Full steam ahead for a great ale day on the rails
Our beer expert Andrew Nowell is on track for a thirst-quenching journey of discovery...
Real ale and railways: two historic, time-honoured British institutions that go together just as well as you might imagine they would.
The East Lancashire Railway has been running its so-called Rail Ale Tours for several years now, and I recently got the chance to sample one for myself.
It was all aboard at Bury Bolton Street station, after an informative introduction to the day from our tour guide Mark, and we were soon settling into the comfortable surroundings of a mid-20th century passenger carriage.
For history buffs a guided tour on the railway, which runs in one direction from Bury out to Heywood and in the other from its main hub to Rawtenstall via Ramsbottom, is a fascinating experience, taking you through the 19th century world of philanthropists, industry, technology pioneers and a fair few important movers and shakers in Victorian society.
But for the purposes of this column it is the beer that takes centre stage, and I am happy to say this aspect of the tour doesn’t disappoint either. Indeed it sheds light on something of a real ale gem tucked away in a very pleasant corner of Lancashire.
On the train we start our sampling with a free bottle of something by Radcliffe-based concern Brightside. There are a few remaining Christmas ales in the stock so I end up with Sozzled Santa, a strong-tasting concoction with no fewer than four hops in it. There’s also B-side, a smooth and drinkable session golden ale.
When the train rolls into Ramsbottom it’s off for a fish and chip lunch and then onwards to check out the Irwell Works Brewery. This I cannot recommend highly enough.
The enterprising team has given a new lease of life to an old metal works, with the vessels downstairs (visible through a screen) and the brewery tap upstairs. On a grey and intermittently drizzly Saturday afternoon it is absolutely heaving, all ages of Ramsbottom residents supping away and creating a great atmosphere.
There’s Tin Plate, a lovely smooth 3.6 per cent dark mild with just enough nut flavour at the back for depth. There’s a selection of golden ales and IPAs, including the session sipper Lightweights and Gentlemen and the rather more potent Mad Dogs and Englishmen at 5.5 per cent. Dark beer fans will also enjoy the milk stout Marshmallow Unicorn.
Up a surprisingly steep hill and along the street we find the Ramsbottom Tap, a small outpost of the burgeoning craft beer scene with its polished wooden floors and bar serving a huge range of cask and keg offerings.
The cask list has a decidedly Wigan flavour with Wily Fox and Wigan Brewhouse beers available but I opt for something I’ve not sampled before, a luscious flapjack-tasting oatmeal stout by Brewsmith. Keg taps offer everything from Beavertown’s ever-popular American-inspired Gamma Ray to a selection of pilsners and some European fruit beers.
Tours sometimes venture into Rawtenstall but we turned round and instead headed for the cosy pub The Brown Cow at Burrs Country Park. The snug bar contained a real grass-roots selection of ales from local microbreweries.
Back in Bury and there is an impressive selection of options to continue the chat and beer sharing. The station’s own pub, The Trackside, is itself a free house with a fine reputation for showcasing varied and high-quality ales from a range of North West breweries. There must also be at least half a dozen places advertising themselves as free houses between the railway and the bus station and Metrolink line.
Our group, though, heads to The Clarence, a place blending traditional ales with quirky touches (like beers advertised on an old hymns and psalms board from a church). A well-rounded pint of Cambridge Bitter brings a splendid day to a close.