I’M sitting in the ornate buffet bar of Stalybridge railway station, washing down a giant meat pie with a pint of a locally-brewed ruby red ale, enjoying warm company and lively conversation and wondering “Why have I never done this before?”
The exact itinerary depends where you start from and how ambitious you are, but for us Stalybridge was first stop on the Transpennine Real Ale Trail – a brilliant marketing ploy which benefits the train operators, brewers and pubs alike, but which is backed up the substance of quality beer in well-run bars.
We arrive around lunchtime on a £15 day return from Leeds, and spend the rest of a lazy, hazy, boozy and occasionally hilarious Saturday afternoon working our way slowly back to the city.
The Stalybridge Buffet is an absolute gem. It sits beside the giant station clock, and from the platform you enter a tiny room dominated by a long bar whose two lines of real ale handpulls offer a host of microbrewed delights. Huge glass domes display pies, sausage rolls and Scotch eggs the size of cannonballs.
Though the bar is small, it leads onto a long ribbon of little rooms which were once the station waiting rooms, built at a time when such a prosaic, functional space would be honoured with high ceilings and moulded plaster decorations. Around the walls are period advertisements and enamelled signs, many following a railway theme.
My mate David’s Track Sonoma from Manchester proves a floral, slightly soapy pale, though I prefer my sessionable Electric Eye, which has some nice crunchy, biscuit notes and is brewed in Surbiton, of all places.
Timekeeper Diane soon has us back on the train, Greenfield-bound. Here, the Railway pub sits just outside the station, a nest of rooms around a central bar, with gorgeous views south towards the Peak District. It’s Mike’s round so I snaffle a prime spot in front of the Sky Sports awaiting the arrival of my crisp pale My Generation from Black Sheep. Ruth’s darker Ubu from Purity Brewing in the West Midlands yields a further toffee-ish distraction.
The next train takes us back across the border into West Yorkshire and to the pretty village of Marsden, where a route march downhill brings us to the stone-built Riverside Brewery Tap which dominates a prominent crossroads beside the canal.
Here we find tables in the airy upstairs room, where huge beams fan out across the ceiling in dramatic fashion and old photographs celebrate the building’s former life as a grocery store. Once independent, Riverhead is now owned by Ossett Brewery, and ales from both feature on the bar. I start on Riverhead’s malty and soporific Redbrook Premium, followed by a reviving half of Ossett’s sweetish Yorkshire Blonde.
We pass two convivial hours in these pleasant surroundings before the short ride to Slaithwaite (Sla’wit to the locals), where nearby Empire Brewery supplies house ale to the refurbished Commercial Inn, where a huge blackboard above the bar details the nine handpull choices. Here I just have time for the gentle Moonrakers Mild – a snip at £2 a pint – before a last pint at Huddersfield’s columned King’s Head. Those of greater stamina can try further stops – see factfile for details – but after a curry at the excellent Lala’s across the square, I’m homeward bound.