Sheffield via the back of beyond (and beer)

Earlier in the week I took advantage of the opportunity presented by #DBY2018 of travelling by rail to Sheffield over what are normally freight only lines. I knew that if nothing else, the trip would afford the opportunity to view my local landscape from a perspective rarely available. Also, while in Sheffield, I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some of the pubs of the Kelham Island district as it is some time since I last “mooched up there. I passed the time jotting notes as I went, and it is these musing which form the basis of this post.

South Derbyshire from the train

I hope this provides a modicum of entertainment for you, as I certainly enjoyed the day!

The day is yet another in a long and continuing series of sunny, viciously hot, and totally glorious days, so untypical of a British summer. The land is parched and brown, humanity is slowly getting used to the sight of middle aged male knees (though mine were safely covered up, I have standards), and we are all thoroughly hacked-off with the nanny-like announcements urging us to carry water with us. (As Geoff Marshall has regularly pointed out, it is the consumption rather than the act of carrying which matters!)

The first surprise was how many people were waiting for the 09:44 to Burton, Birmingham and Cardiff on Willington station. It’s the first week of the school summer holidays and there were some families present, so that probably helps explain the welcome surge in passenger numbers. The train arrived a goof four minutes early, having come from Nottingham and avoided Derby — as I shall soon be doing. The diversionary route, being a freight line normally, has a  maximum speed which is generally 50mph (lower in places). Consequently, a lot of time has been allowed for the schedules over the line. (I shall talk of this later)…

The trains’s destination display simply had the default “Turbostar Class 170”, as it is presumably not programmed to cope with a destination without “via Derby”.

It was very sweaty already and while the aircon on the train helped a little, it was only a little.

On arrival at Burton, the conductor not having had nearly enough time to come round at the best of times, but certainly not with today’s Willington influx, I remained (legitimately) ticketless. A chap who kept apologising for his “genuine mistake” in travelling from Tamworth (which does have a perfectly functional ticket office — I know, I’ve used it) caused me a delay in getting a ticket for my Willington hop from the Revenue Protection people lurking at the bottom of the steps. This is an innovation as Burton is normally ‘open’, and is self-evidently part of the #DBY2018 arrangements.  So much so that all but the supervisor sounded new to the job. The upshot of all this was that by the time I’d got to the ticket office and bought my Derbyshire Wayfarer, I’d missed a Glasgow train. The following Newcastle is delayed a little, meaning I have a 40 min wait at Burton. Oh well.

There’s a buzz around Burton station. Part of it is the passengers — some changing to buses, some mithering because the Reading train is 32 min late but most of them just being waiting passengers. A lot of it is also because the train crew who would normally relieve at Derby are temporarily based here. This means there are far more rail staff (across multiple grades) around than normal.

The now horribly overgrown “planting” feature at the south end of the station is an oasis of calm and bursting with bird & butterfly activity. The latter is largely due to the huge budhlia bushes which have been allowed to proliferate. I dare say the blistering sun was playing its part in keeping the wildlife happy & active too.

Burton station forest

The next northbound CrossCountry train arrived and was moderately busy. It departed seven minutes late and I found empty seats in the rearmost vehicle which were reserved “Birmingham to Doncaster” and so were clearly no-shows. The late running was ascribed to “being late off the depot”. Given that depot was Laira at Plymouth four hours ago, I couldn’t help but think that a bit thin really!?

You’ll noticed there are no notes made during the actually journey over the Castle Donington line and up the Erewash Valley — for the simple reason that I was totally absorbed by the view out the window. No tapping away on a phone here…

It was a minute & half early arriving at Chesterfield (using platform 3) having therefore made up and gained 8½ minutes from Burton. On top of that the service is booked to stand at Chesterfield for eight minutes anyway. Very slack timings. 

[As was later pointed out to me, the diversion “costs” only about ten minutes, but the timetable has been arranged so that each service drops into the path of the one that would otherwise be half an hour behind it. This means whereas the CrtossCountry service is is normally Newcastle — South (Guildford/Reading) and Scotland – Cornwall, the pattern is currently Newcastle – South West and Scotland – South. A side effect of this is that 1V60— the “longest train” — the 08:20 Aberdeen – Penzance doesn’t currently run.]

On arrival at Sheffield, right time of course, it was into M&S for a picnic to be taken in the sunshine. The Sheaf Square area outside the station is being knocked about a bit, but the parts not behind fencing or covered by builder’s detritus are still very pleasant surroundings. Onwards, up the not insubstantial incline past Hallamshire Uni, for coffee at SBs.

Caffeine topped up and a little online business taken care of, it was time for an amble round the city centre, taking in the sights. It was somewhat overcast by this time but still very hot & sweaty. Sheffield was bustling.

Onto the SuperTram to Shalesmoor and walk through the Kelham Island area. I remember this as a really run down area of industrial decay. The innocent beer drinker returning to the tram stop at twilight was more than likely to be propositioned in some way back then. Now it is nine tenths the way through a massive gentrification process. Work continues but former factories and works have had their facades tarted up and, in the main, converted into trendy cafe bars with pavement dining. All in less than 10 years or so.  Thankfully the Kelham Island pub and its neighbour, The Fat Cat are still going strong and are largely unchanged. The former has some new build flats as its immediate neighbour now though.

Kelham Island heritage

I ventured into the Fat Cat first, going for a pint of Exit 33 Brewing (Sheffield) Double Citra at 4.2%. The beer garden seems occupied by “tradies” in hi-vis jackets and hard hats. Judging by the scaffolding at the back of the building I think they’re working here, but on a day like today, the distinction between working and sampling the product seems understandably blurred. The lounge is dominated by a group of retirement age guys enjoying a lunch and chat — with a fair sampling of Kelham Island beers. Who can blame them? Otherwise the place is as I remember it. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the posters and almost certainly the underlying decor are as they were when I was last here.   There’s a chap is enjoying his pie & peas lunch and I’m starting to think I jumped the gun a little having sandwiches earlier. I’m equally sure I couldn’t have lasted until now, either.

A bloke sitting a few yards from me is studying his newspaper. His phone rings and he loudly mutters “OH F***ING HELL!”. When he lifts the phone to his ear his tone is completely reversed… “Hello Love”.

Followed up with a Brew York Tonkoko Milk Stout  4.3% – a very distinctive and certainly not unpleasant drink.

The Fat Cat

Pavement cafes in Kelham Island

The Kelham Island Tavern

Next door to the Kelham Island Tavern. I fought my way past the cafe bars (not to mention the prolific crapily parked cars). The I went for a Half Moon Brewery Masquerade Dark Mild (a mere 3.6%). The place is quieter than Fat Cat but what customers there are (including a man & wife team of beer tickers) are imbued with the distinctive afternoon drinker’s mellowness!

On an adjacent table, recently vacated it would seem, are a profusion of empty glasses and HALF a full sized pork pie, left untouched but neatly cut from the consumed half. Tempting! Not long after, the very relaxed (60 something) barman cleared the table and loudly chuntered about the waste. The rest of the customers nodded in agreement.

What a waste!

The chap I mistakenly just referred to as “the barman” is actually the gaffer here, it seems. As well as being a genial soul (and evidently a bus enthusiast), he also seems to know most of his customers by name. With a cracking reputation for its beer, with a chap like him in charge, this places is as close to the ideal pub as you are likely to find anywhere. (Oh, and the pork pies!). As I read the Sheffield CAMRA’s Beer Matters magazine, I discover the Kelham Island has been the branch’s POTY for 14 of the last 15 years. Given the bewildering choice of really good real ale pubs in Sheffield, that speaks volumes. From a later overheard conversation, I gather that Trevor is retiring at the end of the year after running the place for 18 years. I hope he has a long and happy retirement — I have no doubt he’s earned it.

Second sampling In the Kelham Island was NRB Pecan Pie Porter 4.5%. Can’t seem to find it on line (only a Boston based beer of the same name). It has an aroma to die for! And an even better taste. If you’ve ever had a ‘chocolate stout’ or similar, this is the next level of deliciousness!

If I have one criticism of the Kelham Island, it is that all the plug sockets in the bar are capped over. I realise that allowing customers to charge their phones is an overhead, and it can certainly be argued that having trailing cables is a hazard. On balance though, can’t help feel that the negative message it sends offsets the minimal cost of the electricity in this day & age. Luckily I have my recharging lump as by this point in the afternoon, what with all this blogging, internetting and photoging, my phone is down to quarter power.

Listening to “Trevor” it is evident there’s nothing he hasn’t heard over his bar before. A quartet of lubricated 50-somethings came in and in course of ordering their beers (one insisting on a lager) he countered their banter-dressed-up-as-drivel with aplomb. (“Don’t mind him, he’s from Dore”. “Oh, posh ‘un then”). As another customer at the bar commented when they had departed for the beer garden, “why is it the older ones are the idiots”!?

Back to Shalesmoor and the Wellington. When I last encountered this place it was the Cask & Cutler and was a half-decent real ale pub near the tram stop. the current issue of Beer Matters that I had been reading in the Kelham Island chronicled its decline and rebirth as the Wellington and had declared it its featured Pub of the Month — surely reason enough to reacquaint myself.

The Wellington

A pint of Neepsend Banayaga as this is the Neepsend brewery tap. Even though I had no clue how to pronounce it (I still don’t!) the helpful barman knew what I meant and informed me that Banayaga is the Polish god of beer. Apparently. I apologised to anyone of Polish extraction present who may be offended by my ignorance and proceeded to enjoy quite a fruity tasting beer if 4.4% (or thereabouts). [A check on Wikipedia later to confirm the spelling suggests I may have been slightly misled, but now is not the time to quibble…]

Inside the Wellington

The beer tickers from Kelham Island (unsurprisingly) seemed to have followed me. As had the group of 50 somethings I vaguely encountered in the Kelham Island. Their demeanour was such that the barman felt moved to warn another customer who was heading for the beer garden where they’d set up camp. “Loud” is how he described them. At the risk of being a hypocrite in similar circumstances, “obnoxious” is the term I’d have used.

It was around here that I suddenly realised my plan for getting back to Burton in time for a Willington stopping train was well & truly shot (excepting the one at 23:45, which I don’t think I’ll hang around for). Still, that’s the beauty of a Derbyshire Wayfarer and an hourly evening V3 service. In any event that will provide me with another diversionary experience — a bus ride over the second Burton bridge.

Having settled for just the one in the Wellington I returned to the tram and had an uneventful ride back through the city to the station. Bonus was that it was a blue line tram that appeared first, meaning no changes for the Station stop. At the station, crushing disappointment: I’d been anticipating a “wind down” coffee from Starbucks on the platform — even forsaking the chance of hopping on a Reading train to get back to Burton half-an-hour sooner. Then bugger me — turns out that the Starbucks franchise on Sheffield station is now a bastard cocking shitting Costa. Feck and Double Feck. This isn’t about some weird brand loyalty — Starbucks do filter coffee, Costa don’t for some reason. It is as simple as that — Americanos are like knat’s pee. [I have chosen to leave my rather fruity vocabulary in here as it was typed ‘contemporaneously’ — thus reflecting both my state of annoyance and, perhaps, mild state of inebriation? I apologise if any offence is taken.]

The Plymouth service was a couple of minutes late leaving Sheffield, again with plenty of room — at least in the lead vehicle of the four car Voyager set.

Given the normal, er, ‘level of engagement’ of the typical passenger, I was a little disconcerted by the lack of announcements on the approach to Chesterfield, and prior to departure, to the effect that this service doesn’t call at Derby. This is only the second weekday of the diversions, and while rail staff may be getting to grips with it, I can easily envisage passengers still being totally confused. I wonder…?

I’m not that familiar with the details of the Erewash Valley Line, but two things struck me: Firstly, the state of dereliction alongside the lien, such as the silver birch infested sidings at Stanton Gate. The other was the surprising number of surviving MR vintage footbridges, especially between Ilkeston and Long Eaton.

Also: The immense strategic value of Sheet Stores Jn at the moment. Something goes wrong here and that is the entire East Midlands screwed at the moment. I wonder if it is almost worth Network Rail having a MOM on permanent standby here for the duration of #DBY2018 ?

I stepped off the right time arrival at Burton, leaving the service to stand there for a whopping 15 minutes before departing. It is due to arrive Plymouth at 23:45 or thereabouts. Panda’s explanation [inserted above at the Chesterfield point in the outbound narrative] about dropping into the half-hour later path of course makes sense — it just seems very odd from a passenger’s point of view.

With 43 minutes to occupy until the V3 bus (if TrentBarton’s HUGO app is to be believed — and with the Burton Bridge closure, that is not guaranteed) I walked past the Last Heretic (a.k.a. in certain circles as The Last Lunatic) in search of Draft Burton Ale (“DBA”) in the Devonshire. To that end I was thwarted. The barman helpfully and cheerfully reported there was some “resting” in the cellar but it wasn’t ready yet. Oh well, Burton Bridge Porter isn’t a bad substitute.

With a single leg left to go (plus a short walk either end thereof) it’s time to sum up the day: The object of the exercise was the journey over the Donington and Erewash lines in each direction, which was not only accomplished but done so with aplomb. Very enjoyable. Sheffield, as I was moved to announce on Twitter, was very much up to form – the three pubs I visited especially.

In short; another Grand Day Out.


Sunset over Burton Bridge

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