On the right track for beer and trains
Added: Friday, September 20th 2019
I was travelling north some years ago and my train stopped at Leicester where I saw a bulldozer destroying the fine stained glass windows of the bar on one of the platforms. On my return journey there was no trace of the bar: it had been completely eradicated. The design of the bar suggested it dated from Victorian times and had offered refreshment to legions of travellers for a century or more.
Fortunately there’s now an excellent and spacious pub next to the station called the Parcel Yard – not be confused with the pub of the same name at King’s Cross. And an excellent book* by Bob Barton will point you in the direction of pubs and bars throughout the country where you can enjoy good beer and often good food as well – plus restored train lines that serve beer on the move.
Bob begins with a fascinating introduction on the arrival of the railway in the 19th century and how new pubs alongside stations rapidly replaced ancient coaching inns with later refreshment rooms at the stations themselves. Many of the refreshment rooms have long since disappeared but Bob Barton has gone on a whistle stop tour of the country to find the delights that have survived.
His book, first published in 2013 and updated several times – most recently in 2018 -- includes a delightful section on the special trains laid on for Cockneys in London when they travelled down to Kent every autumn to engage in the arduous and poorly-paid task of hop picking.
Bob also recalls the efforts made by the old British Rail and its catering arm, Travellers Fare, to serve cask beer in its bars and refreshment rooms. I recall attending a meeting with Travellers Fare and CAMRA to discuss the initiative and the possibility of serving “racked bright” – cask ale without the yeast sediment – on trains. I’m grateful to Bob for reminding me that I launched the Good Beer Guide in 1980 in the magnificent splendour of the Victoria & Albert bar at Marylebone Station in London.
The Travellers Fare initiative came to a grinding stop when British Rail was privatised but while draught beer has not materialised on mainline trains there are many fine watering holes to be found at stations. The main section of the book is a gazetteer of station bars and includes the famous refreshment rooms at Carnforth in Lancashire where Brief Encounter was filmed in 1945, starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. The refreshment rooms remain and a visitor centre has been added with stills from the film and other mementoes. Disappointingly, there’s no draught beer in the refreshment rooms even though the bar in the film showed handpumps.
The gazetteer starts with London station bars, including the Phoenix at Denmark Hill where David Bruce once ran one of his Firkin brewpubs. The Euston Tap, in the famous arch, is tiny while in comparison Hamilton Hall at Liverpool Street is vast, with candelabras and marble fireplaces. Paddington has Fuller’s Mad Bishop & Bear while St Pancras has the multi-roomed Betjeman Arms.
Across the road, the Parcel Yard in King’s Cross is a masterpiece of design over two storeys and is now one of Fuller’s most successful pubs. If the prices there put a strain on your wallet there’s a new Wetherspoon’s at St Pancras with more reasonable prices but with fewer creature comforts. It’s called the Barrel Vault and commemorates the Undercroft at the station that was designed in the 19th century to take giant wooden 54-gallon casks of beer from Burton-on-Trent: the Undercroft is now the Eurostar departure lounge.
Among restored train lines, the East Lancashire Railway features with its Trackside bar at Bury with nine pumps serving mainly local ales. For beer on the move you need to travel on the Keighley & Worth Valley in Yorkshire where a steam-hauled train (below) has an authentic British Railways Mark I buffet car that dispenses the joys of Timothy Taylor and other local brews from three handpumps.
Writing the book has clearly been a labour of love for Bob Barton and is a delight for all of us who love trains – especially the steam variety – and good beer.
•Unusual Railway Pubs, Refreshment Rooms and Ale Trains, Bob Barton (Halsgrove, £16.99).