetter day it would have been uncomfortably busy in most places

And yes, it was not a cheap beer, but it was for celebratory purposes!
Steve Simpson said…
I actually live in Slaithwaite but have done the AleTrail quite a lot, and did the #AleTrail last weekend I know that it is a mixed bag, I did see several lads pi**ing on the street, funny enough in Slaithwaite! One of these lads was actually arrested, he won't forget his day out. I don't want you to think I am a snob, as I am not.

A lot of people didn't get off a Marsden at present due to the publicity about them not serving larger and pop (Rekorderlig etc.) As ale drinkers we went down to the Brewery Tap, nice pub but had several portaloos outside as the toilets were being re-furbished.

Would I do this again? I would advise anyone, locals and non locals to do it in the mid week, weekends were too busy for me, more like a Saturday night out than a good day out.

Next week we are off to the Sheffield Ale trail, apparently that is the hidden gem of trails, no doubt it will get spoilt before too long.
Mark Johnson said…
Stalybridge has now stopped serving non-ale based drinks on Saturdays which obviously doesn't affect me, but I still find it incredulous. I have a few friends who mainly drink lager - they are not bad people! I understand it is perhaps the only solution though.

I've always encouraged others to go during the week and have done myself once before. I meant to include that advice in this post. The Calder Vale line and Sheffield one prove that this is an experience that can be replicated on most local train lines
binx said…
Your right in promoting the hunt for rail ale trips closer to home. If more people went in search of their local ale trial, we would all have more trails to explore!

We live in Bolton and recently attempted one on our local stopping service to Clitheroe (Darwen, Ramsgreave, Whalley, plus more). It didnt quite have the same magic as the 'Rail Ale' being that a good number of the pubs were bit of a walk from the stations, but we still enjoyed some excellent beer, with a good day had by all. Our token lager drinker was able to enjoy himself as well!

To save me a bit of research, do you have the pub list for the Calder Vale and Sheffield lines. We have Fri 16th Aug penciled in for a rail ale and we would be up for testing the waters on an alternative.

Mark Johnson said…
Sorry for the tardy response. I only have the original list of places we planned to visit - we skipped a few to spend more time in certain towns so it isn't actually what we ended up doing

Rochdale - Cask and Feather
Smithy Bridge - Beach
Littleborough - The Red Lion
Todmorden - Polished Knob
Hebden Bridge - Stubbing Wharf
Mytholmroyd - Railway Hotel
Sowerby Bridge - Jubilee Rooms
Halifax - Ring O Bells, Old Post Office
Bradford - The Sparrow

Note there are two trains on this line, both do all the stops until Sowerby Bridge as far as I'm aware but if you wanted to do Halifax and Bradford, be careful you're on the right train. Though the alternate train includes Mirfield, Batley and Dewsbury, all of which have decent pubs on or next to the station. Towns such as Todmorden, Sowerby Bridge and Halifax have plenty of other decent ale pubs around the town which is where we veered off. Also, 4 or 5 of these stops have perfectly decent Wetherspoons if you're stuck.

Ironically I may be repeating this day on August 3rd, weather permitting. If this does happen, I'll write up a post about it before 16th August that will hopefully be a better guide
Anonymous said…
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Mike Wiz said…
A few of us have started set up a guide to the Halifax to Manchester Trail here - obviously need to add some of the places on your list, once we've tried them!

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