Tuesday 22nd January 2013
Once upon a time there were many railway station buffets that sold real ale. The first decline occurred during the fifties and sixties when you were more likely to see the sign of Double Diamond from Ind Coope than Double Dragon from Buckley's.
This was addressed to a limited extent in the late seventies and early eighties when the successor of British Rail Refreshment Rooms, Traveller's Fare began to re-install them in some of the larger stations.
In London the Shires at St Pancras and the Victoria & Albert at Marylebone spring to mind. Sadly the company was taken over by a large mass caterer and the new management lost a lot of interest.
The medium sized stations were pretty well devoid of a decent pint unless of course, their buffets were privately owned, but these accounted for much less than 10% of the total.
However in those bleak years the Stalybridge operation was a beacon shining through a gloom of mediocrity. Another that comes to mind was that at Manningtree, Essex.
The need for choice at the major railway locations was noticed in the 1990s by Tony Brookes who founded the Head of Steam Company and opened at London Euston, Huddersfield, Scarborough and Liverpool Lime Street, The Scarborough operation was later sold on and the Euston pub was bought by Fuller's Brewery who operate it nowadays as the Doric Arch.
Since then many stations, large and small, have acquired some wonderful pubs. Large locations are Sheffield, Newcastle and York. Smaller locations are Hartlepool, Sowerby Bridge, Dewsbury and Carnforth. There are others and more will follow.
Well, that's the end of the Railway Buffet history and we can look at, arguably, the most perfect survival of the genre. Stalybridge arrived at the end of a railway line when, in 1845, it became the terminus of a branch from Ashton-under-Lyne of Sheffield and Manchester Railway. It became a junction in 1849 when the London & North Western Railway opened its main line from Stockport to Leeds via Huddersfield. There was also a branch of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway from Manchester Victoria.
This bought about a massive increase in traffic and although it was run as a joint station it eventually had to be rebuilt. Cutbacks in the 1970s and 1980s meant that the number of lines through the station was reduced. However we have come almost full circle, as some of the missing platforms have been restored and there are now five. A result of this is that the Buffet is now on Platform 4 rather than No 1, as it had been till now.
The new station opened in 1885 and that was when many features of the Buffet, such as the bar back, marble-topped bar and the fireplaces date from, so it is truly a piece of working history. They move Victorian houses, shops and pubs to open as museums such as Beamish and the Black Country one at Dudley, yet this is the real deal!
Nowadays the walls are festooned with railway signs of every nature; from stations, locomotives, wagons, etc. and a lot of railway art.
To bring the story up to date we can go back to the beginnings of CAMRA when the Buffet was still busily trading during the 1970s selling beers from Robinson's of Stockport along with all the other items a station buffet offers. In the decades following it went into decline and eventually closed. Its saviour was John Heskett who reopened it in 1997 and gave it its present look. It was extended in to what was once the 1st Class Ladies' Waiting Room and at the other end the gazebo-like structure was renovated and now provides more seating. Sadly John passed away in 2011. After protracted negotiations it came under the same ownership as the Refreshment Rooms at Dewsbury, so the future looks good.
On the hand pumps (or wickets as they are referred to here) during our visit were the following beers: Acorn (Wombwell, Yorks) Barnsley Bitter (3.8%) and Old Moor Porter (4.4%); Timothy Taylor Dark Mild (Keighley, Yorks) (3.5%) and Landlord (4.3%); Millstone (Mossley, Lancs) Three Shires (4.0%) and True Grit (5.0%); Empire (Slaithewaite, Yorks) Dog's Bollocks (3.8%) and Boggart (Newton Heath, Manchester) I am Beer (4.2%). There are usually beers from Taylors and Acorn, the remainder were guests.
In addition, there were two ciders: Pure North (Holmfirth, Yorks) Buffet Bar House Cider (6.0%) and Gwynt y ddraig (Pontypridd, Wales) Pyder (6.0%, Cider / Perry mix).
As can be seen the Buffet provides a great range of beers and there are freshly prepared meals in the pub style including their speciality, Black Peas. It's well worth breaking a journey across the Pennines at Stalybridge.
The Buffet, Stalybridge Station, Rassbottom Street, Stalybridge,
Greater Manchester SK15 1RF. Tel: 0161 303 0007
Open: Monday to Saturday 10.00-23.00; Sunday 12.00-22.30
Obviously the best way to visit the Buffet is to arrive by train. There have been alterations to the Trans Pennine Express service between Manchester Piccadilly and Huddersfield. Regrettably, there are now less stops at Stalybridge. Where there once were three per hour there is now just one, although there are more in the peak hours. This is slightly compensated by the fact that there are now three per hour from Manchester Victoria with one continuing all stations to Huddersfield.