It’s the eggy bread I’m worried about.
I scoffed a plateful this morning in an effort to line my stomach because, with a day of beer consumption ahead of me, I knew a mere bowl of cereal would be powerless before the alcohol’s advance.
But now I’m concerned. Will it be enough? Should I have had a full fry-up? Or consumed a packet of those sponge fingers you put in trifle? Or perhaps I should have spurned food entirely and gone straight for a bag of cotton-wool balls?
Even as my wife and I approach Bolton Street station in Bury – departure point for the East Lancashire Railway’s Rail Ale Trail – the fussing and fretting continue. I check my watch and realise we have a few minutes to spare. Maybe there’s time to nip over to the precinct and buy a white sliced loaf. I reckon I could get through ten slices before the whistle blows and we’re off on our beery way.
Fortunately my wife calms me down and, instead of munching my way through a mound of absorbent carbohydrates, we kill time in the station gift shop instead.
You can always tell you’re in for a more eccentric kind of journey when the books on sale aren’t bonkbusters and bodice-rippers, but instead have titles like A Tribute to the Manchester Metrolink T68 & T68A Light Rail Vehicles. Clearly, we’ve passed from 21st century Bury into a rail enthusiast’s steam-fugged dream.
Our fellow ale trailers are already massing on the platform when we finally join them. It may only be 11.30 on a Saturday morning but many are working their way through their first pint of the day, and with the wonderful Trackside pub literally located, as the name suggests, at the side of the tracks, who can blame them?
I’ll be honest, I had a few preconceptions about what this locomotive-loving lot would be like. Railways and real ale both attract a certain sub-set of society (i.e. people who don’t just yearn to live the dream, but who want to log the experience in a notebook too). Of course, trainspotters have given their name to this lifestyle, but the ‘tickers’ who catalogue every beer they drink certainly give them a run for their money.
By combining the two species, I imagine the Rail Ale Trail might accidentally create some kind of anorak-based anti-matter and the world will vanish in a puff of cosmological BO. But as it turns out, I’m mistaken. The group that gathers for this particular tour seems quite normal; no one is overly bearded, and the dominant attire is crisply-laundered sports casual rather than nylon that has adhered to the skin.
And the only notebook in evidence is mine.
The East Lancashire Railway (ELR) is a life-size train set for rail aficionados from across the North West. Like other heritage railways across the country – lines that once carried the raw materials of the industrial revolution but fell into redundancy and disrepair when everybody took to the roads – it is largely run by volunteers who have spent the past 30 years restoring and rebuilding, and who love to play their part in keeping this classic rolling stock on the rails. I won’t pretend to know the names or numbers of the machines that I see gliding down the track, but the combination of steam power, coal smoke and 20th century modernist signage is certainly irresistible, and the attraction of playing trains is all too clear.
Anyone can buy a ticket and ride on the East Lancs Railway, enjoying post-industrial Lancashire at their leisure while being pulled through the landscape by a range of vintage steam or early diesel engines. However, a ticket for the Rail Ale Trail guided tour is, to my mind, an even more civilised way of doing things. Not only do you get to ride the trains and visit the pubs, you also get a bloke who makes sure you don’t miss your stop.
In our case, this responsible adult is Mark Coleman, a co-founder of the Rail Ale Trail and one of Manchester’s official, badge-touting tour guides. It is Coleman who gives us a potted history of the ELR before we even get on the train, telling us that the line was established in 1846 to connect the cotton towns around Bury to each other and to mighty Manchester beyond. He also gives an airing to the tragic tale of William Huskisson, the Liverpool MP who became the first fatal casualty of the railway when he was killed at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester line, the first passenger railway in the world.
There are a few Rail Ale Trails available on the ELR including the strenuous-sounding ‘Hike for your Hops’ tour and the rather more relaxed ‘Pies and Pints’. However, we are on the ‘Summerseat and Ramsbottom’ tour, so, once we’ve popped open our first ale – a bottle of the appropriately named Rail Ale from Brewsmith Beer in Ramsbottom (a brown bitter stoked with a furnace full of earthy hops) – our first stop is the verdant village of Summerseat.
It may be September, but with its unseasonably warm weather, the day could easily pass for high summer. As we step off the train the engine heaves a great steam-clouding sigh but, beyond that, there are no sounds except for nature going about its business: some birdsong, a dog’s bark, the contented purr of a local cat. I can’t help but think of that most beloved of poems, Edward Thomas’s exquisite Adlestrop:
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
If this impression of the village is compounded by a glorious walk past converted cotton mills and bijou artisans’ cottages, it is then roundly kicked in the teeth once we enter the Hamers Arms pub at the top of Higher Summerseat hill. It is Manchester derby day and the boozer is jumping with wall-to-wall football fans watching the biggest TV in the world. For the casual visitor there would be no chance of getting a seat but, being part of the Rail Ale Tour, we are a privileged breed and not only do we get a pre-reserved seat, we get a complimentary lunch too.
The Hamers Arms is a fine local pub – one of those that feels as though you’re sitting in someone’s living room – although on this occasion, the choice of cask ales is a little disappointing: a couple of Theakston’s brews plus Deuchars IPA.
But once we’ve polished off our rag pudding with mushy peas and chips and swallowed the last of our pints, we cross the road to The Footballers Inn where a richer selection of local beers is waiting.
With a suet bag of mince sitting a little heavily in my tum, I make do with just a half of a copper-coloured ale from Lancaster Brewery called Chinook Hop. It has a pale grapefruit tang and is far more bitter than I expected. Paired with the spectacular view of rolling Lancashire farmland from the pub’s rear beer terrace, it makes for a perfect Saturday afternoon stop.
Not that you get much of a stop on the Rail Ale Trail. Before you know it, Coleman is urging everyone on to the next station, the next bar, the next beer, though always with enough local history and brewing knowledge to maintain the sense that this isn’t just a pub crawl. It’s education.
Our first port of call in Ramsbottom is the Irwell Works Brewery, a six-barrel set-up in a former engineering works just across a supermarket car park from the station. The brewing takes place downstairs while a brewery tap on the first floor makes a gorgeously light and airy venue in which to sample their output.
The building had been derelict for a few years before Irwell Works Brewery converted it in 2010, helping to kickstart the Ramsbottom brewing scene in the process. Its beers tend towards the traditional British end of the spectrum and are largely session strength potions. I went for their Iron Plate Lancashire Stout which, even at a modest 4.4 per cent ABV, is one of the stronger beers in their range.
Just up the hill from the Irwell Works is the Ramsbottom Tap, a converted high-street shop unit that now operates as a bar with a more obvious American craft beer influence. However, on the walk to this establishment, it starts to become clear that our fellow travellers are far from being the obsessive beer enthusiasts I might have expected; in fact, some of them seem distinctly lukewarm about the very concept of beer itself. I distinctly hear one of our number say “real ale makes me thirsty” while another comments “I’d prefer a cup of tea”.
As you can imagine, this revelation sends my head spinning, and by the time we reach the Ramsbottom Tap I’m in dire need of A Good Sit Down. I don’t go for a local beer this time, opting instead for Sussex-based Dark Star’s Sunburst golden ale, then I perch on a chair and gaze in silent contemplation at a screen-printed poster of Iggy Pop.
Finally, we reach the end of the line – namely, Rawtenstall. There’s something approaching a carnival atmosphere at the station as families with three and four generations in tow all crowd round the steam engines as they roll into town. Dads hoist kids onto shoulders so they can wave to the driver, real live trainspotters hover round the end of the platform with a look of beatific contentment on their faces, and the Buffer Stops – sister pub to the Trackside in Bury, and our last Rail Ale venue – is at least three-deep at the bar. Mark Coleman, our guide, looks anxious as the pints are pulled slowly; the next train back to Bury is the last one running today.
My wife and I go for pints of Wigan-based Prospect Brewery’s Silver Tally, yet another hoppy golden ale with a tasty citrus bite. Because we’re taking our drinks on the train, they have to be served in those very flimsy plastic pint glasses that feel like you’re holding jelly in a carrier bag, and with only seconds to go before the train pulls away, we execute an awkward shuffle-run along the platform while attempting not to spill a single drop.
We fail in this latter regard, but at least we won’t be hitchhiking our way back to Bury.
As we sink into our seats and stare out of the window, periodically wondering why people outside are grinning and waving at us like maniacs – before remembering that we’re being pulled by a magnificent steam engine and have therefore become an attraction in our own right – it’s clear that it could be easy to take the East Lancs Railway for granted. But just a few years ago these lines were defunct, these stations were closed, and the idea of spending time as a tourist in this part of the world might have seemed a little bizarre. While the railway and the beer aren’t the only reasons why things have changed, they have made exploring this stretch of the North a real pleasure.
Back in Bury, we join Coleman for a last pint at favourite Northern Soul hangout The Clarence, and enjoy the sensation of simply having a conversation with him – one that isn’t peppered with rail facts and beer talk, and which doesn’t involve him looking at his watch and urging us on to the next pub. He’s been a great host and, as co-creator of the Rail Ale Tour, he can be proud of what it’s become. It gets booked solid well in advance, so if you fancy it, don’t hang around.
And just in case you’re worried – trust me, you’ll be fine with eggy bread.
All images by Damon Fairclough except for main image by Chris Payne
For more information about the East Lancashire Railway and the Rail Ale Tour, visit www.eastlancsrailway.org.uk