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Catching The Train To Stalybridge....

I re-visited a favourite haunt last week for the first time in over two years, and it brought home to me just how the best pubs and bars have that ability to become more than just a place for a pint ....

After over two years, I finally made a return to the Buffet Bar at Stalybridge Railway Station. And it was a big deal, as for over 14 years it was where I went for a pint after work, to chill out, let off steam, chat, laugh, and put the pressures of the working day behind me. A place of faces who I began to recognise when I first went in who became friends over the years. And then there were the familiar faces that I would see regularly, maybe exchange pleasantries, but never really got to know, and those that the US sociologist Mark Granovetter would call the weak ties that made up the frequent arrivals and departures, our routines often coinciding, influenced but not dictated by the happenings on the tracks outside.

Stalybridge Buffet Bar is one of the few remaining Victorian railway station buffet bars left in the country and is probably the best-known. I started visiting regularly in 2006, when my job meant I was working about a mile and a half away in Hyde. Back in those days, the bar was owned by John Hesketh, who had spotted the potential of the rambling old Victorian station buffet as a real ale mecca. It had originally opened in 1885 and had carried on over the years quietly serving customers on the trans-Pennine route, but before John's time it was not really known for its beer. John, inspired by the recently opened West Riding Refreshment Rooms further along the line at Dewsbury, had thought that a good selection of real ales in an atmospheric bar crammed with railway memorabilia would work here too, and with Sylvia Wood who had previously run the popular Station Hotel in nearby Ashton-under-Lyne looking after the bar, the Buffet Bar soon built up a head of steam. Its reputation grew, and people flocked from near and far to sample the beers and enjoy the special atmosphere. With a number of other pubs and bars along the trans-Pennine route promoting real ale, the original Ale Trail concept was born. Groups of real ale drinkers became a regular feature on the line at weekends as they travelled between Manchester and Dewsbury. Its fame grew, and really took off after being featured in James May and Oz Clark's late noughties TV series Drink to Britain, as well as one of Michael Portillo's train journeys around Britain.

John sadly died, and consequently Sylvia moved on. The Buffet Bar was sold to the Beerhouses Group, which had a certain symmetry about it as they had become the owners of the West Riding Refreshment Rooms at Dewsbury which had inspired John, and which with the Buffet Bar provided a book end for the Real Ale Trail. Sam Smith who had been running the Sportsman in Huddersfield took over the the bar for a time and hit it off with the locals with her bubbly personality and broad Featherstone accent. And since then, as the years have flown by, there have been a succession of managers like Caz, Will, Jamie, Lyndsey, and Phil who have continued to maintain the Buffet Bar as a destination for real ale lovers.

And what had kept me coming here for over 14 years? As I wrote in a piece last year "the Buffet Bar was at least as much a constant as my former workplace. Not least because many of the regulars I got to know were still around long after that crazy manager at work had run their course. Work colleagues would come and go, the focus of the job would shift and adjust, but the Buffet Bar was always there, a familiar, reliable haven at the end of the working day. It was a place where at first we would congregate at the bar and enjoy banter with the staff, but gradually over the years we moved to the tables opposite the bar. Every one of us did something different, so the conversation was eclectic and the humour often side-splitting. Flights of fancy would take off. Snacks, often seriously hot, sampled. The state of the nation, the state of the train service, the state of the fire, the state of the toilets. Regular topics of conversation. Moans about the working day. The quality of the beer on offer, or the choice available. Recommendations proffered as you arrived or advised to avoid with a wink of the eye if a particularly excellent beer. The numerous staff who have worked there over the years have included some real characters, but with very few exceptions, all have been friendly and welcoming. Like the best pubs, you could always go in on your own, stand at the bar, and have a great conversation with the person pulling your pint, or strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger stood next to you."

My visits here had come to a halt of course when lockdown hit in 2020 and my daily commute to Hyde was replaced by working from home. I didn't miss the commute much, but I did miss the Buffet Bar. I retired from work during the second lockdown but then a few months later decided to go back to work part-time, but with my new employers being based in Leeds, once we did start to return to the office a couple of days a week, my commute took me the opposite direction to Stalybridge. My friend Alex aka Quosh who I had met in the early days when I'd started calling in at the Buffet Bar had come over to Halifax for a catch-up a few times after lockdown ended. But until last Wednesday I hadn't made a trip in the opposite direction, having first messaged Alex to say I was coming over and arranging to meet at the bar.

I caught the slower train over (now operated by Transpennine rather than Northern Rail, whose ancient carriages had made for a tortuous riding experience), leaving Huddersfield at 1453 and around half an hour later the train was emerging from the final tunnel of the journey and pulling into Stalybridge station. I stood on the platform as the train resumed its onward journey. Over on the other side of the tracks was that familiar single storey brick building lurking beneath the large canopy with the old wooden conservatory still at the end by the car park, the old platform clock still in place near the entrance.

I went down the ramp from the platform, under the tracks, and up the ramp at the other side, with a sense of both anticipation and a slight apprehension. I opened the door off the platform. A familiar face greeted me at the bar, a trainspotter and decorator who I'd bumped into only a few weeks before at Victoria Station. A familiar tall figure approached from behind the bar, Patrick, and said something along the lines of "we haven't seen you for a while." As he pulled my pint, I looked around the room. It seemed the same, the familiar railway stuff and pictures of old Stalybridge in the same places on the walls. The clock high up on the wall at the far end of the bar still stopped, although further down the wall the open fire, the quality of which was often the subject of much discussion, appeared to have been built and lit with care and attention. A couple of familiar faces were sat at a table facing the bar, two former councillors chewing the fat over a pint, one of them wearing his mayoral chains in one of the black and white photos on the wall behind him. 

Alex walked in, taking a break from a busy day, and another pint was bought, and we had a natter about what we had been doing recently, where we'd been, who we'd met. As late afternoon moved into early evening, more old faces and some old friends came in, with several showing a look of surprise as they spotted this long-absent visitor from over the hill. It was great to catch up, find out what everybody had been up to, who still came in from over 2 years ago, and so on. As we took our seats opposite the bar, I found that jobs had changed, routines had changed, but in so many ways it was as if it was only a couple of days ago since I had last been sat here. It was all so familiar, but I sensed a genuine warmth that can only surface after a long absence. I ordered a final pint before a disrupted timetable meant I needed to get the train back to Huddersfield, and so after drinking beers from Three Kings and Vocation, I went for a pint of Crackendale, Thornbridge's 5.2% Citra single hop pale ale, which was a great beer to bow out on.

It had been an absolute pleasure to catch up with some of the old crew again, and I promised I would try to get over again before Christmas. I hadn't realised how much I had missed the Buffet Bar, but after going there several times a week for over 14 and a half years I suppose it's not surprising. A unique place, with a special atmosphere, and some great people. I said my goodbyes, and as I waited on the platform for the train to arrive, a couple of the guys who had just arrived and been told they'd just missed me, came rushing out of the bar to catch me before I left. And as the train pulled out of Stalybridge station, and disappeared into the tunnel, I'm sure I felt the damp of a tear on my cheek....

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